Monday, 29 January 2007

Ethics Challenges & Information

David Warlick posted the following questions to his readers and then posted his own response.

"What is your greatest challenge in teaching appropriate, ethical use of web-based media to your students?”

I totally agree with the opening of his response: Content is becoming increasingly networked, digital, overwhelming. Perhaps even more crucial to this discussion is the fact that information has become nearly impossible to contain. There is a critical difference between information and material goods. Information is information is information. Information itself needs a media before it can be manifested. The incremental cost of producing extra copies of the information is decreasing rapidly. Information cannot exist without a media. (Here, media refers NOT to the paper or the plastic of the CD. Media here refers to the community-built system of symbols that the information is used.)

One moral question which we, perhaps most teachers included, has to struggle with - and we can see lots of such discussion especially related to the notion "information wants to be free" - is the concept of Intellectual Property. Is information a property that one can own and hence can demand exclusivity of that property? How and what is the harm to the owner if someone else also enjoys an extra copy of the same information? More fundamentally, should there be an owner of information?

I am writing this post, so common law asserts that I own the copyright of this post. Let say I try to lock away this post so that you are NOT allowed to quote, copy etc... any of this post. So from now on, you are NOT allowed to use any alphabets that I have used in this post without my permission. (Ooops, I did not use the letter z, so you may use it. But now you can't because I have just used it!)

You might say, "No, copyright does not apply to the components of your post. You only have the copyright of your whole piece - the part that is original!"

OK, in fact I used the alphabets which already existed! The alphabets are not my original ideas and hence I cannot restrict others to use them. But is there ANY original idea here? I recycled words. If I have invented all new words in create this post, it will make no sense to you (because you won't know any of the invented words) and hence defeat the purpose of writing this post to communication. So does arranging words constitute originality? In fact, how many new arrangements of words are here? Probably not much, if any!

Strictly speaking, I cannot own any of this post! There is just no "original" parts here.

"I did work in writing this post and if you are enjoying my writing, should I be rewarded?", some may argue.

Right! If I don't want you to read this, I should NOT have published it in the first place. Now thst I have published it, I am demanding reward from you. I am enjoying multiple rewards - the joy of writing and joy of having a readership. My initial motivation to write is already satisfied. Asking for more, to me, seems to be too greedy.

Well, this piece may be too trivial. There are other information that represents a lot of work and they should be protected. OK, if that the case, keep it as a secret. It is unfair for you to plant an idea in my mind and then limit my use of the same idea! Once an idea has gone into my mind, there is no way to unload that information. I may even argue that the information "owner" should pay us to compensate for the damage (if loading a piece of useless information into our mind).

Without an understanding of "property" and how it may be applied to information, the ethical journey has hardly begun.

No comments: