Friday, June 09, 2006

I've just realised something important about my book. It has a similar (though simpler and not nearly as eloquent) thesis to that of Yochai Benkler's Wealth of Networks. So now I'm wondering if I really have to scrap it and start from scratch with a new idea and a new structure. Below is a real first draft of Chapter 1. I'd be very interested in any comments you might have on it. I set up another blog, Silent Futures, for the book with the original intention of posting chapter drafts for comment. Though the book is about half done, so far only a draft of the outline and a draft of chapter 1 is available there.


Louis Brandeis: "The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding."

Colmcille and the battle of the book

In Ireland in the mid 6th century AD, power depended on connections and access to and control of information. Not a great deal has changed in fourteen hundred years. The short story of Colmcille and the Battle of the Book[1] at Cooldrumman[2] goes something like this –

Colmcille[3] copied another monk’s manuscript. The other monk, Finnian, objected and they settled things the way they did in those days. Three thousand were killed at the resulting battle.

The political landscape at the time was in pretty much constant turmoil, with about 150 warring tribes vying for power, territory and revenge for some earlier wrongdoing perpetrated by their neighbouring foes. In the thick of these skirmishes, the factions did coalesce, occasionally, into loose transient alliances under the toughest leaders and there was a fierce rivalry for overall dominance of the land between the northern and southern branches of the strongest clan, the O’Neills.[4]

As a boy Colmcille O’Neill was a larger than life, intellectually gifted, charismatic, fiery young redhead, who thoroughly immersed himself in the teachings of the Christian church, ably cultivated[5] by his mentors, local priest, Cruithnechan, and a monk called Finnian, whose school he attended at Molville in County Down.

Colmcille’s sporting prowess and big, generous, open (if quick-tempered) nature earned him a lot of friends when he was growing up. He apparently had a booming, melodious voice and a very sharp sense of humour, which led him into many mischievous escapades. Being a devoted member of a church that was so integral to community life meant also being actively engaged in local society. He ran, chased, rode, hurled,[6] hunted, fished, sailed, and fought with great skill, energy and often savagery, as was fitting and expected of royalty. [7] He also delighted in Celtic culture and the natural environment and had a magical touch with plants and animals of all kinds.

A prolific scribe, Colmcille was made a deacon[8] before the age of twenty. He then spent some time with a Christian bard called Gemman. Over the next couple of years, he received an unparalleled education in Celtic folklore, politics and human nature, though the young deacon was already a shrewd student of all of these. Gemman taught him that learned men often lost touch with ordinary people because of their disconnected academic way of communicating. He needed to stay immersed in communities, their folklore and their lives. The idealistic, ambitious student, full of his own destiny and keen to spread his influence far and wide, learned the psychology of trading and negotiating and the mechanics of power dynamics and integrated these lessons[9] into his own ongoing observations of the world around him. He already knew of the power of the bards to make or break public figures. The importance of perceived status to the influence of each tribal chief cannot be overstated. And it was the bards that created and spread tales, myths and legends about the strength and great deeds of kings

At the age of 25, a newly ordained priest, he began travelling round the country on a missionary quest, eventually setting up 36 monasteries[10] in the space of 15 years. Colmcille was a shrewd politician, a hard nosed negotiator and a gifted administrator, without being blindly devoted to arbitrary rules.

Trailing around the country reconnoitring the latest prevailing political landscape and badgering local kings for land to build the monasteries involved significant personal risks to him and his followers. Not all of these kings were Christians, neither were they prepared to hand over hard earned territory willingly to some missionary who just happened to ask for it, especially one widely known to be a prominent member of an increasingly ambitious northern O’Neill clan. That, along with his ever growing power and reputation within a growing church, itself engaged in a struggle for dominance over hearts, minds and souls with paganism, was more than enough to get somebody killed.

Amongst the tasks he attacked most passionately was the transcribing of biblical manuscripts. A devoted scribe himself, he recognised the shortage of books as one of the critical paths restricting the growth of the scholarship of the church, as well as of his own band of followers. [11] Wherever and whenever he could get access to the materials he would copy and encourage his monks to copy, study and disperse the copies of books to spread the teachings of the church. He was one of the earliest in the tradition of Irish monks committed to such a philosophy, credited with saving the church’s literary treasures during Europe’s Dark Ages,[12] when book burning was a common practice amongst religious zealots.

When he learned that Finnian had got hold of a copy of the “Vulgate,”[13] Colmcille decided to visit his old teacher in 560AD in order to see it. Finnian, delighted to see him, willingly showed him the book, though he was generally very protective of it. Given that by then he had probably had many visitors intent on getting a glimpse of this treasure it would have been natural for him to be careful about the degree of access he allowed to the manuscript.

Whatever the circumstances of Colmcille’s initial encounter with the book and any conditions Finnian might have placed on his handling of it, it is fairly clear that Colmcille decided to make a copy surreptitiously by night. Finnian discovered what he was up to and was angry that someone he trusted so implicitly could have done such a thing behind his back. He asked that Colmcille give him the copy he had made when it was finished.

Colmcille was not impressed at his former mentor’s attitude. He was enraged that an old man should presume to act as such a reluctant gatekeeper to a book, the sharing of which, he believed, was crucially important to the future of the church in Ireland. Finnian suggested they resolve the issue by referring it for arbitration to the Diarmaid, the High King of Ireland and his court at Tara. Colmcille readily agreed, feeling he couldn’t lose both because he was in the right (acting for the greater good of the church) and because he felt the king was an ally, who also happened to be related to him.

At the High Court at Tara Finnian claimed ownership of the copy of the book based on what he believed to be legal precedent and on the moral grounds that a visitor and a friend, to whom he had extended an open welcome and hospitality, had betrayed him by secretly copying his property. He was also concerned that, if the book was to be copied and widely distributed, this had to be done carefully and through appropriate channels and procedures. He was concerned to maintain the integrity of the manuscript and ensure there were no errors introduced through hasty copying processes, the like of which Colmcille had secretly engaged in. Colmcille, by that time, had something of a manuscript production line operating at his monastery at Durrow, a group of monks transcribing manuscripts in order that these might be made widely available. It’s interesting to speculate on what Finnian’s views would have been about this activity and the quality of the work thus produced. Perhaps he felt any copying of his precious copy of the Vulgate should be done at Durrow? On the other hand, if his perception was that even a small fraction of the work there was sub standard, he would have felt completely justified in demanding that any copying of the manuscript could only be done under his personal supervision.

Colmcille, by now used to being revered in public circles, was disturbed to have his pristine reputation attacked in public at Tara. After a hearing which reportedly went on all through the night and where many questioned Colmcille’s integrity, it became clear that there was an undercurrent to the proceedings that went way beyond a dispute over a book. Part of it was to do with the perception amongst some that the monk had become too powerful and needed to be taken down a peg or two. This jealousy would have been politically motivated and could have counted on factions within the Christian church, the pagans and the political establishment who saw him as a powerful agent of change in society. Superimpose on this the increasing tensions between the church and paganism, the church’s increasing intolerance of [the High King of Ireland] Diarmaid’s accommodation of the pagans (who they perceived as a major obstacle in the path to true salvation) and the political battle lines between the most powerful tribes in the land, and this arbitration hearing takes on a much wider significance. In any case, as the dawn broke Colmcille made his closing address to the court[14]:

“My friend’s claim seeks to apply a worn out law to a new reality. Books are different to other chattels (possessions) and the law should recognise this. Learned men like us, who have received a new heritage of knowledge through books, have an obligation to spread that knowledge, by copying and distributing those books far and wide. I haven’t used up Finnian’s book by copying it. He still has the original and that original is none the worse for my having copied it. Nor has it decreased in value[15] because I made a transcript of it. The knowledge in books should be available to anybody who wants to read them and has the skills or is worthy to do so; and it is wrong to hide such knowledge away or to attempt to extinguish the divine things that books contain. It is wrong to attempt to prevent me or anyone else from copying it or reading it or making multiple copies to disperse throughout the land. In conclusion I submit that it was permissible for me to copy the book because, although I benefited from the hard work involved in the transcription, I gained no worldly profit from the process, I acted for the good of society in general and neither Finnian nor his book were harmed.”[16]

