IPRs and the Second Coming of a Knowledge Economy: From Anomie to Utopia?

Ikechi Mgbeoji is an Associate Professor at Osgoode Hall Law School.

An interesting phenomenon in civilised circles these days is the wonderful ability of both the popular and academic commentariat to reduce or at least purport to reduce complex issues to convenient and potable sound-bites. Perhaps, the benevolence of “experts” in sparing members of the public the excruciating details and nuances of difficult issues is a reflection of the “fast-food” age in which we live. In the age of super-sized McDonalds burgers and “take-away” nuggets of wisdom reduced to neatly packed shiny boxes of chloroform, there is little patience with nuance and complexity. The attitude seems to be that if you are not for us, you must be against us. Few issues better exemplify this scary phenomenon than the much repeated demise of what has been condescendingly described as the “old economy” and its replacement by a shiny, wondrous world of a “knowledge economy.”

In theory, the knowledge economy refers to an economy focused on the production and management of knowledge within the confines of economic rationality. On a second level, the knowledge economy refers to the use of knowledge technologies such as information technology [IT] and information management [IM] to produce economic benefits. On the other side of the divide, the ancien regime, is the old economy: that clanging world of manufacturing, labour, and industry. Although the exuberance of the false obituary of the old economy has been tempered by the realization that there never was a “Berlin Wall” separating the old economy from the knowledge economy, the fervent voices of the ideological holdouts who wait on the advent of the knowledge economy compels a reappraisal of what really happened in the past two decades.

Regardless of where one stands in this unfolding debate, one fact is beyond debate: there has been a tremendous emphasis on intellectual property rights in the past two decades. Amidst this resurgence of interest in an otherwise arcane and ignored field of law are the unprecedented changes in the means of gathering, processing, delivering, and manipulating data and information across space and cultures. This violent upheaval has been dubbed the emergence of a knowledge economy. But the real question is this: is knowledge a free-standing phenomenon or does knowledge have relevance solely within the context of that which it seeks to illuminate? If we agree with the proposition that knowledge is about knowledge itself, then, it would be safe to yield to those who gleefully announce the obituary of the old economy. On the other hand, if we conceive of knowledge as contingent and premised on substantive and practical issues of the day, then the obituary of the old economy becomes a glorified flapdoodle. Something tells me that the latter scenario seems more sensible. If our great thinkers resolve the conundrum of how many angels can sit at the tip of a needle, does that not presuppose that there are in fact angels and pins? If there are no angels and needles, it stands to reason that a utopian resolution of how best to sit a hundred angels on the tip of a needle is simply what it is: an exercise in philosophical jujitsu.

The closer one looks at the giddy prophecies of a knowledge economy, the sillier the exaggeration of the demise of the old economy becomes. The notion that knowledge is distinct from labour, manufacturing, and industry is one of the most successful myths to pervade intellectual circles in the past two decades. What is indeed astonishing is the intellectual “respectability” accorded the concept of a “knowledge economy” by many academics and policy-makers. At the basic level of intellectual property rights, perhaps the sternest reproach against the fallacy of a “knowledge economy” is the fact that we must deal with varied manifestations of knowledge protected by intellectual property rights. Yes, patent lawyers must contend with infringement cases involving real inventions manufactured by the “defunct” worker, copyright and trademark lawyers must also grapple with issues that implicate diverse aspects of the so-called “old economy.”  It is high time intellectual property lawyers and philosophical called a time out on the exaggerated bifurcation of labour and knowledge that passes for informed predictions of the demise of the super-structure of intellectual property rights. The information economies of tomorrow would arrive on the back of the old economies of today and of yesterday.

One Comment
  1. I am very much in sympathy with Ikechi Mgbeoji’s eloquent attack on the “knowledge economy” and all those clichés propagated by business gurus which governments and too many of us academics slavishly echo. (As an alternative, I prefer “knowledge-overprotected economy” but I am sure many will disagree). “The creative economy” and the “weightless economy” are two I personally love to hate. Business and commerce have always been about outsmarting the competition. That was as true in the distant past as it is today, and had become evident to far-sighted people once the age of mercantilism was at end and it was realised that there was far more to long-term prosperity than having the most gold and silver. Sure, the world has changed and is changing fast. But the same basic rules of economic life apply. Formal education is of course a very good thing (we would say that wouldn’t we!) and countries with a large proportion of well educated people are more likely to thrive than those without one. And yet creative people can be found in the most unlikely places including those assumed to be the most traditional. On the other hand, supposedly creative places can sometimes be stultifyingly and oppressively conformist, dull and cliché ridden. As for the wider economy, it is neither realistic nor desirable to try to turn the whole of today’s youth into “knowledge workers”, by which we presumably mean IT professionals and biotechnologists, and to shun businesses that dirty one’s hands. We are always going to need people to get resources out of the ground and turn them into the “stuff” we buy to get through each day and enjoy a decent quality of life. As the Earth’s resources run down, the atmosphere warms up and sea levels rise, we are going to be ever more dependent on the ingenuity of people in our mining and manufacturing industries. However much these people will be reliant on the intellectual property system, much of the innovation we really need is going to come from there, and these sources must not be neglected in our excitement for all things “new”. We ignore the “old economy” at our peril.

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