Friday, February 17, 2012

Ownership in a World of Intangibles

Rebecca Skloot's Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks should be required reading for aspiring public historians and medical ethicists alike. It weaves together the story of scientific discovery, the history of American race relations and socioeconomic inequality, and a profile of a colorful family whose members' unique voices  lend human authenticity to a larger enterprise.

But aside from doing all of these things so well, the story raises questions about ownership, innovation, and capitalism that resonate across a myriad of contemporary debates. One of the biggest debates revolves around ownership of personal data.  When we post personal data to the internet, do host companies, providing us with that posting service, have the right to share or sell that data?  There are movements afoot, such as this one in the EU, to provide users with more control over their personal data, along with the "right to be forgotten." Some would take ownership a step further, giving users the right to sell their data to companies in exchange for money or favors.

To me, this feels like a form of prostitution which should probably be legal, but still feels yucky.  Back in the world of medical ethics, to me, at least, the issues seem clearer.  You are the owner of your tissue up until it leaves your body, but once it leaves your body, no one should be allowed to "own" it, in the sense of exerting full rights over it and garnering compensation for any further innovative work done on it.  Like other natural resources, tissues can be modified and traded but should not be owned exclusively once they are floating around in the world. (For that reason, gene patenting makes no sense to me.)

The world works best when everyone is allowed to be as creative as possible and to live comfortably off the fruits of their labor.  That doesn't mean that people should be able to steak out bridges, like trolls, and collect tolls every time someone happens upon the thing they've claimed.  The more complex our society becomes, the more important I believe concepts such as "open source" and systems like Creative Commons licenses become.  I hope their influence can spread broadly to protect a world where the lines between the "real" and the "intangible" grow thinner and more pixelated every day.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Historical Persuasion at Super Bowl 2012

Like many Americans, I enjoy watching the Super Bowl not just for the excitement of the big game, but also to see what our highest-paid advertisers cook up to sway this now-rare mass audience. This year, I was struck by the prevalence of commercials that used the grand sweep of history to evoke a sense of continuity and pride. The pride part was particularly fascinating because the commercials' focus was not on American prosperity but on the nation's ability to weather the Great Depression. Deep within the Great Recession, I suppose that advertisers are hoping that reminding Americans that they've gotten through even worse times in the past will boost their confidence and make them want to buy (cars and beer mostly).

Budweiser's two epics topped the list for evoking continuity and for bringing to mind the end of prohibition (a moment of greatness, apparently, within the midst of the Great Depression)
and


But Chrysler's "Halftime in America" ad seemed to draw the most from the notion of America's historical ability to overcome bad times without explicitly evoking the past (except Detroit's recent past). I wouldn't be surprised if they also intended to draw parallel's with Reagan's "Morning in America" ad, yet another subtle continuity.

These commercials emphasize persuasive strength of drawing historical parallels, whether or not they are factually accurate. Resonance is a powerful tool.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Something Old in Chicago

Last month, I accompanied my husband to Chicago, where he attended a conference, and I caught up on some much-needed sight-seeing. After a visit to the impressive but confusingly-organized Art Institute of Chicago (highlights included the Marc Chagall America Windows and the Thorne Miniature Rooms), I walked with my friends along the Miracle Mile, taking in some intriguing and peculiar sights.

In the peculiar category, the Tribune Tower ranks at the top of my list. Completed in 1925, this Neo-Gothic sky-scraper is studded with pieces of famous places brought back to Chicago by Tribune correspondents at the request of the newspaper's owner, Robert "Colonel" McCormick. Perhaps the incorporation of these antiquities (ranging from the Taj Mahal to Notre Dame de Paris) satisfied Colonel McCormick's hunger for international significance, but it is, by far, the most concrete manifestation of a world-ranging ideology I've seen outside the British Museum.

Just as concrete, but in a more traditional fashion, is Chicago's historic water tower. One of the only buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the water tower looks just like a giant, perfect sand castle. (According to the Tower's brochure, the tower's castle-like walls inspired the name and design of the earliest White Castle hamburger restaurants in the 1920s). The building now houses the City Gallery
which specializes in Chicago-themed photography exhibits. In early January, the exhibit featured photos from the city's archives offering stark "then and now" comparisons for landmarks around the city, ranging from famous places to the now-relatively-obscure sights of important events from the past, such as the infamous Haymarket Affair. Although the event is commemorated with a monument in Forest Home Cemetary, and the site of the confrontation between police and protestors is marked with a steel sculpture, the area is not widely traversed by tourists and might otherwise be missed. The City Gallery is free and inviting, and in my opinion, beats window shopping at all but the most impressive departments stores on the Magnificent Mile.