Reviews, “Parables of Tomorrow”

The K-Rope
By Alex Bernstein
Corvus, Issue 1.

Endangered Species
By Joel Richards
Cosmos, September 2011.

It’s such a simple thing: buying the rights to an idea. But ownership is rarely that clearcut. As copyright is sundered day by day, the rewards—the protection?—of money become more elusive.

In “The K-Rope”, we get an alternative history story about an inventor, Kleinman, who develops a method of swinging from train platform to train platform. Fun and efficient, his invention earns him fame and money. However, after a few years in the field, it turns out that wasps really enjoyed the material used to construct the ropes and they had infested virtually every train station.

The ropes are tossed; Kleinman’s sued into bankruptcy and vilified into solitude. Years later, a corporation reveals that it has developed a K-Rope with new materials (nanotechnology, natch) and there is much publicity about the revival of the idea. Kleinman is dragged out of exile so as to use the new ropes, K++, and he is thrilled with the result.

Some interesting currents run under here. One is of course the human desire to progress, and the specific American focus on development. There is also mention of the specific American focus on legality—early on in the story, Kleinman is sued by his inspiration. A turnstile jumper, Ronald Snow, used a hanging chain to escape from station authorities, and Kleinman recognized the potential. The story dismisses Snow’s claim (two lines are devoted to the incident), and the American justice system does too. Without proof of concept or such, the thug had no case.

Similarly, the American focus on tinkering is highlighted—by Universal Dynamics, the corporation who comes along decades later and perfects the technology. Kleinman does not begrudge them as the thug begrudged him—his technology was faulty, imperfect. Their design, while based off his, is different and therefore they deserve the reward.

In the wake of Steve Jobs’ death, The New Yorker ran an article that posited his real genius was not in creation but in tweaking: He could take a good idea and make it great. He would hone that idea until it gleamed.[1]

Countless people in history have made their mark on the world in this manner. Indeed, tweaking is as important as inventing. Improving efficiency, sustainability, cost—these often define progress.

Where does this editing/improving leave us? Sometimes the forefather is acknowledged and rewarded. Kleinman’s work comes in from the cold, essentially, and he regains a modicum of respect for having created the underlying mechanics of K++. But the thug was turned away at the gates.

Between these lines, we sense the transitive nature of ideas. From experimenter (the thug) to developer (Kleinman) to tweaker (Universal Dynamics)—the idea is bought and sold, appropriated and gifted. Is there any sense of original sin? Did the thug forfeit his claim to recognition by jumping a turnstile? Should Kleinman have officially recognized Snow’s contribution? What about Universal Dynamics, who used Kleinman as a symbol of their product but offered no more compensation? There is almost a food-chain aspect to all this.

A reader might see the thug, an actor operating outside standard economy (ignoring transit fees), as an illegitimate heir to any profits reaped from the invention of the technology. That same reader might notice that the corporation, legitimized through charter, is allowed to poach Kleinman’s concept as enough time has passed that the patent expired. The system reinforces corporate authority while dispossessing independent actors. This represents economic repression—the system mandating acceptable avenues of invention while disallowing others. Further, this commodifies knowledge and education, keeping it gated within the system. And so we come to the next story.

“Money,” he says, “we need it,” is the general thesis of “Endangered Species”, which follows a pair of venture capitalists who pressure a time machine inventor into taking an improvised trip back in time. The basic ruse is they’ll go back, hunt some docile-but-high-return prey in the extinct Irish elk, take home the antlers and make millions.

This group reasons that there will soon be competitors and regulators hot on the heels of their discovery; money will be their weapon with which they can retain control over the product and independence over its application. Money as freedom, message received.

And so money (and glory) drives the group into an ill-advised hunting trip back in time, where they come face to face with an Irish elk and that which drove it extinct: an evolved race of dinosaurs. A few frantic shots are fired on this new species before the humans flee for their time machine. The story ends with them wondering just how much they’ve changed their past and their future.

Money, driving the development of science as well as business in this story, therefore determines the narrative. Their target of Irish elk is set because of the price on its head as well as the geologic similarities and certainties of its lifetime. The immediate need for the security that wealth will provide their invention leads to a quick decision—rather than sending a team back to determine the safety of the time period and so on, they end up going back in time themselves. Four businesspeople and two scientists; not a single mercenary. This is a rush job because they need money.

Untrained hunters are thus backpacking around with sniper rifles and surprisingly something goes wrong: They hastily shoot at this new sentient life form. Without much more thought, the six of them run like hell. Only when they’ve achieved a bit of safety do they wonder what damage they might have wreaked on the timeline. But they don’t think of going back and trying to patch up what happened: “Heat of the moment, sorry old chap.” It might be a fruitless process but no one even utters the idea. A hasty excursion with no plan and this is the result.

