Town and country

Town and country

To London for a meeting with some folks from Creative Commons — Christiane Asschenfeldt, Glenn Brown and Cory Doctorow — who are in town to lay the groundwork for a UK Creative Commons organisation. We met in one of the clubs to which I belong — the only one which has a WiFi network — and had a really interesting talk about: the differences between the public discourse on intellectual property (IP) issues in the US and UK; ways of raising the importance of IP in public consciousness; the role and significance of the BBC and other public-service institutions in all this; and a whole lot more. They are smart and interesting people who are doing great work.

It was fascinating to meet Cory, someone whose writing I have admired for years. He had a neat retro gadget — a WiFi sniffer in a small black plastic box with four red LEDs to indicate signal strength. My admiration for this gizmo was tempered, however, by the fact that it had failed to detect the Groucho network that both its owner and I were using!

London was beautiful this morning — so much so that I got out of the Tube at Covent Garden and walked to Soho in the sunshine. The streets were fresh and uncrowded, and yet the place teemed with life. I love the city and agree with Dr. Johnson that “the man who is tired of London is tired of life”.

And yet… I also feel elated when I step off the train back at Cambridge — also ravishing in this amazing Autumn sunshine.

Strange that this obscure market town on the edge of the Fens should be such a magical place. And yet it is.

For me, its beauty is not just a matter of architecture (or ‘inhabited ruins’, as one of my friends once put it) but of the fact that it’s the place where Erasmus and Newton and Darwin and Maxwell and Rutherford and Tennyson and Wittgenstein and Russell and Whitehead and GR Moore and Keynes and Alfred Marshall lived, studied and worked. I often walk past the room where, in 1932, John Cockroft and Ernest Walton split the atom; the lab where J.J. Thompson discovered the electron; the room where James Watson and Francis Crick sussed the molecular structure of DNA; the building where Frank Whittle invented the jet engine; or — in Hinxton, just outside Cambridge — the lab where John Sulston and his team led the decoding of the human genome and kept that knowledge in the public domain.

In other words, the magic of Cambridge for me is bound up with the knowledge it has produced — the ideas (or ‘intellectual property’ if you must) which belongs to all of us and has incalculably enriched our lives. Which of course, brought me back to the discussions I had in the morning with Christiane, Glenn and Cory, because the prime purpose of Creative Commons is to stop the intellectual property maniacs from disabling our ability to build on the creativity of others. Newton famously said that he was able to see further because he was able to “stand on the shoulders of giants”. He provided the underpinnings of our modern world. But if the RIAA and the MPAA and Disney had been around in the 17th century they would have cut him down to size.