One of the losing battles that university professors are fighting is the battle with plagiarism. We can’t seem to get students to understand that they just can’t use someone elses’ ideas without attribution.
Much of this has been driven by the internet. Since ideas are free on the internet, they appear to have no value. Thus, it isn’t stealing. So students use free music, free tv, free movies, free information.
Yet ideas do have value. Not only the value they contain if monetized or commercialized, but value to us as individuals. Jaron Lanier, in his book, You Are Not a Gadget, suggests that “ideas are a touchstone of identity” (p. 207). I suspect that is why we resist so fiercely when our ideas are challenged, or when science develops a new understanding of the world. Our resistance to global warming, the high levels of support for creationism, many of the urban myths about food are sticking with us, yet they have weak scientific support.
Why? Our ideas are a part of our mental model of the world. Pull out one idea and the whole mental model can collapse. And many of our ideas are based on personal observation and experience, which is subject to some hardwired biases that our brains developed to help us survive. These biases help us make quick decisions, but in the case of complicated science, suggest ideas that are incorrect.
And, because our ideas are a part of our identity, we resist changing them with all of our might.
So if our ideas are a part of our identity, what happens when our ideas get taken without attribution? What happens when they get mashed up with a half-dozen other ideas? Do they lose their power to define our identity? Does our identity get damaged in some way? If ideas no longer have “ownership” or “creatorship”, how will we construct meaning and purpose for ourselves? Ideas are core to progress. If our ideas are no longer our own, will we have incentive to try to make change? I don’t know, but it will be interesting to watch the impact of the internet on ideas.