Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Great Man Theory

Took another short bike ride Sunday morning: 19.7 miles, Delaney Ferry to 169 to Keene and back in Keene Rd. Knee feels pretty good most of the time now but occasionally flares up in sharp pain :-( One thing about biking vs walking tho -- walking, you adjust your walk, up to and including limping, trying to avoid the pain. That gets your muscles sore, and your good leg as well. On a bike, you're pretty much constrained in how your leg can move, so this is avoided. "There's no limping on a bicycle". Sounds like a good t-shirt or something.

The Great Man Theory posits that history advances because of the superhuman efforts of Great Men, without whom the masses would flounder rudderless. It is generally promoted by Objectivists, Libertarians, and Conservatives, as a justification for keeping power in the hands of the few rather than in the hands of the many.

I read an article about the making of the movie of Ann Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" -- in which The Great Men get tired of carrying the world on their shoulders and drop out -- and it talked about what a hard time the film-makers had not making the main characters seem like vain, conceited, self-centered, selfish pricks.

Easy to understand their difficulty. The more I learn about this mindset, the more I am repulsed by the self-centered attitudes, the inflated egos, the sense of self-indulgence, self-importance and self-entitlement. Some recent examples:

  • The chairman of BP declaring "he wanted his life back" after the gulf oil spill that killed 9 workers. Those men's families might have a slightly more valid claim to wanting lives back than this prick does. I think he did have to miss a yacht race he was supposed to compete in.
    So often we forget the sacrifices of the common workers -- the tens or hundreds who died building the Hoover Dam, or the Empire State Building, or any other of man's great works.
  • The Tea Party spokesperson who, in defending Michelle Bachmann's incomprehensible claim that "the founding fathers worked ceaselessly from the time of the signing of the constitution to get rid of slavery", stated that "there are many forms of slavery". So here is a presumably wealthy, 21st century white male comparing his having to may more taxes than he would like to an 18th century African, kidnapped, shipped to America in chains, and treated as an animal for his entire life. "Forms of slavery" -- completely insipid, repulsive and disgusting.
  • And not to be outdone in his arrogance and self-serving behavior, our own oh-so-embarrassing Senator Random Paul, randomly goes on a rant that declares that "if there is universal health care, then doctors will be slaves". Did I mention that he is a doctor? In a specialty where the average annual salary is $163,836? Actually kind of low compared to other specialities. I'm sure your 18th century slave would be very sympathetic to his plight -- imagine, having to take care of patients all the time. Wait, isn't that what doctors are supposed to do? And paid very well to do it?
So do the Great Men have a point? I believe, absolutely not.

In 1997 I had a year working for Pitney Bowes. At one point they had an IP (Intellectual Property) lawyer come in to teach us about the importance of software patents and other forms of IP. I decided to have some fun with the guy, so I spent a few minutes declaiming, according to modern memetic theory:

  1. That as replicators, memes were a form of life.
  2. That they chose human brains as their habitat and breeding grounds was immaterial.
  3. That I chose not to enslave this newly-discovered life form with strictures like patents and DRM.
  4. "Free the memes!"
Heh heh heh. I definitely got some nut job points from that guy.

But, really it is not that far off. If you look back through history, there are countless cases of simultaneous invention:

  • Newton and Leibnitz simultaneously developing The Calculus.
  • Darwin and Wallace both formulating Evolution at around the same time.
  • From the wikipedia article on Marconi, "the inventor of the radio": "There was controversy whether his contribution was sufficient to deserve patent protection, or if his devices were too close to the original ones developed by Hertz, Popov, Branley, Tesla, and Lodge to be patentable."
  • The great American inventor Edison was constantly trying to outdo his great rival Tesla.
The memes circulate through all our brains, and the more memes you let circulate, and the bigger your brain is, the more chance that the memes will breed and a new idea will be born. But the same memes are shared by a multitude of minds, so the parallel development of new memes it not at all surprising.

So are their great men, who have great ideas, and create great theories, or build great companies? Yes, there are. But are there irreplacable Great Men? No, there aren't. If they decided to opt out, the forces of memetics and history would push someone else into the role. And if that person didn't handle it quite as well, then history might be a little different, for the worse. But if that other person handled it better, then history might be a little different, for the better.

The other piece of this rant is that, modern software patent law is awful. The patent office has had no clue re prior art or obviousness. I have been involved in two software patent lawsuits. In one the patent was violated by the Unix operating system, which predated the patent by 25 years. In both, if I took a 2nd year computer science student and told them, "I need a system to accomplish X", they would have generated a system pretty much identical to what was patented. So how then is it that the patent is not deemed "obvious"?

The software patent situation is getting worse and worse, constricting the industry, and stifling innovation. And it doesn't look like anyone is going to try and do anything about it anytime soon. After all, what percentage of our lawmakers are lawyers, who make big bucks ($ millions on the average software patent lawsuit) on this system?

No comments: