A MODEST PROPOSAL*
by Marylaine Block
You may have noticed the federal government is in financial trouble. How much trouble? It recently had to raise its debt ceiling to 7.38 trillion dollars. It could use a big infusion of cash, but the traditional way of getting it, raising taxes, is unfashionable these days. In fact, the government is actually giving back to taxpayers money it doesn't have, even if it does have to take out a loan from their grandchildren to do it.
It could always sell some of its assets, of course. Hmmm, let's see. We have lots of forests and...oh, yes, that's right, we're already giving those away to the lumber companies for free, and building them roads while we're at it to make it easier for them to get in there and save us from forest fires.
What else is there? I know! There's mineral rights! Oops, guess not -- we already let people lease them for less than 1 percent of the money the mineral rights bring in. (And if they lease mineral rights from Indian lands, they might never have to pay any royalties at all.)
Well, gee, there must be something we have that could bring in some green. Intellectual property, maybe? One thing this country has always been really good at is coming up with ideas.
What? You say we can't patent an idea? That's not what the folks at British Telecom think -- they're claiming a patent on the idea of hyperlinks, and want royalties every time somebody clicks on one. And Jeff Bezos wants people to pay him a royalty for using a one-click system to buy stuff on the net -- his invention, after all, and the Patent Office, which gave him patent #5,960,411, apparently agrees.
So, let's see. Are there any really good government ideas we could patent, and claim royalties on?
Well, yes, actually, our government produced one of the most powerful and remarkable ideas anybody ever came up with. It's called the Bill of Rights. The amazing thing about it is that the men who wrote it could have given themselves unlimited power when they wrote the Constitution. I suspect most men would have seized that opportunity.
Instead, they wrote a list of the powers that ordinary citizens would have, powers that the government could not intrude on. They said, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
They said that government couldn't invade our homes to search and seize our property without probable cause, couldn't jail us without giving us a speedy trial and the aid of a lawyer to protect our rights, couldn't require excessive bail or inflict cruel and unusual punishment. Amazing, isn't it?
And heck, it isn't like we're even using those rights at the moment. After all, the world is a dangerous place these days and we have to protect ourselves, so of course the government needs to find out what people are reading and writing and checking out on the internet. It needs to be able to arrest people who look like they might be plotting terrorism or overstaying their visas or something.
Of course there are rights, and there are RIGHTS, and government's got to be mighty careful about which ones they mess with. We don't want them checking out whether people are buying surface-to-air missiles or explosives or anything, because the right to own guns is really sacred.
I bet a whole lot of people would just love to license our rights, maybe pay us a dime or a dollar every time they used them. Think we could get Bill Gates to write the user agreement for us? We can use a man who really understands how to write and enforce a contract. People might even find out that they'd agreed to pay us before they ever even read the agreement.
Of course the people who are going to be hardest to convince are librarians. You know, they have this thing about public information being free, and the only way to keep government honest and accountable and yada yada yada. But heck, anybody can be bought, can't they? After all, some of that license money could be used for libraries -- at least as big a percentage of the federal budget as they're already getting.
Oh, you say that means we're talking about pennies for librarians, and they don't sell out that cheap. Or maybe not at all.
Well, shucky darn. Back to the drawing board.
Tell me again, why was it we decided that taxes weren't a good idea?
* Yes, the reference to Jonathan Swift is entirely intentional.
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REMINDER: I invite you to write articles for ExLibris. I don't pay for content, but I will give you a forum for whatever issues you'd like to discuss or ideas you'd like to propose in regard to libraries and librarianship, information, the internet, or search technique. If you have an idea for an article, please e-mail it to me.
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Few people think about the noble role that librarians play. Our ability to collect, organize, and preserve the voices and observations of those who came before us is critical to our continued survival as a species. The story of Babel is a metaphor for what later happened at Alexandria; a reminder that we all suffer when we lose our ability to pass lessons to future generations.
It is possible for a single person to memorize the Quran and pass it on to others, but word-of-mouth is not enough to perpetuate the bulk of knowledge that enables the planet to support six billion people today. Without written language and our knowledge stewards, we would have to eliminate many billions of people, because we wouldn't be able to maintain the capabilities that support them all.
Again, the Internet has had a profound impact on our ability to preserve our collective memory, but we are still very fragile. A true librarian has vivid memories of Babel and Alexandria (when we also considered ourselves invincible), and lives the motto 'never again!'. The first lesson of history (that we must learn and never repeat) is that history lost is humanity lost.
Joshua Allen, in Better Living Through Software, January 4, 2003 http://www.netcrucible.com/blog/2003/01/04.html#a265
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Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999-2003.
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