Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Information For Free II

MelbournePhilosopher

In the last post on this topic, I alluded to the ways in which information might be un-free. It might cost money, or be subject to copyright restrictions. As pointed out, it could also be simply difficult to obtain, available but not publicised, or hidden in background noise. There might also be a restriction on the basis of who is accessing the information.

For the case of philosophical publication in Australia, it is all of the above. Much philosophical writing can be obtained only by the subscription to various professional journals. Those articles are typically not available for re-distribution or re-use in other works. They can be difficult to get - that is you may need to buy a paper copy, or access it via a library system. They are often not listed on general philosophy sites (such as University websites) and must be found by careful searching. In the amateur league, so much philosophical writing is uninformed and clumsy re-hashes of topics with a wealth of quality information available if you know where to look. Some writing is restricted to subscribers to journals, by level of education, membership of clubs or registration to a website.

It's a miracle anyone knows anything about it at all.

It is a goal of mine to bring down at least some of these barriers, in order to foster the propagation of knowledge. Because I believe that thinking well can improve your life, and that studying philosophy can help you frame your own questions, I would like to see it more widely known as such.

Some kinds of information - for example scientific research - flourish best in a research environment, sponsored by government and industry. The rewards are circulated throughout society through economic markets, providing an improvement to everyone's lives. The market is an efficient mechanism for propagating this kind of knowledge.

However, philosophical content is different. It is not alone - religious, political and personal information also falls to some extent into the same category. What makes it different is its unrealised potential to improve mental life. Because it is so well hidden, the benefits of philosophical thought are not recognised - it is thought of as being essentially impractical, a discipline of irrelevant questions.

Ignoring the philosophical history of all human knowledge and looking only on the direction of modern philosophy as being primarily metaphysical, you could be forgiven for finding some of the subject matter to have little bearing on your life. However, for people in unusual situations may often find these same subtleties to be the very center around which their universe is turning. Equipping individuals in crises with the ability to see the nature of their issues properly will allow them to better reach the only human goal - happiness.

It is for this reason that unlike other kinds of saleable research, philosophy's benefit is derived only when it is diffused throughout society. Rather than being more valuable when scarce, philosophical knowledge is drastically more valuable when it is shared. If two people distrust eachother, both lose. By sharing and understanding eachother in a well-thought-out way, it is possible for all to gain.

Choosing philosophy as a form of employment is to subject yourself to maximising your benefit under the existing system. However, everyone in the system would win by a more free flow of information between academics and with the public.

Dealing with the problems of making this so is a tough challenge, one which I will talk through in another installment of "Information For Free".

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