Shamans, Software, and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society

Shamans, Software, and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society

Shamans, Software, and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society

Shamans, Software, and Spleens: Law and the Construction of the Information Society

Synopsis

Who owns your genetic information? Might it be the doctors who, in the course of removing your spleen, decode a few cells and turn them into a patented product? In 1990 the Supreme Court of California said yes, marking another milestone on the information superhighway. This extraordinary case is one of the many that James Boyle takes up in Shamans, Software, and Spleens, a timely look at the infinitely tricky problems posed by the information society. Discussing topics ranging from blackmail and insider trading to artificial intelligence (with good-humored stops in microeconomics, intellectual property, and cultural studies along the way), he has produced a penetrating social theory of the information age. Now more than ever, information is power, and questions about who owns it, who controls it, and who gets to use it carry powerful implications. Boyle finds that our ideas about intellectual property rights rest on the notion of the Romantic author - a notion that Boyle maintains is not only outmoded, but actually counterproductive, restricting debate, slowing innovation, and widening the gap between rich and poor nations. What emerges from this lively discussion is a compelling argument for relaxing the initial protection of authors' works and expanding the concept of the fair use of information.

Excerpt

For the last twenty years we have been told that we are shifting from the industrial to the information economy. Sometimes the phrase used is "information society," sometimes the more dynamic "information revolution." Most people take these vague expressions to refer to an electronic (and nerdy) modernity -- something to do with computers, the Internet, and possibly Vice President Gore. Those who read the science pages might also mention the manipulation of genetic information. With or without Vice President Gore or the human genome, the information revolution is understood as primarily a technical one. Most journalistic coverage of the subject limits itself to breathless accounts of the newest technological wonder, with occasional brief forays into futurism. The characteristic quality of these techno-futures is that social relationships, wealth distribution, and belief systems all stay pretty much the same. Only the gadgets change. But this is just bad science fiction. Right now, behind the visible information revolution in technology and economy, a significant but unexamined process of rhetorical and interpretive construction is going on. This process of construction produces justifications, ideologies, and property regimes rather than mainframes, software, or gene splices. Yet it will shape our world as thoroughly as any technical change. To understand this process, one needs more than a . . .

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