Monday, April 24, 2006

Jack Balkan on Access to Knowledge

Jack Balkan gave a speech at the A2K conference at Yale about his work with Yochai Benkler.

"Today I want to make three points about the theory of access to knowledge.

First, Access to Knowledge is a demand of justice.

Second, Access to Knowledge is both an issue of economic development and an issue of individual participation and human liberty.

Third, Access to Knowledge is about intellectual property, but it is also about far more than that.

Access to Knowledge is a demand of Justice

Access to Knowledge is a set of principles that emerge from a loose collection of different social movements. These social movements, in turn, are responding to changes in economy and society produced by new information technologies.

Information and knowledge are embedded in goods like drugs that have value, and in social structures like education and science that produce value. Moreover, information, like capital, is not just a thing in itself but it's also a set of relationships between persons and groups. Some control it, others don't and law helps enforce that division of power and control.

As the global economy develops, control over knowledge and information increasingly determines global wealth and power. Because not all countries participate in the global economy equally, not all of their citizens enjoy its benefits equally. Different societies prepare their members differently to participate in the information economy, and different countries have competitive advantages in producing information and controlling its distribution.

Access to knowledge can be a confusing term because it actually refers to four different things. Here I borrow Yochai Benkler's typology:

* 1. Human knowledge-- education, know-how, and the creation of human capital through learning new skills.

* 2. Information-- like news, medical information, data, and weather reports.

* 3. Knowledge-embedded goods (KEG's)-- goods where the inputs to production involve significant amounts of scientific and technical knowledge, often but not exclusively protected by intellectual property rights. Some key examples are drugs, electronic hardware, and computer software, but in contemporary economic life, information and intellectual property provide an increasingly important share of almost all valuable goods.

* 4. Tools for the production of KEG's-- examples include scientific and research tools, materials and compounds for experimentation, computer programs and computer hardware.

The goal of access to knowledge is to improve access to all four of these components of the knowledge economy:

* 1. Access to human knowledge
* 2. Access to information
* 3. Access to KEG's
* 4. Access to tools for producing KEG's

Access to knowledge is a question of distributional justice, both within a society, say rich and poor, men and women, and across different societies, say countries in the North and the South. Given the long term trend in the world economy toward increasing the share of wealth going to these four components of the knowledge economy, what does justice require?

I think we can make two claims:

First, if you can produce the same or greater amounts of these four components and distribute them more widely and equitably both within countries and across national borders, justice demands this.

Second, if you can spur additional innovation and information production in areas that existing market structures currently do not serve-- e.g., drugs for diseases in the third world, educational materials for persons in the poorest countries-- justice also demands this.

Let me put it another way: Access to knowledge means that the right policies for information and knowledge production can increase both the total production of information and knowledge goods, and can distribute them in a more equitable fashion. The goal is first, promoting economic efficiency and development, and second, widespread distribution of those knowledge and informational goods necessary to human flourishing in our particular historical moment– the global networked information economy.

I repeat: It's not just a trade off between equity and efficiency. We are not simply fighting about how to divide up a pie. Access to knowledge is about making a larger pie and distributing it more fairly. Or, at the risk of extending this pie metaphor well beyond its appropriate scope, access to knowledge means giving everyone the skills to make their own pies and share them widely with others."

The whole thing is highly recommended. There's an A2K conference wiki and the Lawmeme are naturally offering commentary.

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