- Published: September 5, 2012
- Written by Robert T. Brockman II
Our current information economy is dominated by the concept of intellectual property, the notion that ideas can be owned and that such ownership can be transferred independently of the ideas themselves. Our civilization has several legal regimes for regulating the ownership of ideas, such as copyrights, patents, trademarks, and trade secrets. With the creation of modern digital computers and the Internet, the physical costs associated with moving and duplicating information have decreased dramatically. As a result, it has become increasingly difficult for owners of intellectual property to block unauthorized coping or other misuse of their information.
One set of strategies that has recently been deployed by content owners to protect intellectual property is known collectively as digital rights management, or DRM. DRM hardware and software systems attempt to restrict a computer user's access to information on their own computers. These anti-piracy and access restriction systems suffer from a fundamental theoretical limitation: so long as the user has sufficient control over the computer hardware and has unencrypted access to the restricted information at any point in time, he or she will be able in principle to run software that will separate the restricted information from the DRM systems protecting it. The user will then be able to access, modify, or redistribute the information free of the DRM restrictions.
This limitation of DRM extends to information processed by devices based on general purpose computers, including cellphones, Blu-ray players, televisions, and a wide assortment of other electronic gadgets that are the staple of life in a modern industrial civilization. Because of this, enforcement of intellectual property regulations will ultimately require users to cede control over their computer hardware at a very low level over to outside authorities.
Modern neuroscience is based on the notion that the workings of the human mind are determined by the physical functioning of the biological human brain. If the brain is altered or harmed, the mind is altered and may even be destroyed. In this respect, at least, the mind is analogous to a computer software program, which will cease functioning correctly or be rendered irretrievable if the computer hardware "brain" running it damaged. One limitation of this view of the mind is that it neglects the extent to which humans store and process key ideas using equipment outside of their physical body. We make notes and calendars to remind ourselves of important ideas that our distractable memory would otherwise forget. We create books, write songs, and create movies to transmit ideas to others. With the advent of computers, we now have the ability to greatly augment the storage and processing power of minds using computer software.
At some level, then, these external tools which we use to store and manipulate ideas should properly be considered a part of our "brain," and our concept of the mind should be extended to include information under a person's control that may not be fully contained in our skulls. As the interfaces binding us to our computers, smart-phones, and other electronic gadgets continue to improve, the lines separating man and machine blur. We "know" someone's phone number if our smart-phone does, and we "remember" what happened at last Thursday's meeting if we can bring up the meeting notes quickly enough on our computer.
Because of the continuing advances in neuroscience and electronics miniaturization, we can easily envision a time in the not too distant future where these "external" tools for information processing are integrated seamlessly into our bodies and interface with our brains directly. Some humans may be unwilling at first to change their own bodies in such a way, but if the past history of technology is any guide, such "cyberware" will become widespread if it offers significant increases in productivity and convenience.
The Coming Collision
Such use of cybernetics will lead to serious problems in a strict intellectual property regime. Once there is little philosophical difference between the thinking done by neurons in the "wetware" of a person's brain and the information processing done by circuits in their cyberware, DRM technology becomes indistinguishable from thought control. Intellectual property as currently designed combined with DRM would mean that external agents would have the authority and capability to switch on and off a person's access to knowledge contained inside their own body. Legal restrictions on modifying computer hardware to allow breach of copyright will begin to have medical implications.
Just as serious are the security implications: since effective DRM systems require that fundamental control of computer hardware be separated from the users, preventing computers from being "hacked" becomes the responsibility of the owners of intellectual property rather than the users. Once such computer systems are integrated with biological brains, the intellectual property owners will have the responsibility for preventing people's very minds from being compromised. The potential for abuses of power in this scenario should be obvious.
The designers of computer systems, the regulators in charge of intellectual property laws, and neuroscientists involved in brain-machine interfaces will need to deal with these issues if chaos is to be avoided.
Cory Doctorow, the developer of the Creative Commons license, describes the fundamental security and functionality implications of IP/DRM: http://boingboing.net/2012/01/10/lockdown.html
Richard Stallman, one of the founders of the open source movement, describes a fictional nightmare scenario regarding books and copyright: http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/right-to-read.html
The Wikipedia introduction to the notion of externalized thinking: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exocortex
Be sure to watch Memento, a movie in which the protagonist copes with memory loss using a flawed system of tattoos, photos, and notes.