Have you ever wondered whether someone has been stealing your ideas? Maybe you’ve come up with a brand-new way of doing something, a new way of approaching a problem, an idea for an article or resolving some issue at work, or a personal gift you can give someone — and before you get a chance to put your plan into action, you find in someone else has already done it. What gives?! A week ago, a month ago, this idea was your own special unique treasure, and before you know it, everybody seems to be doing it.
This happened to me three times in just the past week. It’s not something that happens often to me, actually, because I’m not a very, um, normal person, and I usually don’t have any trouble thinking outside the box. Quite the opposite, in fact — frequently I don’t realize the box is there, and I end up tripping over it in my enthusiasm…
The Home of Dreams
First, of friend of mine at work said out of the blue that he and his wife had calculated that they could never afford to buy their dream home, so they’ve decided to build it instead. They’ll buy a nice plot of land out away from the city, maybe just a couple of acres, and build a simple energy-efficient house on it. They’ll do a lot of the labor themselves, and save a huge amount of money that way. He went on to describe the layout of the house, and some of the environmentally friendly features they plan on putting in it. It took me a few minutes to gather my jaw off the floor: he was exactly describing the dream my wife and I have had for our family, down to the details of the floor plan! They were even planning on building a round house, just like we were. The only difference was that we plan on building a dome home, and they want to build a yurt. I have nothing against yurts in principle, but I think domes are prettier; and anyway, the word “yurt” always makes me think of rancid yogurt for some reason.
Then there is “nanosyntax”. Back in 1999, when I was working for a search engine company, I had access to a detailed electronic dictionary, and I was looking for a way to write a very simple parsing program (i.e. program to determine sentential syntactic structure) that could leverage it. I drew up specs for it, but was downsized before I could put it into action. One of the basic principles I used was that the syntax of a sentence could be predicted by breaking down individual words into smaller components of meaning. This approach to syntax is not new by any means — it goes back to the 1960s “generative semantics” at least, but has been largely discredited by most linguists since the early 70s. But I found a novel approach which worked around those issues. Since then, I have never had much occasion to use this novel approach in my work. But a few days ago, I learned that an idea related to mine has been branded as “nanosyntax” and is a buzzword in some linguistics research circles, and is even being touted as the core technology of a natural language processing company.
For anyone who found this article by searching for nanosyntax: it appears to be much more a way of thinking about syntax than a complete theory in its own right. The syntacticians I was hanging out with in the late 90’s were already thinking along these lines, and I suspect that “nanosyntax” is a catchy term that was invented to describe something that’s been evolving for a while in several different parallel syntactic traditions. Personally I think that it’s absolutely the right way to think about syntax, although I think the metaphors of “molecules of words” and so forth are inappropriate and unfortunate. In any case, it’s not clear to me that building a grammar using “nanosyntax” would have any advantages over any other kind of grammar, from a parsing standpoint, without an extremely detailed lexicon. On the contrary, since there are no treebanks of nanosyntactic forms, I expect any such grammars must be completely hand-coded and very time-consuming to port to other languages. I would be very happy to be proved wrong.
The Spiritual Portal
The last idea concerns the this site itself, and its purpose. About a year ago, as I was trying to work out with Apollo what the purpose of the Druid Journal was, it seemed to me that he was encouraging me to make it into a kind of portal into the Druid, pagan, even the broader new age / spiritual movement — a place where people could come to get an overview of spiritual sites, see the relationships between them, look at what was most recently posted, et cetera. Needless to say, creating this was a huge project which I never got very far on,; and as I grew closer to Apollo and got a better idea of where he was coming from, I realized that he didn’t really have a grand vision, and he was sort of playing it by ear. But back then, when I mentioned this idea to my friend Slade, he pointed out that Damian Carr, a druid in England, had much the same vision for his own site, and had gone so far as to pick the perfect name for it: Soul Terminal. And now a few days ago, in an e-mail thread concerning creating a list of spiritual bloggers, someone was inspired in the same way, and wrote in detail about the same vision.
A Billiard Ball Brain
Ideas and thoughts are some of the slipperiest, trickiest, most confusing things to talk about. Oddly enough, language seems ill-suited as a tool to talk about itself, or to talk about ideas. Almost all of human language is built fundamentally on a sort of “billiard ball” model of reality: there are objects; these objects have insides and outsides; and they move through space, from one place to another, occasionally coming into contact with each other. We talk about just about everything in the world as if it was a billiard ball. For example, a job is a billiard ball, with an inside and an outside, and a movable location:
- In this job, you have to stay on your toes.
- I’m out of a job.
- They’re moving my job overseas.
Like a billiard ball, we talk about a job as if it has an “inside” and an “outside”, and as if it can be “moved” from one place to another. And a company is a billiard ball, too:
- In this company, they don’t pay you much.
- This information should not get outside the company.
- The company is moving overseas.
A marriage is a billiard ball:
- People expect intimacy in marriage.
- Many people disapprove of sex out of wedlock.
