Rivalrous and non-rivalrous goods and the OWS library

[ cross-posted from Zenpundit — Jefferson, economics of possession and ideas, Occupy COG, library ]


photo credit: Monique Zamir for Untapped Cities


Let’s start with Thomas Jefferson. I don’t know if he was the first to mention this curious distinction on record, but he makes the point nicely:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.

John Perry Barlow quotes that gobbit of Jefferson as the epigraph to his essay, The Economy of Ideas.


Here’s Lawrence Lessig, in his essay Against perpetual copyright:

Tangible goods are rivalrous goods

For one person to gain some tangible item, another person must lose it. For one person to gain the ownership of some piece of land, the previous owner must surrender ownership. T his is the ordinary state of physical property, and the laws around physical property are designed around this fact. Property taxes, zoning laws, and similar legal constructs are examples of how the law relates to physical property.

Intellectual works are non-rivalrous

Intellectual works are ordinarily non-rivalrous. It is possible for someone to teach a work of the mind to another without unlearning it himself. For example, one, or two, or a hundred people can memorize the same poem at the same time. Here the term “work of the mind” refers not to physical items such books or compact discs or DVD’s, but rather to the intangible content those physical objects contain.


As someone whose work falls almost entirely in the “non-rivalrous” category, I am naturally very interested by this distinction, both for my own sake, and because (if the coming economy is an “information” or “imagination” economy) it may be the hinge on which the future of that economy turns…


Which brings me to the Occupy movement, and to this curious fact which I found in an article I didn’t otherwise read. It’s from David Graeber, On Playing By The Rules – The Strange Success Of #OccupyWallStreet :

It’s no coincidence that the epicenter of the Wall Street Occupation, and so many others, is an impromptu library: a library being not only a model of an alternative economy, where lending is from a communal pool, at 0% interest, and the currency being lent is knowledge, and the means to understanding.

In quoting this, I mean neither to endorse nor to condemn the movement, but simply to note that its center of gravity as described here (although technically, books are rivalrous goods) falls clearly within the non-rivalrous category: it is a market-place of ideas.


As a one-time tank-thinker, I was trained to spot early indicators.

I don’t know what this one means, but I suspect it’s an indicator. Give me another to pair it with, and I may be able to foresee a trend.

What do you see?


I spotted a copy of Mikhail Bulgakov‘s The Master and Margarita in one of the photos.


photo credit: Blaine O’Neill under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license

and DH Lawrence, Sons and Lovers and Christopher Isherwood, The Berlin Stories; Strindberg, The Plays and Beckett, Krapp’s Last Tape; Dr Who, yeah and Star Wars too; William Gibson‘s Neuromancer and his Mona Lisa Overdrive; Max Marwick‘s Witchcraft and Sorcery; Orson Scott Card‘s Ender’s Game and Lewis Carroll‘s Alice in Wonderland — and for the politics of it all, Marina Sitrin, Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina and Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict… which I’ve linked for your convenience.


For what it’s worth…

Nathan Schneider‘s article, What ‘diversity of tactics’ really means for Occupy Wall Street, cites Zenpundit blog-friend David Ronfeldt‘s study (with John Arqilla) Swarming & the Future of Conflict — along with (among others) Gene Sharp, whose work I discussed on Zenpundit a few months back.

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A Desperate Partnership

Desperate on the side of the publishers anyway ….

My library (I’m a public library director) was approached a couple months ago by an “author publicist” eager to set up a few author visits here at the library.  For free.

It seems that the publicity arms of some publishers are beginning to realize that it has long been bookstores and libraries that actually sell books by exposing people to new authors … and that with fewer bookstores out there they were going to have to start talking to the libraries.

It’s a good deal for us and for our readers.  The authors sell a few books and they get their names in the papers (plus in our own publicity material).  We don’t incur the costs associated with other types of programming.

I do wonder how long this will last.  Publishers, after all, are not printers and their true functions have always been author development, editing, or publicity.  These are all costs and, truth be told, we librarians (and the bookstore owners) likely did the last as much or more than the publishers themselves.

Here’s the thing:  local authors without either talent or story approach libraries on a regular basis, convinced that our publicity can help their sales.  That would be true if we wanted to lower our standards (and thus also public expectations for what we vet for our collections).

What happens when non-local authors with talent and with good stories decide to avoid publishers altogether?

We’ll soon see.

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All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

The new Adam Curtis documentary has started to appear.  Here’s the first part of “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”.  It’s a rich, challenging mix of ideas, connecting Ayn Rand to cybernetics to national internet policy.

Curtis is one of the greatest, most interesting documentarians alive.

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The digital world through Google’s eyes

Here’s a bracing look at the digital world, from Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt:

He said four big companies dominate the Internet: Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. Google has all the world’s information; Apple is the king of elegant design; Facebook is where your social life is; Amazon is where you buy everything. Between them the four are worth about a half a trillion dollars. Microsoft was glaringly missing from the list.

Words to conjure with.

One way to thin about this is to see what’s missing.  Microsoft is one, and others have called Schmidt on underplaying Office and XBox.  Another is gaming, which barely trickles across each of these.

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US-Pakistan relations: a handy, up-to-date guide

What’s the story about US-Pakistan relations? The excellent ProPublica team just released this guide, which is both accessible and informative.

