john_naughton's picture
Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, University of Cambridge; Director, Wolfson College Press Fellowship Programme; Columnist, the Observer; Author, From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg
Incompetent Systems

What worries me is that we are increasingly enmeshed in incompetent systems, that is, systems that exhibit pathological behaviour but can't fix themselves. This is because solving the problems of such a system would require coordinated action by significant components of the system, but engaging in such action(s) is not in the short-term interest of any individual component (and may indeed be counter to its interests). So, in the end, pathological system behaviour continues until catastrophe ensues.

A case study of an incompetent system is our intellectual property regime, a large part of which is concerned with copying and the regulation thereof. This regime was shaped in an analog world—in other words an era in which copying was difficult, degenerative and costly, and in which dissemination of copies was difficult and expensive.

We now live in a digital world in which copying is not only effortless, non-degenerative and effectively free but is actually intrinsic to digital technology. What is a computer, after all, but a copying machine? Copying is to digital technology as breathing is to animal life; you can't have one without the other. So trying to apply an IP regime designed for analog circumstances to a world in which all media and cultural artefacts are digital offends against common sense.

Everybody knows this, but the prospects of getting a solution to the problem are poor. Why? Because moving to a more rational IP regime would require concerted action by powerful vested interests, each of which has a stake in the status quo. They're not going to move—which is why our IP regime is an incompetent system.

Even more worrying is the suspicion that liberal democracy as currently practiced around the world, itself has become an incompetent system. The dysfunctional nature of legislative bodies, the banking and subsequent sovereign debt crisis, has revealed that the incompetence of democracies is a widespread problem. The inability—and unwillingness—of many Western governments to regulate their banks, coupled with the huge costs then unilaterally imposed on citizens to rescue commercial enterprises judged "too big to fail" has led to a widespread loss of trust in governments, and a perception that even nominally "representative" democracies no longer produce administrations that serve the interests of their citizens.