Staking Claims on the Knowledge Frontier
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An effective polemic against those seeking any monopoly on knowledge in the information age. The free flow of know-how is for Shulman (The Threat at Home: Confronting the Toxic Society of the US Military, 1992) a necessary prerequisite both for the survival of the democratic polis and for our continued economic progress. Today, however, he argues, such a free exchange is threatened by an emerging pattern of claims of private ownership of knowledge. Whereas in the past, patents were granted only for the practical application of theories and ideas, today it is these very ideas and theories——actionable knowledge,” which is only potentially useful—that are increasingly privately owned. For instance, programmers “own” basic knowledge of software codes; doctors “own” innovative medical procedures; and drug-companies “own” wild plants and insects (and exercise exclusive control over the medicines produced from these). Even our genetic makeup is being sold, as researchers lay claim to genes they discover or decode within the human genome. Freely shared knowledge, concludes Shulman, is thus an endangered species. This is tragic and dangerous, he judges, in both social and political terms. Knowledge thrives and expands as it is shared and propagated. To divide basic ideas up into what Shulman terms “fiefdoms of knowledge assets” is to threaten the very expansion of knowledge itself. Further, democracy demands a well-informed public; all must be able to draw on a spring of accessible knowledge. Economically, too, we may be harmed as society grows divided between “a wealthy cadre of technological titleholders” and a struggling, less entitled majority. Moreover, such polarization may occur on a worldwide scale as the West comes to “own” and control knowledge desperately needed by the developing world. While alarmist and prone to overblown hyperbole (e.g., he warns that we are entering a new “Dark Age”), Shulman points to real dangers as knowledge seems, more and more ominously, to equal power.

Pub Date: Feb. 19th, 1999
ISBN: 0-395-84175-5
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1999


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