On the Backs of Giants

In any society that has moved beyond the hunter-gatherer band level of organization, the greatest benefit of society is the sharing of information. To be sure, hunter-gatherers enjoyed the fruits of collected knowledge, but it could be argued that individuals gained more from the group security than from the group knowledge pool. Regardless, individuals in a preliterate society can only even gather what knowledge has been successfully passed along an unbroken line from progenitor to the current generation.

Now, however, a single contribution by a single individual may earn him or her (or, more likely, someone else) vast wealth beyond the kings and queens of old. Do the minor innovations merit tens or hundreds of billions of dollars? No. They do not. I have nothing against the individuals who so profit. Indeed, to shun the potential profits would be foolish. It would be foolish, that is, because the system has been so rigged. If we were to dissect the making of vast fortunes through history, we would see that many or even most were made on the cornering of a market. In some cases, the market was a literal market (such as the East Indian trade or the cotton trade in the time of the sailing ship). In other cases, the a patent or set of patents stifled any potential competitors.

And now we live in a day when intellectual property rights are expanding at an accelerating rate. And the profits for said properties rarely meets the originators. In most cases, the lion’s share of these vast sums go to feed the unquenchable greed of the incestuous packs of leeches at the boards of major corporations. And we forget that even those innovations themselves, be they in science, technology, or art, owe a great debt to all the prior practitioners of any particular pursuit and often others outside it.