Pluralistic: 11 Aug 2020

Today's links

Terra Nullius (permalink)

For my podcast this week, I read my Mar 2019 Locus column, "Terra Nullius," about the way that Locke's property theory ("I found this stuff nobody was using, added my labor, now it's mine") is an act of erasure and sometimes a prelude to genocide.

The germ of the column came from the bizarre tale of Aloha Poke, a company started by non-Pacific Islanders in Chicago that then threatened Hawaiians who operated poke restaurants whose name included the word "poke."

These guys are perfect Lockean grifters, because their claim implies that "aloha" was an unimproved natural resource that they mixed with their branding endeavor and converted to property.

It's a ghastly microcosm for the whole genocidal enterprise of settler colonialism. For settlers to square the morality of stealing indigenous land, they had to first declare the land to be uninhabited ("terra nullius"), and then claim ownership based on their "improvements."

And it reveals the extent to which all of Locke's property theory is grounded in erasure: there's nothing in the world that isn't in relation to others. There's nothing that's just lying around, waiting for Lockeans to pick it up and turn it into property.

To make Locke work, you have to zero out everyone else's claim. In particular, you have to zero out claims that don't assert exclusive property rights – if no one can authorize you to buy something, it isn't property, so you can just take it.

This is the thread that runs through all our property relations, but especially "intellectual property," whose incoherence can be traced directly back to this phenomenon.

Edgar Allan Poe invented mystery stories. We can either all pay his estate a royalty every time we write a mystery, or we can pretend his invention wasn't an invention. There's no middle ground for Locke.

To make things more complicated, Poe invented the mystery story more or less simultaneously with several other authors who had no knowledge of Poe's work. There's a reason for that, which Kevin Kelly describes in his 2010 book What Technology Wants.

Kelly describes something he calls "the adjacent possible." The basic idea behind inventions pops up all the time, suggested by the underlying principles that are combined to make invention. But inventions can't be invented until they're possible.

So lots of people can observe the twirl of a maple key and the action of a wine-screw and muse about something that looks like a helicopter, but no one can make a helicopter until we've got the full complement of helicopter-adjacent inventions.

But as those inventions – metallurgy, internal combustion, aerodynamics – emerge, the idea of a helicopter gets more and more obvious, and more and more people think of them and try to invent them.

Inevitably, when the helicopter is born, there are overlapping claims to the invention, from all the people who successfully combined all the adjacent stuff that had been invented.

These inventors want to be Lockean titans, but to achieve that, they need to zero out all the stuff that came before. Like the mystery writer who denies Poe's contribution, they assert metallurgy and internal combustion were unimproved nature they mixed with their labor.

There's a power realpolitik here: if you want to zero someone else's claim, you'd better be able to trounce them when they strike back and cry thief. So while the Lockean delusion may be widely distributed, it's most successfully realized when it's wielded by the powerful.

Which is why the Beatles can appropriate R&B; and call it inspiration, but hiphop artists can't sample the Beatles and declare them to be labor-blended raw material that is now their property.

I like the Beatles. I like hiphop that remixes the Beatles. I don't think the answer is to create a property fence around R&B;, declare some R&B; artist to be its true owner and make everyone else beg permission to make R&B.;

I think the right answer is to erase Locke. Mixing labor with stuff does create an interest, but it's not an exclusive interest. Invention isn't the work of a titan, it's the emergent property of a moment. Above all, recognize the power dynamics lurking beneath the surface.

I turned this column into a speech and delivered it as a speech at the Internet Archive's Grand Reopening of the Public Domain event in January 2019. You can listen to that here:

and watch it here:

Here's the podcast episode:

and the MP3:

and my podcast feed:

How they're killing the post office (permalink)

You've probably noticed that there's a lot of bad stuff going on with the US Postal Service, the most popular US government agency (91% favorable rating!). Trump has definitely been menacing them and talking a lot of nonsense about postal voting.

USPS has been nearly bankrupt since the start of the crisis. Its emergency is wholly artificial, the creation of a bipartisan coalition of asshole lawmakers who insisted that the Post Office fully fund its next 75 years' worth pension obligations.

We don't just need the USPS to run the postal voting that will be the only safe way to hold this November's election: the postal service is also the cornerstone of all of America's emergency recovery programs.

