I recently had the chance to observe informal learning at the Museum of Natural Curiosity. Beyond the admirably imaginative design, another magical property of the place has stuck with me: in that space, “possible” and “permissible” are nearly synonymous.
It’s a refreshing contrast t0 the belt-barriers and corralled-in queues of movie theaters and amusement parks, conventions that establish order by making disorder inconvenient. They’re policy lines drawn in the sand of possibility, enforced first by laziness and last by social ire. I know firsthand how adamantly we insist that our canned entertainment be rationed out fairly—my own complaints once got a few miscreants kicked off a raft ride for cutting in line.
Granted, there are boundaries at the MONC, but most of them are literal boundaries—actual walls. And where there aren’t walls, there are robust possibilities. Worried that your water experiment will overflow? Don’t; the entire area is waterproof, and the excess gently flows between cracks in the floor. At the MONC, if it’s possible, it’s almost certainly permissible, which affords a new kind of safety to children. It’s safety to explore, share, experiment, and negotiate life with confidence, with minimal risk of being found inadvertently (and sometimes inexplicably) delinquent.
If only life itself were so idyllic. In life (as in children’s museums), we need boundaries to keep us safe. By definition, great power brings greater consequences, whether for good or for ill.
So we limit power. We legislate against certain abilities for fear of their consequences, and our intent is just. We may disagree in the specifics, whether children should be allowed to run on a playground or climb on the rocks, but most of us agree that their lives are worth protecting. Bounding their world is worth mitigating the risk of harm, because it preserves their potential in other ways. The same idea applies to the checks and balances that limit our political leaders; we dam their power to protect our collective power as a nation.
But what about ideas? Are they worth protecting?
In a word, no.
Unlike children, minorities, or dissident journalists, ideas are quite difficult to harm. They spread almost effortlessly, flying across the globe, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point.” It’s not hard to kill an idea; it’s impossible. As Jefferson said, they are “incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.”
If ideas then, are immutable and irrepressible, the next best thing is to control their representation. If an idea goes unrecorded in a persistent medium, its ability to spread is greatly diminished. Early librarians and scholars felt this fully, as the prohibitive cost of hand-copying texts precluded all but the most revered texts from propagation. Printing technology greatly expanded the ability to quickly replicate text, and internet technologies have multiplied it as much again.
Today representations of ideas (copies in persistent media) today spread nearly as virulently as the ideas themselves. We have before us a great world of possibility, of consequence.
Many of us abuse this power. We circumvent wishes and agreements and relationships of others in an attempt to get something for nothing. We download, we share, we cheat. We harm each other.
Naturally, our reaction has been to limit that sharing power. We invent technological measures (effective or otherwise) that make disorder inconvenient. We draw lines of fairness in the lawless sands of cyberspace.
But is it worth it? Does bounding our power in this way preserve our potential in other ways?
I don’t think so.