When I found out that Thomas Edison might not have invented a damn thing himself, I was as crushingly disillusioned as I’d been upon discovering that most of Ronald Reagan’s speeches were actually written by Peggy Noonan. While people are finally starting to realize the true extent to which history is written by the winners, there is a lot less discussion about how even our common perception of present reality is carefully constructed by those in power.
While doing some research for an article about conversations sparked by the record-breaking podcast “Serial”, I stumbled upon one of the truest sentences I’ve ever read, written by Pete Rorabaugh here. Referring to Hayden White’s “The Value of Narrativity and the Representation of Reality” (published WAY back in 1980), he says “White unpacks the idea that a stories are how we transmit history, that they represent the most mature and complex way of historical representation, but that no story can escape the presence of a privileged, subjective orientation.”
This privilege is the reason that generations of American students were taught that Thomas Edison himself was the creator of hundreds of inventions. In reality, he had the economic resources to purchase the intellectual property rights of hundreds of people without such resources, and then claim credit for–and reap the profits from– their ideas. The result of this reality is that just as we may never be certain about the guilt or innocence of Adnan Sayed, we can also never be certain about the identity of the real inventor or inventors of the electric light bulb.
We’re always reading about the unprecedented power of the 1% that now own an estimated 37.1% of everything in the world. When you consider that they’re “privatizing” water and patenting plants found in nature, I agree that there’s a pretty nightmarish scenario on the horizon. However, I remain unconvinced that today is any different than back when the only way for an artist to get a paid gig was to work for the Medicci family or paint portraits of ugly nobles that made them appear semi-attractive.
There’s a reason that so many stories from every culture begin with the protagonist setting out to seek their fame and fortune. Fame and fortune are prime human motivations. We all want to have as many enjoyable experiences as possible while we’re alive, and we want our lives and contributions to matter to others. I too am motivated by the desire for fame and fortune, at least to some extent. Part of the unprecedented power of the modern 1% is that they offer fortune at the expense of fame.
If the concept of the purchase of intellectual and artistic property rights had existed in Michelangelo’s time, we would have all grown up learning that the Sistine Chapel had been painted by one of the Medicci princes. Under this system, intellectual dullards with money can buy the fame that others deserve. Scientific discoveries with the potential to benefit all of mankind are now owned, and often held for ransom, by the governments or corporations that employ the scientists, and therefore own all rights to their work.
Thankfully, the degree of power formerly enjoyed by the gatekeepers of fame in the arts, the editors employed by mass media, has been eroded by the internet. I don’t need to say more than “Honey Boo-Boo” to illustrate the truth of that statement. Many young people now have only one dream in life, a phrase that was once used only to refer to contagious diseases, and that dream is to “go viral”.
Unfortunately, the power to determine what is worthy of being called art has shifted from editors at corporate publishing firms to the advertising industry. The power of the commercial propaganda machine has become so great that one popular video on Youtube can generate a small fortune in advertising revenue, as well as instant, if only fleeting, fame for its creator. This is not to say that these two propaganda machines are entirely separate or that they don’t share some common goals, but they also compete with one another when necessary to maximize profits.
If it’s true that information is power, artists and scientists are still capable of being the most powerful and influential people in the world. How? By simply refusing to sell their ideas to the highest bidder. With the doomsday clock recently having been set forward by the scientific community, it has become imperative that all creative people begin asking questions before putting their ideas up for sale. An economic fortune sufficient to see and experience the world is of little value if all that remains to be seen is global human suffering. Nothing has contributed more to that suffering in the history of humankind than brilliant ideas being sold to greedy idiots who use them to increase and maintain their power through economic brute force.
Rather than making a call to action, I’m making a call to non-action. I’m making this a plea for people NOT to sell their artistic vision, their powers of persuasion, their research and scientific discoveries, but to share them freely. Or would you prefer, like Alfred Nobel—to earn a big enough fortune by dealing in death to pay a PR firm write what passes for facts in the textbooks of the next generation? Bill Gates might have enough money to hire as many PR firms as necessary to make his name synonymous with philanthropic good deeds, but even he can’t buy truth.
If you want to read more about inventors and laugh while you’re doing it, I highly recommend the Oatmeal.