When he had finished, King Diarmaid, sought the advice of his Supreme Court counsellor Bec MacDe.[17] Then he made his famous ruling:

“I don’t know, Colmcille, where you get your fancy new ideas about people’s property. Wise men have always described the copy of a book as a child-book. This implies that someone who owns the parent-book also owns the child-book. To every cow its calf, to every book its child-book. The child-book belongs to Finnian.”[18]

Now nobody rose to the prominence of a high king’s counsellor without significant political skills and MacDe would have had his own agenda in considering how to advise Diarmaid. As a druid this included the welfare of the pagan religion and concerns at the success of missionaries like Colmcille in spreading the Christian faith. He was well acquainted with the big monk and can scarcely have believed his good fortune in having this opportunity to influence the reputation of the high profile evangelist. In addition he was simultaneously able to inhibit the distribution of copies of a book which he understood to be the purist form of the Christian doctrine available in the country.

In the immediate aftermath of the ruling, Colmcille was a man in shock. So convinced was he of the righteousness of his cause that he had never even considered he might lose the case. Furious that his integrity had not only been publicly questioned but now, in the decision, found wanting and also that these important scriptures were to be locked away from a church in desperate need of them, he cursed Diarmaid, turned his back on the king and left.

Shortly thereafter Diarmaid was responsible for the murder of a young prince, Curnan, who had been granted sanctuary by Comcille. The vengeful warrior in Colmcille took hold. He made his way to his family, the Northern O’Neills, who were already considering that they had the strength to challenge the high king. They just needed an excuse. By the time he got home he had probably rationalised his rage and considered that his cause – the defence and greater glory of the church as well as revenge for the injustice he had suffered – justified the battle he intended to catalyse. His family and their allies defeated Diarmaid’s forces at Cooldrummon the following year.

Though it came to be known as the "Battle of the Book," the carnage at Cooldrumman leading to 3000 deaths, in common with most complex events, had multiple causes, albeit that the copying of that single manuscript was one of the key triggers. Colmcille, though sorry so many men had to die for it, still felt after the battle that his cause had been just. Spreading copies of and access to the knowledge contained in the precious book was, in his view, a holy cause and a key strategy in building the power of the church.

His fellow leading churchmen, however, found his actions unconscionable, declared his behaviour unworthy of a man of God and excommunicated him for a short period at a church synod meeting. He was reinstated and penalised to exile from Ireland and the winning of 3000 converted souls for the church.[19]

Colmcille went to Iona two years later but it’s unlikely it was because of the demands of the church synod.[20] It’s not clear that he was penitent even in the wake of the synod, which he felt should have been more understanding. It does appear, however, that he may have encountered something of a midlife crisis at this stage and wandered aimlessly for a couple of years. He then became acutely aware that a branch of his family in Scotland was in crisis. Successful settlers they had been suffering heavy defeats at the hands of the pagan picts and were on the verge of being completely annihilated. The big monk now found himself a new mission – to become the saving grace of his family, the church in Scotland and the thousands of unenlightened souls amongst the picts’ tribes. So in 563, two years after the battle of the book, he set sail for Iona in Scotland,[21] with twelve followers in tow, 42 years old and heading arguably for his greatest successes and the true fulfilment of his destiny. That next chapter of his life is a story for another day.

Three ideas

The Colmcille story is about a struggle over access to information. Access to information underpins the themes of this book which is about decision making related to and involving important socio-technological information systems. For the purposes of the book I’m going to use the term ‘digital decision making’ or DDM (or ddm), purely to avoid having to repeat ‘decision making related to and involving the development, deployment and regulation of complex information and communications technologies (ICTs).’ Digital decision making is not a commonly used/recognised jargon phrase in the industry or academia; nor should it be confused with some kind of artificial intelligence or the idea of machines making decisions. It is simply, in this case, a literary device to hopefully make life easier for me and for the reader. Translating ‘decision making related to and involving the development, deployment and regulation of complex information and communications technologies (ICTs)’ as DDM, even though it might sound like a toxic chemical, also saves a few trees.