Within the short span of the story, venture capital has endangered our entire future by hunting for an easy few million bucks. They assumed great risk by keeping the technology to themselves and by trying to insulate it with cash; that risk appears to have come due instead. The audience never finds how much of the future they really doomed, although the narrator is pessimistic.

Distilled, we have: rushed money developed a risky idea that probably backfired in a big way.

There are messages present about the danger of big money and research, and also about the danger of heightened prestige and money that comes with being academically published. (Those being the goals of the scientist Van Otteren, the tiebreaker vote on the plan to go back in time and hunt elk.) Both interactions represent conflicts of interest. Whereas the goal should be good science and the safe advancement of humankind, this group throws caution to the wind and bullrushes ahead with their plan.

Although these two stories are from 2011, it is impossible to ignore the implicit parallels with a news story from early 2012: the growing academic boycott of Elsevier, a publishing company of medical and scientific journals. In short, the company has been accused of charging far too much for access; inflating prices by bundling useless journals with valuable journals; being ruthless in price negotiations with libraries; and for supporting restrictive legislation such as SOPA, PIPA, and the Research Works Act.[2] They have, like the corporation in “K-Rope”, commodified a warehouse of knowledge, using it as a weapon to get the returns they desire. This has been a successful strategy: according to Wikipedia, their profits in 2006 topped 1 billion euros.

In mid-January, thousands of academic writers, referees, and reviewers took up the charge to boycott Elsevier. The reasoning being that many have been privately boycotting them, but without a hit to Elsevier’s wallets, their accusations would continue unabated. As of the publication of this issue, more than 3,200 academics have said enough is enough.

The mixture of money and education is a troubling thing that appears to have reached a boiling point. A few quotes from some of the people who have publicly boycotted Elsevier:

“With the moves of these mega publishers, we [are] seeing the beginning of monopoly control of the scholarly record.” Hal Abelson, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab.

“It’s unconscionable for Elsevier to gouge the very clients their business depends on for free labor just because they can get away with it.” Dillon Ethier,UniversityofRochester, Mathematics.

“Incredibly they want $350 for reprints of my own paper.” Brayton Gray,UniversityofIllinoisatChicago, Mathematics.

“The problem is deeper than just journals: the economic globalization of higher education as a commodity is just one part, where entrepreneurs/middlemen just skim money from those who do the work.” Iain Aitchison,UniversityofMelbourne, Mathematics.

“I can never reconcile the nature of knowledge and capitalism.” Marcy Harsaran, Texas Woman’s University, Biology.

Quotes are courtesy of[3]

Not everyone writes one of these little testimonials, but virtually across the board when they do they support free access to knowledge. In general, each of these academics do their research through grants and do not receive payment for the article published through an Elsevier journal. They referee and peer review other papers for free as well. Their free labor is then bundled by Elsevier and thwacked over the head of libraries until money appears.

These questions—of free labor, of the nature of knowledge and capitalism—get to the heart of modern civilization. We live in a world where virtually everything is commodified—even scientific knowledge that was paid for by public grants. Even art, which is supposed to be a human cry in the darkness of reality. Where does it end? It doesn’t. Society is confronted by what it created in the 20th century: a world that can be almost entirely bought and sold. Yet here, with the boycott of Elsevier, we see another revolt against the commodification system.

This article focuses on the Elsevier issue because it mirrors what is slowly happening to all knowledge, all content, all media. Monetary value is being stripped away, replaced by either pay-what-you-want or donations. This is all part of the information revolution: cost on the physical production of knowledge is negligible. These people boycotting Elsevier believe in a society that provides advanced knowledge for free, for society’s own progress. What other reason is there to develop such knowledge? What’s the point?

Neither “The K-Rope” nor “Endangered Species” provide much hope. Kleinman, in the former, is a washed up inventor trucked out to celebrate the success of a corporation. In the latter, who knows how venture capital has ruined our future. These are pictures of the world we have lived in for the last 150 to 200 years, a world of industry and commerce. A world that wondered foremost: How can I make money off this?

What comes after such a world? It’s up to communities to determine that. We set our own futures beyond the corporations. We can function entirely as we see fit; we are not beholden to profits but to our craft and vision.

The only requirement is that you participate.

[1]   “The Tweaker: The real genius of Steve Jobs” by Malcolm Gladwell. The New Yorker, November 14, 2011.

[2]   More background:

[3]   My personal favorite, from Peter Easthope of UBC: “Independent electronic publishing is an alternative to corporate hegemony.” Why yes, it is! A close runner up from Olaf Hall-Holt at St. Olaf College in Computer Science: “Perhaps Elsevier has been doing a good thing in the long run: helping everyone see how inappropriate the old publishing model is in this century.”

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