A World Court for knowledge?
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #78

A common global justice system for the world is not practical. Luckily, it isn't necessary either, as most crimes are quite local - there aren't many multinational pickpockets. But almost all knowledge crimes are global in scope, at least potentially: they also form a growing proportion of global crimes. So, rather than adapt existing law to knowledge crimes and extend jurisdiction to the planet, why not simply have a World Court just for knowledge?

Taken figuratively, this can make sense: it is not, obviously, a court in its traditional form hacked to deal with knowledge; but a whole legal system solely for this new economy. A legal system that doesn't try to address both atoms, which are usually limited by geography, and bits, which are usually not - but tries instead to accommodate the strange nature of knowledge. Such a legal system would be more effective then the present one, within the bounds to which it is confined. But would this World not-quite-Court be practical?

Arguably it is already practiced, after a fashion. It is, of course, on the Internet where, as I have written previously, order is enforced by an informal but extensive system of ostracisation, reputation, praise and verbal abuse ("flames"). This is effective in its limited way, and is theoretically appealing - intangible punishment for ambiguous crimes involving intangible commodities. But even if taken seriously, and made more efficient, this informal justice system can only deal with cases that involve knowledge and only knowledge - nothing that will buy a car. For the moment, therefore, its scope is very limited. It may well grow enormously, but remains for now in its infancy.

Yet the knowledge economy is in its infancy too, as dependent on industry as cotton-mill-capitalism was dependent on agriculture in the early 19th century. Our present system of justice evolved as industry, and society with it, moved away from agriculture. Society shifted from informal punishment of serf by master, the essence of a feudal, agricultural power equation, to involve the formalised power of the State. Quaint modes of punishment -such as transportation to the colonies, being taken away from all-important land - were done away with. Instead rose the penitentiary, which is something very industrial in nature: the earliest factories were within prisons.

The modern legal system ended up, with the maturity of the capitalist economy, to govern everything, with its jurisdiction extended well beyond crimes of industry. It did not begin this way - just as a justice system for the new economy could begin with matters relating solely to knowledge. Such a system could seem peculiar - but being flamed off the Internet is no stranger, in the current context, than being sentenced to pointlessly work the treadmill was, in the context of flogging and banishment.

During the industrial revolution, traditional, often limited, liberties were strengthened as rights protected by the State; simultaneously, lax (or tolerant) justice was formalised by a strict State. During the knowledge revolution, we will see such changes too. Rights, for one, will be strengthened greatly, this time by technology - expression through anonymity, privacy through encryption. And where there are such extensive, but informal, liberties, might not justice also do without the formalised system of the State?

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