Information systems which have a considerable impact on public welfare are being created, deployed and regulated often without a fundamental understanding about what these systems are required to do or how they might actually work in practice. Electronic voting systems, childcare worker databases, terrorist and other criminal suspects databases, genetic profiling, DNA databases, national identity cards systems, national health information systems, information systems in education, air passenger profiling, motorist and mobile phone tracking and other ubiquitous surveillance like CCTV and communications data retention schemes are being deployed at a phenomenal rate and the whole area of information related laws is changing rapidly; and it is all happening in piecemeal fashion without a genuinely coherent overall view[22] or a sound understanding of what the technology can and, almost more importantly, cannot do.

That’s something which strikes me as a problem for society in response to which I offer three basic ideas:

1. Firstly, people who make decisions about the deployment and regulation of complex information systems of considerable significance to public welfare should base action upon an understanding of the systems and environment within which they operate.

2. Secondly ordinary people (who in an environmental decision making situation would be called ‘stakeholders’) and ‘experts’[23] working together can facilitate the development of this understanding. Indeed it is often ordinary people who contribute the true expertise.

3. Thirdly, in a knowledge society[24] the default rules of the road are the laws governing the flow of information and the restrictions built into the architecture of technology . These laws and technologies are shaping up to be a bottleneck, particularly for decision making and education. It might be reasonable to stick a digital lock on an electronic version of some educational material and make it a crime to bypass the lock, but people need to be aware of this.

The first idea – the simple thesis that people should understand what they are dealing with when making decisions – seems so patently obvious it hardly seems worthy of being the core idea in a book. As we shall see in chapter 2, however, there are a multitude of things which get in the way of that understanding in the context of information systems. Contrary to popular belief that it is highly sophisticated, for example, the information technology industry is actually only in its infancy and even just understanding the difference between ‘information systems’ and ‘information technology’ is not something we can be confident that decision makers are aware of. There is a tendency to focus on the computing components of an information system, rather than the multifaceted system as a whole, including importantly, the human factors. Moreover this focus on having to use the computer rather than doing what we need with the aid of a computer where it is useful, can actually blind us to the real exiting possibilities of the technology.[25]

In the context of environmental decision making, there has been a considerable and in theory at least very positive movement towards facilitating stakeholder involvement in decision making processes; as well as encouraging every individual to take an active role through considering the impact of their lifestyle choices on the environment. Contrary to prevailing fashionable theories, however, stakeholder involvement is not the holy grail of decision making on complex systems, though it is a crucial element. If stakeholders have neither access to the appropriate information to pursue informed decisions nor real influence in decision making processes, then stakeholder involvement is a mere public relations exercise. By the same token, the notion of leaving decision making about complex information systems solely to the experts[26] is not to be recommended. The reality of information systems deployment is that when no account is taken of user needs the system always fails. The second central claim in this book, therefore, is that the far-reaching implications for commerce and society, of decisions in invisible or opaque specialist fields regarding the regulation and deployment of large information systems, mean they should be matters of concern for every citizen; and that ordinary citizens[27] working together with experts (and regulators) will prove more effective than each group acting in isolation. If the reader was to take only one thing from this book this would be the most important.

As the Internet and other communications technologies become more central to our lives, alterations in their nature or functioning could have consequences for us all. Implicit in the technology, for example, is the capacity to monitor the online activity of every single user – to track every website visited, every e-mail sent (and to whom), and so on. So debates about the future of the Net, and about the legal framework within which it operates, are increasingly going to be debates about the future of society – just as, say, arguments about press freedom are inevitably arguments about liberty and democracy.

There is a strong connection between developments on and surrounding the Internet that affect something (privacy or access to education, for example) which is normally regarded as a subject for political concern and debate. Yet what we generally find is that debates about the development, regulation and deployment of the technologies tend to be regarded as technical or legal arguments about specialist subjects, rather than as matters which should concern everyone. The viewpoint implicit in this book – and one of the reasons I’m writing it – is that this is misguided.

