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Pathfinders: Acta of Desperation

Acta of Desperation

One of the more memorable jokes in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was the one about the supercomputer which, on being asked the meaning of life, supplied the answer ‘42’. One of capitalism’s most profound illogicalities is its constant need to render unquantifiable things – like knowledge - in monetary terms so that its beancounters can do their sums properly. It’s the same joke, only accountants don’t get the laughs.

NASA is pulling out of its agreement with the European Space Agency over the planned ExoMars Rover programme, citing lack of funds. It has already ceased supplying the International Space Station. Given that the ISS is the most expensive thing ever to have been built by human beings, this seems rather like spoiling the spaceship for a ha’porth of tar, but there’s a slump on and the purse-strings are being pulled tight. Science is worth the money, says Barack Obama’s budget, as long as it’s somebody else’s money.

The price of knowledge is being addressed in a different way by the recent signing by 22 countries of ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, which is the latest international attempt to establish base-line rules for protecting intellectual property rights (IPR). Internet traffic is international but regulations are national, meaning that information – and therefore profit - leaks away everywhere like water from a leaky bucket and national regulators can do nothing about it.

There has been outcry against this agreement, with protests in many European cities. Much of this is youth-based and centred on the idea that information ought to be free. Socialists ought to be sympathetic to this, given that we want everything to be free, but there’s something irritating about people who see no further than the one commodity they’re personally interested in. Instead of being quasi-socialist thinking, it looks like the self-indulgence of privileged young Westerners who don’t know the real meaning of poverty. To someone starving or homeless, they must look like a bunch of rich kids sulking and demanding free sweets.

Despite the surreal appearance of a Pirate Party in Sweden and now in the UK as well, most opposition is not based on some imagined ‘right-to-download’ but on the unarguable truth that, to accommodate the differences between the legislatures of various countries, this agreement is so necessarily general it opens barn-doors to the future enactment of a large array of repressive measures, including those relating to free speech. Pleas by ACTA’s defenders that such measures are not the intention are probably true at this precise moment, but this of course doesn’t guarantee that the thought will never cross their minds in the future. Any legislation which makes repression easier in principle should be opposed on principle.

The ACTA agreement contains provision for the prevention of counterfeit goods too, which, in the case of counterfeit medicines would, in theory, be a very good thing as they are a huge global problem. Whether it is really intended to focus on that market, which largely consists of poor people buying dud drugs because they can’t afford the real thing, or on the lucrative trade in bogus clothing, electronics and DVD brands, which involves flush westerners simply saving a few quid, we leave to the reader’s intelligent guess. It is significant that China doesn’t support ACTA, given that much of this counterfeiting comes from there. China, being a box-shifting manufacturer not a developer, tends to be intensely relaxed about intellectual property laws (see Apple Stuffing).

Against the naive assumption that, alone of all commodities in capitalism, information should be free, should be set the equally naive assumption by ACTA supporters that all ‘stolen’ goods represent a loss of earnings. That piracy costs the entertainment industry money is undoubtedly true, but how do you estimate the value of what people don’t buy? The likelihood is, if piracy were ever truly stamped out, the former pirates would not then happily go out and stump up fifteen quid for a new film or music CD. Instead they’d do without, or wait until it was cheap, and the industry wouldn’t gain much.

What ACTA is really about is not repression but manufacturers desperately trying to raise their profits in the middle of a slump while fending off attempts by poor consumers to undermine them. But other manufacturers can always cash in by doing the opposite. Cheap DVD players are now sold with USB connections, allowing you to play AVI format films from a flash-Rom memory stick. How the film arrived on that stick, and in that format, is a question that we socialists, not being pirates of course, must once again leave to the intelligent reader.

Golden Opportunity

It seems the Tory back-benches are mounting a revolt over the government’s spending on wind energy development, possibly because of the heavy subsidisation costs, or maybe because they don’t want bloody great wind farms all over their Cotswold hunting ranges. The government is committed to increasing wind energy from its present 2.2 percent to 15 percent by 2015, if it’s to keep to its internationally agreed environmental targets. Fat chance of that. More realistically, its keen environmental concern is in not being held to ransom by the Russian gas oligarchs, and there are only so many nuclear power stations it can foist upon us.

Aside from gales-into-gigawatts, alternative energy research is throwing up other possibilities. Interesting research into Microbial Fuel Cells at Bristol UWE recently claimed a world first in proposing urine as a revolutionary new fuel (BBC Online, 9 November 2011). Its stored energy potential may not be particularly high but it is free to collect in large quantities, and may well save on sewerage costs into the bargain. Above all it would then allow us to point out what we’ve known all along, that the state’s environmental energy policy is all wind and piss.

Apple Stuffing

Apple’s trade in China (see this issue) is not without its downside. Apple has just lost a case against the company Proview in a Hong Kong court over the worldwide rights to the name ‘iPad’, which Proview thought of but which Apple claims it bought off them for use in ten countries. Now it is going to a mainland Chinese court, but the Chinese state is going to be nervous about upholding an intellectual rights case on its own turf when it flagrantly violates them over everything else. When you lie down with the dragon you can get your wallet singed.