iFantasy: Are Tech Giants Monopolizing the Future?

Article excerpt

In August a federal grand jury in San Jose, California, found that Samsung Electronics Co. had infringed on six patents owned by Apple Inc. Meanwhile, the jury rejected the counter-claims that Apple had violated Samsung's intellectual property and recommended that Apple be awarded $1.05 billion in damages. It is the third largest award in the history of U.S. patent litigation, a figure that could possibly increase depending on the district court judge's evaluation of the jury's findings. The violated patents ranged from design issues to interactive characteristics of Apple's operating system used in the iPod touch, iPad 2, and the iPhone 3G, 3GS, and iPhone 4.

The fact that several legal rulings outside the United States have viewed Samsung's case more favorably--most recently in the U.K. and Japan--illustrates the complexity of the issues at stake. The ensuing critical debate in the aftermath of the San Jose court battle raised questions about the qualifications of the nine-member jury whose decision came much sooner than anyone had expected. Most critics, however, point fingers at what they view as a malfunctioning patent system in the context of today's high-speed technological development--where everyone appears to be building on others' ideas. Richard Posner, one of the most respected judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals, recently opined that patent trials of this kind ought to have been resolved in the Patent and Trademark Office, not in federal court. Legal scholar Robin Feldman argues that Apple's patent rights should never have been granted in the first place, since they stifle innovation and leave the consumer in a worse situation.

Commentators, bloggers, and consumers tend to see the dispute as one that involves either a principle of originality, or, conversely, principles of creativity and free consumer choice. While some argue that Samsung is willfully copying Apple's painstakingly designed product identity, others suggest that Apple's legal strategy is simply a way to avoid competing openly in the marketplace. And the drawn-out fight between two of the world's biggest electronics companies isn't over. Samsung vows to appeal the verdict, while Apple has already filed claims against other Samsung products that allegedly infringe the company's patent rights.

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Underneath this prolonged legal saga, there is a different set of issues that have barely been addressed in the current debate, which has focused on narrow technicalities and bureaucratic trivialities and has ignored a deeper narrative. In truth, the legal debate about who owns the right to produce rounded square icons or various zoom functions is merely a way of distracting our attention from an endlessly more worrying issue, namely the technological monopolization of the future.

Under the visionary leadership of Steve Jobs, Apple made an incredible comeback in the late 1990s with the official launch of iMac and the 1997 "Think Different" ad campaign. The spoken message of that ad is worth reproducing: "Here's to the crazy ones. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do." The voice-over--accompanying images of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Amelia Earhart, and Albert Einstein-had a clear message: the future belongs to those who are brave enough to risk changing it.

Technology has always held up the alluring promise of self-control, the ability to master one's own fate and define the future. The more technologically advanced we are--so the fantasy goes--the more control we have over the contingencies of nature. What essentially defined the late twentieth century was the wild acceleration of this basic fantasy into ever more excessive, private forms, a development that has hardly abated since. During the '90s, as the world went online--or, as the world disappeared into people's private spaces--technology intertwined with the everyday lives of individuals to a degree that only a few decades earlier would have seemed like pure science fiction. …