Perhaps if we realised DDM is like environmental decision making, we would take a little more notice? If the last remaining trees and hedgerow in my neighbourhood were being ripped up to make way for a waste incinerator, I’d feel strongly enough to speak to local people about it, sign a petition or write to my MP. I’d do it because I could see the impact it would have on my family’s day to day quality of life. But we do not realise the effect of new technologies because they are not always so obvious or immediate. Neither do we know what powers we have to engage in decisions related to these new technologies. It is all too novel and we don’t know enough about them. The little we do see are warnings against pirating DVDs and CDs or high profile cases with CCTV pictures of terrorists, neither of which engages the ordinary citizen from our own perspective.

The third idea in the book is that changes in law and technology could be leading to a kind of “second enclosure movement”[28] which threatens not only our ability to make informed decisions about those complex information systems, but even something as fundamental as our access to the basic raw materials of education. This is something which has been a problem in the developing world for generations. Relative to average incomes,[29] a student paying $80 for a book in Indonesia would be the equivalent of a US student paying nearly $3200 for the same book in the US.

A vibrant information ecology is at the foundation of our knowledge society, just as a vibrant natural environment is at the heart of a healthy society. James Boyle and Larry Lessig have persuasively argued, [30] however, that we could be facing an enclosure of the “commons of the mind” where the basic raw materials of cultural, scientific and educational discourse get locked behind legal and technical toll booths, controlled by a small number of actors. At a time when we have the capacity to facilitate universal access to a virtual digital library of Alexandria for our time, we are actually increasingly moving in the opposite direction towards a pay per view society. This feature of the book is partly a synthesis of the important work of scholars like Boyle and Lessig published in the US but it is also partly an educator’s attempt to wrap some of their key ideas in a slightly different context, in the hope of making them more accessible.[31]

None of the central ideas are particularly radical. Primarily the book is a collection of stories and developments in the regulation and deployment of technology that, taken together, add up to a picture of a developing information society, which we are reacting to rather than actively shaping.

To the extent that I offer, in the final chapter, a theoretical systemic decision making framework for the development, regulation and deployment of communications technologies, it could be considered to be an attempt to extend our theoretical understanding of the subject matter and to some degree provide a “how to” practical guide for decision makers. The framework, however, is a modest proposal and should in no way be considered to be an ivory tower academic’s one-true-guide to digital decision making.

About this book

So we have 3 ideas:

  • People should understand what they’re dealing with
  • Ordinary people and experts should work together
  • The rules of the road are given by the information laws and the technology

The introduction has already described the story of Colmcille and the battle of the book and for the moment you can think of it as a kind of a historical case study in DDM.

Part 1: What’s happening?

Chapter 2 is a whistle-stop tour in how decisions happen and the reasons why the idea that people should understand what they are dealing with is not as simple as it sounds.

Chapter 3 goes on to set out a series stories that made me stop and think that perhaps we could and should be doing these some of these things differently. There has been a legal dispute over the copyright in silence for example, and we are seeing outcomes of the suing-over-silence variety, often unintended, in the case of commercially successful children’s literature, technology in education, and a huge number of other examples of the creation, regulation and deployment of information systems and information flows.

Chapter 4 looks at the central importance of intellectual property and offers a synthesis of the ideas of Boyle and Lessig. Chapter 5 then broadens the scope beyond intellectual property with stories of information systems which are set to have a considerable impact on public welfare, such as electronic voting.

Part 2: What to do about it.

Chapter 6 looks in more detail at the distinction between facts and values mentioned in Chapter 2 and explores power relationships in decision making. Many public arguments involve a mix of all of these but this is not transparent. Arguments get presented as if they are disputes only about facts, whereas they are really about conflicts in values and it is the values of the most powerful actors in the decision making process that achieve primacy.

Chapter 7 covers the importance of understanding the difference between information systems and information technology. The failure to understand information as a multi-dimensional system, including human factors, can lead to all kinds of problems. There is a common tendency to focus instead on the technology [computing] element of the information system at the expense of seeing the big picture.

Chapters 8 and 9 then go onto look in more detail at the central idea of the role of experts and the value of multiple perspectives in the context of digital decision making.