- I want to move our marriage toward greater intimacy.
A website is a billiard ball:
- I have a number of sections in my website.
- I’m taking this article off of my website.
- I’m considering moving my website to another domain.
A speech act is a billiard ball:
- There are seven words in this sentence.
- He gave his speech yesterday.
You can multiply the examples endlessly. Why language works this way is a matter of debate, but most linguists assume it has to do with the fact that we are embodied in the physical world, and the physical world — in which things really do act like billiard balls most of the time — provides a common frame of reference for us all.
Intellectual Property: Contradiction in Terms?
But of course the metaphor breaks down, and one of the most obvious places is in the realm of ideas and thoughts. For example, you can give someone an idea, just as you can give someone a billiard ball; but if you give someone an idea, you still have the idea. “Giving” is a fundamentally different process in the two cases, even though we use the same verb for both.
This is why the whole concept of “intellectual property” is a metaphor that’s on extremely shaky ground. Most property (cars, houses, land, paperclips, etc.) is impossible or extremely expensive to duplicate exactly, and if you give it away, you don’t have it any more. Furthermore, you can allow someone to minutely examine your car without giving it to them, so they can decide if they want to buy it. “Intellectual property” doesn’t work that way at all! Applying physical property law to ideas is therefore a nasty business. The billiard ball model breaks down.
What would a better metaphor be?
If ideas aren’t billiard balls, what are they? When I got to this spot in planning this article, I had no immediate answer to this question; so I decided to meditate on it. The following series of images is what I got…
The earth has been tilled and turned, and is waiting to be fertilized. It is crumpled and dark and pregnant with possibility. Now the seeds are coming: they come floating on the wind, miniscule, sparks of color without size, spinning and dancing around me. Thousands fall on the upturned earth, blanketing it. They begin to sprout — some fast, some slow. Here one is growing by feet every second, sending glittering green tendrils curling over the garden, bursting with blossoms of yellow and orange. There is one, growing more slowly, dark purple, bulging with one pumpkin-sized forest-green fruit. And there must be thousands of tiny green shoots carpeting the earth.
And the spark-seeds are still coming… Usually, when a seed falls on a growing plant, nothing happens; but sometimes they react somehow, and the plant suddenly changes — perhaps subtly, perhaps profoundly — changes its growth, its color, or its shape. And sometimes two plants from opposite sides of the garden will touch each other, intertwine, and transform, each taking on some characteristics of the other — or they’ll merge into a larger plant — or they may even cancel each other out, shatter, and dissolve into a shimmering cloud of spark-seeds that drift away…
Looking around, I see that I’m not the only one with a garden. Everyone else has one, too. Some are rocky and poorly tilled, or the earth is dry and hard, and few spark-seeds can take root there. Others are laden with compost and rich soil, well-watered. I see that many people have the same plants as I do, but they grow slightly differently in different gardens. The same spark-seeds are falling everywhere, but different combinations of seeds in different gardens give rise to new, unheard-of plants, which then produce more seeds and scatter them to the four directions.
And I see that there are plants growing between the gardens, too, in places where no one has tilled or cared for the soil at all, and no one is watching… And the plants there blossom and shower spark-seeds to the wind, just as all the others do.
The metaphor here is pretty clear, I think, but feel free to drop me a comment if you disagree. The spark-seeds are sparks of inspiration; the plants that grow from them are thoughts and ideas and other things we think of as “intellectual property”; and the gardens are our minds. Ideas and thoughts are always cross-fertilizing each other, creating new forms, both within our minds and between minds. But we can’t really call our ideas our own: we have no control over what seedlings fall in our gardens. All we can do is try to keep our minds open and make sure that they are fertile ground for new ideas.
No Property, No Theft
If this metaphor holds, what are the implications for intellectual property?
- You can’t own ideas. They spread and change of their own accord. You can only own their fruits — the physical objects and services they generate.
- If someone “takes” your idea, what’s the big deal? You still have it! If they are able to do something with it that you can’t, that has nothing to do with the idea — it has to do with your physical and social circumstances.
- If you like someone else’s idea, go ahead — “take” it. It never really “belonged” to them anyway — it simply landed in their garden by chance.
- If your ideas aren’t giving you the social and physical returns you want, you need to (a) change your physical and social situation so that they can, and/or (b) get more ideas.
- If you want more ideas, simply make sure your mental soil is fertile so that the seed-sparks will grow.
All of this gives a much different view of human invention, one that may seem counterintuitive and maybe even immoral. We are so used to owning ideas, as if they were objects, as if they were property, that it seems like theft to borrow ideas that don’t sprout in our own heads. Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable, too. I would much rather till my own soil and get my own home-grown crop than steal over to someone else’s garden and take what grew there.
But maybe we are not craftsman or artisans like Thomas Edison, slaving away at our laboratories or smithies to carefully craft our precious ideas. Instead, perhaps we are like farmers who never know what crops will sprout in our fields. All we know is that if we faithfully till the good Earth, we will be provided for.