Intellectual capital

My son tells me about a recent TED Talk, which includes, among much else, the idea that it would be wise to go beyond ‘procedure’ in our social dealings, Quite right, and who would disagree that justice and propriety don’t always follow from following the rules? That is after all why we have a concept of equity.

There is a much unappreciated aspect of this problem, I feel, that is almost the reverse of needing to go beyond ‘the system’. This is the ways in which the way we create and manage the system in fact disempower us from even understanding it, lest alone going ‘beyond’ it. This is even a subject of much enthusiasm, and in certain respects should be too. But at the same time it is rapidly creating a situation in which people who have neither legal nor moral right nevertheless find themselves with more and more of the hi-hand over the rest of us.

The issue I am referring to here goes under the name of ‘intellectual capital’. The significance of intellectual capital is not merely that it creates legal titles on knowledge, experience, and so on – that is intellectual property. ‘Intellectual capital’ goes beyond mere ownership (although there is nothing ‘mere’ about ownership, even in its barest forms), to actually place that knowledge within the system itself. This may take the form of documented procedures, databases of information, the structure of a patented process, the workflow engine that controls a great factory, the books of ‘due process’ through which society’s highest courts and most powerful administrations proceed.

So what is the problem with these systems? In principle, absolutely nothing. Indeed, they become the basis for future developments that take these building blocks and synthesise them into yet higher structures, through which human beings come to still more profound insights and exercise yet greater powers. But it was not only systems I started from – it was ‘intellectual capital’. And capital, of course, is owned, and ownership means not only that somebody owns it but also that everyone else is excluded. Now, under recent patent laws, it can even mean that if discover something for myself, that knowledge can still belong to someone else. I am not even legally entitled to use some of the knowledge I acquire while working for company A when I go to work for company B.

But even beyond that, there is a still more profound issue. For by embedding the knowledge (skill, etc.) in a system, the users of that system no longer need to understand that system or have any insight into its purpose, goals or even mechanisms to operate it. I just have to follow the instructions. Indeed, once this is possible, people who are smart enough to understand the system as well as simply use will probably be too expensive ‘resources’ to be employed using it. So for more and more aspects of human life, ‘the system’ will come to dominate over mere human beings.

And who will now control human life? Who but those whose capital intellectual capital is – the owners. And I should not be afraid of this?

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