Part 3: A final modest proposal.

Chapter 10 finally provides a systemic decision making framework as one way to facilitate understanding through the coming together of experts and lay people in decision making processes involving the deployment and regulation of information and communications technologies. I’m not suggesting that this provides a magic silver bullet of the ‘consumer choice’ variety, merely that it may prove useful to some as a way of improving prevailing DDM processes.

We are all products of our background and experience and as I point out in more detail in chapters 2 and 6, have difficulty thinking outside our personal biases and values. So in the interests of full disclosure here are a few things which you might find helpful to work out my cultural biases:

I grew up in a small village in Ireland in a working class family, generations of which earned their living in the engineering and construction industries. After graduating from University College Dublin I spent about 10 years in a variety of manufacturing industries and some local government work, the greater part of which was the 7 years I worked in aerospace development engineering. Testing parts of aircraft structures to destruction can be great fun and I did an MBA at Warwick University whilst there but I never came to identify with the management and formed some strong views about what I considered to be good and bad management.

After that I had some time out of work and went back to University to study law before joining the Open University (OU) in 1985 as a ‘Staff Tutor in Technology’ (nobody outside the OU knows what one of those is but it is sort of a combined technology academic and director of studies), looking after the South Region of the UK. The OU has given me the privilege of working with some absolutely amazing people, colleagues and students, and of pursuing a diverse range of academic interests spanning the gamut of technology from environmental decision making to Internet law.[32] The people who have most influenced my thinking in the subject area of this book are my closest colleagues at the OU, most notably Dick Morris and John Naughton, plus Colm Reilly, James Boyle and Larry Lessig.


[1] Colmcille was brought to the attention of the popularly labelled ‘copyfighting’ community on the Internet by Seán McGrath,,

who wrote of a small story in Mary Mulville’s Ingenious Ireland: A County-By-County Exploration of the Mysteries and Marvels of the Ingenious Irish, Simon & Schuster UK , 2003, referring to the monk’s part in the Battle of the Book at Cooldrumman. To get at the detailed story, however, you can’t beat a few days digging in a good library and the 189 tomes on the saint in Oxford’s Bodleian library. There is a vast amount of myth and legend surrounding our knowledge of the saint’s life, as there is very little surviving direct evidence or records of his activities. The definitive account repeatedly referred to by scholars is Adomnán’s biography, translated by various scholars, the versions I referred to being St.Adamnán, Alan Orr Anderson (Editor), Marjorie Ogilvie Anderson (Editor), Adomnan's Life of Columba (Oxford Medieval Texts), (Clarendon Press, 1991) and Adomnán of Iona, Richard Sharpe (Translator) Life of St Columba (Penguin Classics), (Penguin Books Ltd, 1995). Adomnán, born 27 years after the death of his hero, nevertheless came to Colmcille’s monastery at Iona at a young age, so probably knew some of the Saint’s contemporaries. Mediaeval biographers tended to idolatrize their subjects and it is no accident that a lot of the miracles associated with Colmcille are similar to those connected with Jesus Christ in the bible. (Adomnán would be more accurately described as a hagiographer, rather than a biographer and many of the stories are hagiolatry and folklore rather than historical accounts). He is alleged in various accounts, for example, to have raised people from the dead (including his foster father, Cruithnechan), turned water into wine and multiplied loaves and fishes. And when he was a baby Cruitnechan came home from church one night to find his house bathed in bright light, the course of which he found was a spectacular fireball hovering over Colmcille’s cot. The more parallels the biographer could draw between Colmcille’s life and that of the founder of the church, the more important they could make him out to be. Having said all that, however, it must be noted that the provenance of Adomnán’s text is impressive. A manuscript at the Stadtbibliothek at Schaffhausen in Switzerland was transcribed by Dorbenne from Adomnán’s original. Dorbenne succeeded Adomnán as Abbot of Iona 9 years after the latter’s death. Dorbenne himself died within 5 months of ascending to that office. An earlier abbot, Cummene, who actually knew Colmcille, had also written a life of the saint and it is thought that Dorbenne added extracts from Cummene’s Life of Columba in his transcription.

