Toward intergalactic peace

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Friday, January 24, 2014

YOU know that there has been a cultural shift when certain nerds are canonized on the silverscreen with all the drama and pomp used to be reserved for politicians, philanderers, and national heroes. They are the new icons of our time, the guys who made Windows, Apple, and Facebook.

The stories of each of these Silicon Valley pioneers and the personalities behind them have been made into movies. And every smart kid now aspires to become tech entrepreneurs or at least look up to them as barometers of greatness.

It used to be that the young aspired to become the President of the Republic or for the best of their generation be part of the movement that sought to change the world. All of that now seems stale and uncool as the dream has been replaced by aspiring for relevance in completely new terms. Those terms usually include being at the cover of Time magazine, Forbes top billionaire list, and the mass adoration of consumers who worship the creators and their products.


It is a healthy cultural shift for all intents and purposes as the dotcom boom has allowed individual upstarts and mavericks to have a piece of the pie, somewhat breaking the monopoly of the landed and military-industrial gentry over the gains of the post-industrial economy. Make no mistake, old money still exists and they still rule the world. But what the stories of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg suggest is that despite having no pedigree, one can be great and be rich at the same time, the two categories conflated in a Hollywood-style sleight-of-hand.

So why are we celebrating these individuals? Is it because they are visionaries or because they are and it made them rich? Is greatness and financial gain one and the same thing? Can one be great and yet not be rich at the same time? These are just some of the questions that we should ask as a society before we all join the chorus of hallelujahs that they elicit from just about everyone.

It seems be the culture in Silicon Valley to pirate other people’s ideas and market it as one’s own. Whoever sells the right idea at the right time receives the windfall from the labor and intellectual work of others who just do not have the salesman’s gift in them.

It is common knowledge for instance that the graphical user interface made popular by both Microsoft and Apple was lifted from a prototype created by Xerox in the early 70s. While Zuckerberg was still struggling with his unpopularity in Harvard, Asians and particularly Filipinos were posting selfies already in Friendster. Steve Jobs rose to prominence and fame while leaving on the wayside many of his co-founders because of his megalomania.

What these cases prove is that integrity is the last thing in dotcom culture and this merely mirrors the dominant values of society-at-large. It is, after all, a dog-eat-dog world where the one who gets to patent an idea built through the collective work of generations is rewarded. And the fact that we gloss over these details also reveal how these practices and the values that these manifest have become mainstream, made acceptable, and even celebrated.

This has not always been the case. In a discovery far more beneficial than any shiny gadget with an Apple logo since not one can cure syphilis, gangrene, and tuberculosis, the Scottish pharmacist Alexander Fleming made available the patent to penicillin to the peoples of the world. He did not earn any single centavo from his efforts but saved millions of human beings instead. Same when the great sages of modernity crafted their political theories. Karl Marx would have been unimaginable as a consultant peddling his ideas to governments and companies or as an academic striving for tenure for that matter – the very structures he sought to destroy.

The thing is, the great ideas that have fuelled human progress did not always come with a patent or with a price tag for their creator's private incentive. Usually, when these novel discoveries were made, they were unleashed into the world free of charge. And yet here we are today, conflating brilliance with IPO revenues, astuteness with salesmanship, and the lack of integrity as being wise or as we say in Filipino “wa-is.”

That is why I look to Star Trek, the classic sci-fi series, as a counterargument to those who insist that monetary gain is the best type of incentive to human innovation. Coming from a materialist conception of history, the society of the future will be wise enough to realize that the great inventions of man is far too precious in the hands of the few. They should serve the general interest of mankind for far loftier goals such as the attainment of; say for instance, intergalactic peace.


(Arnold P. Alamon is an Assistant Professor IV, Sociology Department, Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology.)

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on January 24, 2014.


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