And despite the Trump rhetoric, every lawmaker, GOP or Democrat, is relying on postal voting this year. Indeed, GOP lawmakers are freaking out that postal votes are now a culture war issue and their voters are refusing to vote this year as a result.

Writing in Vox, Adam Clark Estes provides an excellent overview of the challenges currently facing the postal service, including some pretty grim facts about the new Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy.

DeJoy has sabotaged the postal service we pay him to run. As America has become more dependent than ever on postal delivery, as increasing numbers of postal workers have taken sick leave after contracting coronavirus, DeJoy has ended the overtime needed to meet the demand.

That's why regular mail is delayed on average by 2 days, why, for the first time in history, Express Priority Mail is not going out on time. (Postal sources told Estes that Amazon parcels are getting priority though).

To make things worse, DeJoy has fired and sidelined the country's most knowledgeable and experienced postal execs, annihilating a source of absolutely essential knowledge and expertise.

Some facts about DeJoy:

  • he and his family have $30-75m invested in USPS competitors

  • he has donated over $1.5m to Trump campaigns

  • his wife is teed up to be Trump's ambassador to Canada

The USPS is normally profitable, an entirely self-funded org that provides universal service to every place in America, no matter how rural, as is mandated in the US Constitution. But today, thanks to the pension-fund sabotage and the pandemic, it needs a LOT of money.

Fedex and UPS have been lobbying hard to kill the postal service for decades. Congress – both sides the aisle – have participated in shameless fuckery to hasten that day. Today, the legitimacy of the American democratic system hinges on the postal service's survival.

92% of Americans support a bailout for the postal service.

(Image: An Errant Knight, CC BY-SA, modified)

When you hear "intangibles"… (permalink)

Stocks keep climbing, and the firms driving the bull market have incredibly low asset-to-valuation ratios: that is, if you add up all the stuff they own, that's a much smaller number than their market valuation.

Nowhere is this more true than in tech stocks.

Tech companies own very little and they're worth a lot: working at a tech company can make you rich just on the basis of your stock – Apple CEO Tim Cook just became a billionaire thanks to his stock grants.

That gap – between capital assets and market valuation – is attributed to "intangibles."

What are intangibles? Well, they're not R&D.; Big Tech companies spend $10-20B/year on R&D;, and have ~$1T valuations. R&D; is a drop in the bucket.

And if there's anything the latest Congressional hearings taught us, it's that the intangibles are "goodwill" either – people really hate Big Tech, and every day that goes by increases the global distrust and distaste for these companies.

So what are their intangibles? John Quiggin has an idea: it's monopolies, "arising from network effects, intellectual property, control over natural resources and good old-fashioned predatory conduct."

The reason these intangibles are so highly prized by investors is that they prevent competition and allow the extraction of monopoly rents: "No one can sell a Windows or Apple operating system, even if they were willing to invest the effort required to reverse-engineer it."

Quiggin's conclusion: "this means that traditional ideas about capital and investment are largely irrelevant in the information economy."

Text-based, cyberpunk MMORPG (permalink)

Visual Studio Code is Microsoft's hugely popular source-code editing environment; it's so popular that it's being used as the interface for games now.

CyberCode Online is a new text-based cyberpunk MMORPG that uses VSCode as its UI.

It's both pretty fun and very clever; even as a VSCode noob, I found it easy to get used to, and the source-code editor mechanic made for a surprisingly immersive storytelling experience.

Who knew that what Zork was missing was an IDE?

This day in history (permalink)

#5yrsago US lobbying for TPP to lock up clinical trial data

#5yrsago Felicia Day's "You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)"

#5yrsago War Boy bandanas

#5yrsago Oracle's CSO demands an end to customers checking Oracle products for defects

#5yrsago The failed writer who became NSA's in-house "philosopher"

#5yrsago Overshare: Justin Hall's biopic about the first social media/blogging

#5yrsago Insurance monitoring dashboard devices used by Uber let hackers "cut your brakes" over wireless

#1yrago Brazil's highest court rules that Bolsonaro cannot use criminal investigations to harass Glenn Greenwald and The Intercept

#1yrago Compromised speakers can be forced to play tones so loud that the speakers start to melt

#1yrago Donor maps show just how widespread Sanders' support is

#1yrago Big Pharma's origin: how the Chicago School and private equity shifted medicine's focus from health to wealth

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Four Short Links (, Naked Capitalism (

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Currently reading: The Deficit Myth, Stephanie Kelton

Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 12),

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