[2] Also in the literature called Culdreimhne, Culdreimhe, Cul Dreimhne, Cul Dreimne, Cul Drevny, Cul Dremne, Culdreibhne

[3] Google ( ) produces more than 30 000 links to webpages on Colmcille, at the time of writing (18 000 if you use the Columcille spelling). Using his given name, Columba, that goes up to over 800 000. He even now has an entry in the popular online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia,

[4] Colmcille’s kinsfolk were the northern O’Neills. Ian Bradley, Columba: Pilgrim and Penitent, (Wild Goose Publications, 1996). His father headed the Donegal branch of the family. Donegal is situated in the North western corner of Ireland and geographically contains the northernmost territory of the country. It is, however, still part of the Republic of Ireland, rather than Northern Ireland which constitutes 6 northern counties that are politically part of the United Kingdom. Up until 1998, when they were amended through a referendum as part of the peace process, articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution laid claim politically to the territory of Northern Ireland. The current text is available online at

[5] The people surrounding the young royal personage nurtured the boy’s considerable talents and also encouraged him and others to believe in and live up to his own legend.

[6] Hurling is an ancient Gaelic game, still played widely today not only in Ireland but all over the world amongst the Irish Diaspora. 15 players on each team carry wooden hurley sticks, roughly the length of a golf club but with a wider shaft, which they use to collect, carry and strike the sliotar (a small tough leathery ball, similar to a cricket or baseball ball). The object of the game is to score more points than the opposing team by putting the sliotar in their net (which earns three points) or over the opponents’ bar, between the tall goalposts (which gives you one point). It is one of the fastest and most skilful field sports in the world, when played properly.

[7] There are some stories to suggest he delighted in a good scrap, though occasionally lost control of his temper to a degree which led him to seriously injure his opponent and on one occasion to bite his mother’s hand. M.V. Woodgate, St. Columba, (St Paul Publications, 1969). It is possible he took part directly in some of the serious battles between tribes when he was a young lad, as it was the duty of a prince and a churchman to “smite any foe” that threatened but there are no records of this.

[8] An assistant priest

[9] Which we re-visit in detail in chapter 9.

[10] Iona, The Story of Saint Columba (Columcille), (M.H. Hill & Son Ltd., Dublin, 1928), p19 and Lucy Menzies, Saint Columba of Iona (J.F.M. Books, 1992, originally published in 1920). This included one at Kells on land donated by the High King, Diarmaid, who would later rule against him in the dispute over the book; and one at Durrow, which, next to Iona, was to become his most famous. In fact the monks at Durrow always considered their monastery to hold a higher standing in the church than Iona. Manus O’Donnell, Betha Colaim Chille (1532) (A. O'Kelleher, G. Schoepperle published an edited translation in Chicago in 1918, which the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies published a version of in 1994) claims he set up as many as 300 churches during this time, though this account of the saint’s life needs to be enjoyed purely as a fireside folk tale rather a factual account. Nearly every page tells of some spectacular triumph for Colmcille and anyone that provides him with any difficulties is painted in the darkest light.

[11] By the 6th century the church had become increasingly enlightened as to the power of books and sophisticated in the use of the written word to organise and control its institutions and followers.


[13] The Vulgate was the definitive Latin translation of the bible done by St Jerome about a century earlier.

[14] An address which echoes through intellectual property disputes in our modern digital age.

[15] He would have been referring here to the book’s physical integrity, as well as its spiritual, economic, social and philosophical value.

[16] Mine is something of a clumsy translation of the original argument recorded in Manus O’Donnell, Betha Colaim Chille (1532) and it relies heavily on versions in Manus O’Donnell, Betha Colaim Chille (1532) Edited and translated by A. O’ Kelleher and G. Schoepperle as Betha Colaim Chille/ Life of Columcille (University of Illinois Press, 1918), p178-179, Lucy Menzies, Saint Columba of Iona (J.F.M. Books, 1992, originally published in 1920), p.25 and Padraic Colum, The Legend of Saint Columba (Sheed and Ward, London, 1936), p76-81, but it’s meaning remains fairly clear. Colmcille was an accomplished and impressive public speaker, much more so than my efforts at getting his meaning across would make it appear.

