IP, technology, human rights

Access to Science

Posted by Lea on July 6, 2009

I’m currently working on an article on the right to science and culture, which seeks to shine light on an almost-forgotten provision of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. To shed light on what framers of the 1948 document were thinking, I’m reading up on the history of access to technology in the 1930s and 40s. It’s fascinating stuff.

One of the stories I’m intrigued by is the democratization of electricity during the New Deal. All of the scientific discoveries necessary to make home lighting work were in place by the 1880s. Yet almost half a century later, very few American households had it.

Diego Rivera, "Man at the Crossroads" (1934)

Diego Rivera, "Man at the Crossroads Looking with Hope and High Vision to the Choosing of a New and Better Future" (1934)

It was just too expensive. And the story of why it was expensive has everything to do with monopolies. Edison’s patents were aggressively litigated, so there was no competition in the lightbulb market. And since there was generally only one (private) utility company per city, there was no incentive to bring down costs.

So here’s the really neat part I just read about today, and that I never would have guessed. Even before FDR’s Tennessee Valley Authority program, there was actually a popular movement in America to demand access to electricity. Historian David Nye writes about it in Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, from MIT Press, at page 349.

Between 1930 and 1934, the citizens of Muncie, Indian mobilized for the public purchase of the private utility company. Courts had to intervene to enjoin a special election. In 1935, the mayor of Huntington, Indiana defied a court order and went ahead setting up a public service to compete with the private utility. He went to jail.

Our conventional account of technological progress makes it seem like science just happens. Somebody invents electricity, and then a few years later everybody has it. My article tries to challenge that conception and reveal the hidden role of law in shaping access to technology.

But the idea that people had to actually go to jail in America to win access to electricity–a technology whose wide diffusion was necessary groundwork for the radio, the television and the personal computer–it’s so hard to fit in to our conventional picture. It makes you look at the human rights text in a whole new way:

Article 27(1), Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948):

Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts, and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

Update: I just came upon this very timely related news item:

DOJ Opens Review of Telecom Industry


JULY 6, 2009, 12:42 P.M. ET

The Department of Justice has begun an initial review to determine
whether large U.S. telecom companies such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon
Communications Inc. have abused the market power they’ve amassed in
recent years, according to people familiar with the matter.

The review of potential anti-competitive practices is in its very
early stages, and it isn’t a formal investigation of any specific
company at this point, the people said. It isn’t clear whether the
agency intends to launch an official inquiry.

Among the areas the Justice Department could explore is whether
wireless carriers are hurting smaller competitors by locking up
popular phones through exclusive agreements with handset makers,
according to the people. In recent weeks lawmakers and regulators have
raised questions about deals such as AT&T’s exclusive right to provide
service for Apple Inc.’s popular iPhone in the U.S.

The Justice Department may also review whether telecom carriers are
unduly restricting the types of services other companies can offer on
their networks, one person familiar with the situation said.


One Response to “Access to Science”

  1. Ben Peters said

    Incredible mural, and fascinating piece. A couple sites of interest. . And not sure I agree with this one, at all, but it still makes for fascinating reading:

Leave a Reply to Ben Peters Cancel reply

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