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Towards peak oil: a surprising Wall Street Journal article

A series of peak oil projection scenarios

We’re facing the end of cheap, easily obtained oil. This is classic peak oil theory: first, we take the easier to get stuff. Next, we’re left with the increasingly hard-to-get matter, which ramps up costs and builds scarcity.

So says not a peak oil blog, nor an environmentalist, but the Wall Street Journal.

That the Saudis are even considering such a project shows how difficult and costly it is becoming to slake the world’s thirst for oil. It also suggests that even the Saudis may not be able to boost production quickly in the future if demand rises unexpectedly. Neither issue bodes well for the return of cheap oil over the long term.

“The easy oil is coming to an end,” says Alex Munton, a Middle East analyst for the Scottish energy consulting firm Wood Mackenzie. The major oil fields in the Gulf region, he says, have pumped more than half their oil—the point at which production traditionally begins to decline. [emhases added]

The article doesn’t even try to offer the usual anti-peak arguments: that the tech needed to get this oil will become cheaper and effective very quickly, that there are vast pools of not-too-hard-to-get oil just waiting to be discovered.

(graph from Wikipedia)

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The Problem with Questions

We librarian-types who work the reference desk help people who have questions.  These questions coming to us can be put in four somewhat overlapping categories:  those the inquirer understands and those he/she does not and those the librarian understands and those the librarian does not.

It used to be that the first category comprised a large percentage of what came into the door.   The inquirer understood the question and simply didn’t own the resource that was needed to find the answer … the standard resolution for such things was for the librarian to either pull out the proper book or show the inquirer where he or she could find the answer.  Oftentimes, of course, the person who understands the question doesn’t need any help – that’s what a self-help catalog or index is for.

Nowadays, that’s what a well crafted search string is for (assuming it isn’t so easy that it pops up on Google on the first try).

The second category is one where the librarian must play a game of “20 questions” in order to determine what the inquirer is trying to know.  The “movie with a sled in it” might just as well be “Nanook of the North” as it might be “Citizen Kane.”   The inquirer often doesn’t know enough to know when an answer is correct (which makes database searching into a wholly baffling experience).

The their category of question, those the librarian understands are, well, the reason a person comes to a library to ask for a bit of help – there’s a feeling that the person at the reference desk can actually help (beginning, perhaps, with an inkling of what’s required but soon ramping up to enough understanding to conduct a search).  This may actually be true if a specialized need meets a librarian with a specialized understanding.

The fourth category of question – the ones the librarian does not understand – is a surprisingly large one.

Back in the mid-80s, the State ofMaryland(the state library, I think, but perhaps a library school) conducted a “stealth” reference service evaluation, sending students to the various public libraries with a set list of questions.  Upon evaluation, it was discovered that the reference librarians provided the correct answers 55% of the time … the so-called “55% Rule” that once wafted through discussions of reference service like the smell of old socks.

The thing is: these question were not about anything esoteric.  Quite the contrary.  They could be answered from the “ready-reference” books (dictionary, encyclopedia, atlas, thesaurus, almanac, etc.) found at every library’s reference desk.

The great FAIL is that the reference librarians did not seem to understand what were, after all, easy questions.

The professional question then isn’t “How can I, as a reference librarian, find the answers to questions?”  It is: “How can I, as a reference librarian, come to understand the questions?”

The answer, to some degree, is of course study.  But any person can only learn so much.  A better answer is:  get help.

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Productive Silence?

Imagine if you wanted to avoid a popular subject. Say, a hit television program about a singing contest, or a reality adventure competition in which scantily clad participants vote people off the show? Intentional avoidance requires steering clear of news broadcasts, especially the ones that include “news” features about the television programs afore-mentioned that are broadcast by the parent network.

How about if you wanted nothing to do with the excessive attention being focused on the marriage of two people from some royal family? Or the buzz generated by one individual that has huge numbers of people focused on his opinion that the rapture will occur at a specific time on a specific day?

Actually, if what you are intending to do is diminish the energy of these kinds of viral phenomena, it doesn’t matter what the topic is. All such situations share the common challenge of figuring out how to successfully and completely avoid the subject. It is also difficult to achieve fulfillment over having done so. To do nothing in these instances is not inherently rewarding. Doing nothing makes little difference against the maelstrom of the masses. The crucial truth is, if you want to stay out of the fray, you have no tangible weapon to wield.

If you try to lobby a case for purposefully staying out of the brouhaha whipped up by the media and citizen gossip/analysis, you end up contributing to the subject which you are trying to avoid. Cue the challenge of not thinking of an elephant. The only real way to not play into the latest media attention-getter is to refrain from speaking (or writing) on the subject altogether. Silence.

It drives me nuts. It is very difficult to feel you are accomplishing something worthwhile by doing nothing at all.

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Pakistan-American relations worsen

Relations between Pakistan and the United States sunk even lower today, thanks to a firefight among ostensibly friendly forces.  American helicopters were shot at, and Pakistani soldiers wounded.

More here.

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Baluchistan rising

Baluchistan, circa 1980

Is the US quietly building up a Baluchistani nationalist movement? Maybe – what?

Baluch (also Baloch) peoples can be found across a spread of central Asian nations (see map to right).  They are significant minorities in both Iran and Pakistan.

For US policy, encouraging Baluch nationalism could undermine one opponent (Iran) while maybe setting up a more controllable local authority over oil routes (Afghanistan->Indian Ocean).

(map via Wikipedia)

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