O’Donnell’s account:

Do inneis Finden a sceila art us don righ, ass ed adubhairt ris: “Do scrib C.C. mo leabhur gan fhis damh fen,”ar se, “aderim corub lim fen mac mo leabhur.”

“Aderim-se,” ar C.C., “nach mesde lebhur Findein ar scrib me ass, nach coir na neiche diadha do bi sa lebhur ud do muchadh no a bacudh dim fein no do duine eli a scribhadh no a leghadh no a siludh fan a cinedachaib; fos aderim ma do bi tarba dam-sa ina scribhadh, corb ail lium a chur a tarba do no poiplechaibh, gan dighbail Fhindein no a lebhair do techt ass, cor cedaigthe dam a scribudh.”

Is ansin ruc Diarmaid an breth oirrdearc .i. “le gach boin a boinin” .i. laugh “le gach lebhur a leabrán.”

A. O’ Kelleher and G. Schoepperle translation:

Finnen first told the king his story and he said “Colmcille hath copied my book without my knowing,” saith he “and I contend that the son of the book belongs to me.”

“I contend,” saith Colmcille, “that the book of Finnen is none the worse for my copying it, and it is not right that the divine words in that book should perish, or that I or any other should be hindered from writing them or reading them or spreading them among the tribes. And further I declare that it was right for me to copy it, seeing there was profit to me from doing in this wise, and seeing it was my desire to give the profit thereof to all peoples, with no harm therefore to Finnen or his book.”

Then it was that Diarmaid gave the famous judgement: “To every cow her young cow, that is, her calf, and to every book its transcript. And therefore to Finnen belongeth the book thou hast written, O Colmcille.”

[17] A pagan druid and none too fond of Colmcille, though legend has it that the saint converted him to Christianity on the day MacDe died. Colum, op.cit., p31-35.

[18] Ibid.

[19] There is a dispute about whether a church council Synod meeting at Teltown or a later confessor, St Molaise, imposed the exile. Some accounts say it was Molaise that convened the synod and some even say that the Archangel Michael made the exile a condition of helping out in the battle of Cooldrummon. Manus O’Donnell who clearly intensely disliked Molaise and held him responsible for Colmcille’s exile, goes to great lengths to paint Molaise in a bad light, with stories of one-upmanship between him and Colmcille in which the latter always prevailed. So O’Donnell says Molaise was only acting vindictively in banishing Colmcille from the land he loved.

[20] Many commentators see the battle of the book and the subsequent synod at Teltown as complete red herrings in understanding the decision Colmcille took to go to Iona.

[21] Though he didn’t know when he set out that his base was going to be Iona.

[22] Or ‘systemic overview’

[23] An ‘expert’, for the purposes of the book can be considered to be someone with professional experience and training in a particular field such as a scientist, engineer, information systems specialist, academic, lawyer etc. Experts are much maligned in our anti-intellectual culture but it really is not a crime to actually know something about the subject area at the centre of a particular decision.

[24] Or “information age” if you prefer.

[25] Whilst, perversely attempting to make the technology do tasks it is not suited to.

[26] Such as the current consideration been given to abolishing jury trials in complex fraud cases in the UK.

[27] The users, as well subjects and objects of information systems.

[28]James Boyle, The Second Enclosure Movement and the Construction of the Public Domain, (2003)

[30] James Boyle, Shamans, Software and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society, Harvard University Press (1997)

Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas, Random House (2001)

Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture, Penguin Books (2004)

Boyle and Lessig have blazed a trail in explaining the potential impact of changes in intellectual property law and technology to an extent that I would say that their works should be compulsory reading for anyone with a serious interest or involvement in information systems policymaking.

[31] I’ve run a course at the Open University along these lines, Law the Internet and Society: Technology and the future of ideas which will hopefully be available openly on the Web by the time this book gets published

[32] The University’s Technology Faculty takes a possibly unique perspective, amongst UK universities, on technology and it’s impact on society.

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