Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Critique of Laughlin's "The Crime of Reason"

When I saw Robert Laughlin speak at Stanford, I was terribly disturbed by some of his ideas and intrigued by others. As someone who drinks the free software/culture kool-aid, I was always of the opinion that the free flow of information helped humanity, not hurt it. As a follow up on his talk, I decided to pick up a copy of Laughlin's book, The Crime of Reason, to investigate his ideas further. The book, like is talk, contains some very interesting and important ideas but is poorly put together and rather meandering. Writing style aside, the book discusses the following topics, which I will comment on in turn:

The Intellectual Property system is necessary for economic progress

Laughlin states that "Universal access to knowledge is fundamentally incompatible with market economics." (p.45) By this he mostly means that the patent system in the United States is necessary for economic development. He doesn't provide any convincing evidence to back this up, but merely provides a false analogy equating the economy with a game of poker in which everyone has incentives to hide and steal from each other. Perhaps these dynamics apply in certain sectors of the economy (particularly looking through the lens of a physicist who has spent his entire life inside the bowels of the military-industrial complex), but in other cases they do not. The open-source software industry immediately springs to mind as an example in which companies have an interest in freely sharing knowledge with each other.

In any event, the idea of the necessity of a patent system has been completely eviscerated by Boldrin and Levine in their book Against Intellectual Monopoly. Looking at history, the acquisition of a patent in a particular field coincided with a stall of progress in an industry until the patent expired and, not coincidentally, substantially increased patent lawsuits within that industry as the patent holder sought to restrict anyone else from innovating. Patents are a type of monopoly and, as any econ 101 student will tell you, monopolies are a Bad Thing because they deprive both consumers of a low cost for products and also prevent other potential producers from making money by entering the market. Awarding patents is hardly "necessary for living" (p.49) as Laughlin claims.

How and why technical knowledge becomes illegal

The main thrust of the book has to do with the troubling tendency of modern societies to effectively outlaw knowledge. Laughlin compiles a list of fields today whose study has been criminalized in some form or another:

- cryptography
- circumvention (DMCA)
- physics (nukes)
- genetics
- bioengineering (engineered diseases)
- biology (cloning, chimeras)
- national security related processes
- chemistry
- etc.

He asserts that learning about these fields has been criminalized either in the law itself (which is rarely challenged in open court because of the potential government 'secrets' a trial could leak) or by de facto means such as withdrawal of research funds or public ostracism. This development, of course, is quite at odds with the way that learning is supposed to work in our society, as Laughlin recognizes: "Modern civilization rests on two mutually exclusive kinds of thinking -- one embodied in the free speech guarantees in the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution, the other in the Atomic Energy Act." (p.82) His most effective case in point is that of nuclear physics, in which the U.S. government has led a campaign of a quasi-legal nature to suppress the spreading of knowledge on the subject. He reasons that this censorship "set a precedent that has now led, by small steps, to a significant and growing threat to our freedom to reason and learn." (p.84) This is the most convincing, and consequential, argument of the book, and deserves serious thought by all members of our government and society. Are we really willing to sacrifice our freedoms to pursue intellectually interesting scientific facts for the sake of purported security, morality and order?

The consequences for a society which deems scientific knowledge illegal

In the final chapter, Laughlin conducts a thought experiment: what will smart people do if and when we achieve this nightmare society in which the pursuit of any and all interesting technical knowledge is illegal? Laughlin's suggestion that "The sensible course of action would probably be to give up" (p.144) is deeply unsatisfying. He then postulates that the talented technical folk (that is, everyone that didn't become a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman) will either seek employment in the service of rogue dictatorships that allow science, become 'guerrilla warriors' of a sort within their own country or go somewhere else (in the interplanetary sense) to establish a new society where there is no crime of reason. It's very romantic to think of the creation of a new order by a disgruntled segment of society (a la the emigration of persecuted religious groups to America). If it is necessary, however, is another matter entirely. It's certainly way too early, in my opinion, to 'give up' on our present society. A more enlightened public debate on this topic, if not reform, is not out of reach.

You can read other peoples' opinions on the book on Amazon

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