THIS WORLD of OURS – May 2010


By Bob Harwood

The World We Now Share


To better understand the world we now share one must take into account the transformed meaning of time and space. Our earth centric species is no longer at the center of the universe as explorers in space share experiences with us in live time. In 1775 my ancestors risked hazardous weeks on the ocean for a fresh start in the New World as anxious family wondered if they had even survived the voyage. Now reassurance is given by cell phone the moment the plane touches the tarmac. When I see couples strolling, each talking on their phone, I know not if they are speaking to one another or to the other side of the world. But our species is slow to adapt to such changes.
Empires come and go at an ever accelerating pace. In 1776 Edward Gibbon noted in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire the central role played by “the gradual disintegration of their economy”. What would he have to say of America’s decline today? Buffered by oceans in two world wars the USA, the reigning superpower for almost a century, has in today’s meaning of time already long outlasted Rome’s glory days.

Now it is the turn of China and others. In 2007 I experienced at first hand how China transformed itself in just three decades as the fetters of communism were shed to embrace a free market economy. Now they must learn to embrace free access to information in a world with a growing dependence on what China has to offer. China, India, Brazil, Russia and others do not seek to ‘replace America’ at the helm. They simply seek respect and a meaningful voice in world forums. May this herald a long overdue shift from imperial concepts of one nation’s supremacy to respectful engagement among equals and increasing roles for the UN and other international organizations.
Nowhere is this disconnect with today’s meaning of time more apparent than in the intellectual property field. 20 years was a reasonable life for a patent 200 years ago when inventors worked in isolation oceans apart. Today at the click of a key they read peer reviews, gather in professional forums, build on each other’s work. Decades-long patents tweaked minutely to win unending extensions now inhibit rather than encourage innovation as inventors are forced to design around, rather than build on, others work. Patent drugs are a major element in out of control health care costs as the industry spends more on advertising than on research and Washington has more lobbyists than congressmen. More affordable generic drugs could save millions of lives in the Third World.
Now all of language, music, and imagery can be digitalized and instantly shared via the Internet. The incremental cost of one more copy is literally zero. Google’s vision of an on line library of all the world’s great literature is simply a 21st century counterpart to Andrew Carnegie’s vision to endow libraries throughout the English speaking world that the poor might read. Facebook has replaced the backyard fence as a place where people socialize, perhaps exchange a book or a favorite DVD.

In an age when six or seven strategically positioned satellites could enable communication with literally every person on earth, and help transform the lives of billions, what vastly shorter period would be appropriate for patents and for copyright respectively—and be realistically enforceable? Innovation and creativity must and should be rewarded, but for how long?

When not reading breaking news or weighty non-fiction on these matters I may turn to the mysteries of Robin Paige set in stately British country homes of the Victorian era. Interwoven into the plots are the esoteric lives of the privileged above stairs gentry and their legions of below stairs servants. Significant social themes emerge,- the benefits and burdens of primogeniture, the struggle of women to be recognized as something more than social appendages, the exploitation of poor children in work houses. Any attempt to change the status quo was often attacked as Socialism or Anarchy. Victor Hugo observed , There is always more misery among the lower classes than there is humanity in the higher.

I hear echoes of that same ethos in America’s raging debates on health care and financial regulation as the privileged wealthy use similar labels to attack health care reform. Trade unions were essential to address gross injustices in an earlier time. But today well paid unionists have joined the privileged middle class, the above stairs set. Enlightened social policy would better focus on raising the minimum wage and addressing Third World poverty.

Cries for protectionism are a cry to cling to our above stairs privileges compared to the below stairs plight of so much of humanity both within and beyond our national borders. In our irretrievably integrated global village all are my neighbors. May we learn to live accordingly.

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