Information: two approaches

March 20, 2006 | Leave a comment

This post has nothing to do with e-learning – or does it?

This Michael Crichton op-ed in the New York Times caught my eye this morning. Normally I’m not so much of a Crichton fan – I loved his books when I was younger, but his recent anti-environmentalist rants kind of got my back up. However, this time he’s right on the money.

Metabolite Labs, Inc – a company that sounds like something out of one of Crichton’s novels – has patented the scientific fact that elevated homocysteine is linked to B-12 deficiency. By stating that fact I’m in violation of intellectual property law, which is clearly disastrous; the fact that this example is already in the field of human medicine removes the need for any kind of analogy. Basically, we’re at the point where we can’t tell the truth without paying a license – money is valued over human life in the most obvious way.

I’m reminded of medieval medicine, when doctors couldn’t dissect humans without approval from the church; Galen, for example, was forced to base his famous studies of the human body on pigs. This has massive implications for human knowledge, and therefore learning. The supreme court is in the process of deciding whether Metabolite is allowed this ridiculous patent; let’s all hope the answer is “no”. The alternative is a world where, before too long, we might not be allowed to teach – or publish, or say – all kinds of things. Or at least, not without paying a fee.

Meanwhile, the US government has started to publish captured Iraqi documents on the web in an attempt to engage the public in an open source translation exercise.

Now, as much as I think open source is the future for a lot of things, I’m not sure military intelligence is one of them. Surely all it takes is for an individual or group of people to maliciously provide an incorrect translation, and problems will arise? Nonetheless, it’s an interesting approach, particularly for a government that’s been notoriously closed since taking power. I would like to see it used in more peaceful contexts; imagine putting up a draft local law, for example, and allowing people to post comments, suggestions and edits. I think Oxford City Council would rather gnaw off their arms than attempt such a thing, but it’d be a breath of fresh air. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting we throw all our laws up on a wiki and let the public do its work (although I’d be fascinated to see that happen somewhere far away from where I live) – but the technologies available to us provide a unique opportunity to open up what were previously closed and elitist social processes.

They say that 2006 is going to be the year of the filter; the ways in which we’ll search for things – and in which information will be delivered to us – will become more sophisticated and powerful. I think that’s the point where the web comes into its own, traditional media processes begin to be truly subverted and all this starts to really change what’s happening in the real world.

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