Ownership is impossible; mine shaft audiobook; surviving the ice storm: Newsletter 27 March 2024

Richard Masoner

Newsletter 37: Why sharing and not hoarding is the only path to happiness, translators vs. AI, 500-billion word training set, plus three people to follow and three books to read.

Why nobody owns anything

We spend much of our lives striving to own things. We want to own a house, a car, a smartphone, a relationship, a bank account, a reputation. And the companies we interact with believe they own things too: intellectual property, factories, brands, product designs, workforces.

It’s all bullshit. Nobody owns anything.

Let’s take your house, for example. Unless you rent, you may believe you “own” a house. But you don’t really. If you have a mortgage, the bank owns part of it. Even if your house is paid off, you can’t just do anything you want with it. You can’t build an addition unless it’s certified by the town as structurally sound. You can’t set it on fire, that’s arson and it’s illegal. You can’t booby-trap it with landmines. If the HOA says you can’t park your truck in the driveway, you can’t park your truck in the driveway. And if you don’t pay your property taxes, you won’t own that house for long.

What about that car you drive? Even if you’re not making payments, you can’t drive it the wrong way on a one-way street, and you can’t let your 11-year old drive it. If it’s a Tesla, the Tesla company can change its features — as they recently did when they took away a lot of the functionality of full-self driving that owners had paid for. Pretty soon, all the other cars will work like that, too.

That reputation you built? You can destroy it in a moment by posting a stupid photo on Instagram — or having someone else post it.

That ebook you downloaded? Amazon can delete it if they feel like it. You don’t own it. You have a license to it.

HP can brick your printer. John Deere can inactivate your tractor.

How about intellectual property? When you copyright a piece of writing or a piece of art, you own it, right? Well, sort of. People can still quote pieces of it under the doctrine of fair use. They can satirize it, and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. If you publish your writing in a book, a publisher almost certainly owns the rights to it. The person who buys a copy also owns it, in a sense — and they can sell it to whomever they want.

How about your body? You have an absolute right to your body, don’t you? Well, mostly. You can’t parade around town naked. If you engage in self-harm you’re at the risk of being committed. If you get pregnant in Idaho or Jamaica, you can’t legally have the fetus removed from your body.

All the things companies own — brands, customers, patents, shares of other companies — can all be taken away or tarnished or made worthless. Companies used to own the trademarks on “linoleum,” “trampoline,” “dumpster,” and “heroin.” Not any more — now they belong to the world.

You could do everything you can to asset ownership over as many things as you can, physical and electronic. But ownership by itself is never really that satisfying.

The satisfaction comes from sharing.

Sharing your house is fun and rewarding.

Sharing your car is nice.

Sharing your intellectual property with others is the only way to increase its value. The more people who watch “The Three-Body Problem” or read Spare or use Threads, the more they are worth.

Voluntarily sharing your body is one of the most enjoyable things you can do with it.

What about your ideas? You can hold them tightly and assert ownership over them and fight anyone who wants to use them.

Or you can share them. The more you share them, the more people know about them. The more people who know, the more there will be who appreciate you. An idea shared grows because other people build on it.

Your ownership of things ends when your life ends. But your ownership of ideas doesn’t. If you want to own an idea forever, you need to share it promiscuously.

That’s hard to learn. But it sure is fun to embrace, once you get used to it.

News for writers and others who think

AI is transforming the process of book translation, according to a panel at the London Book Fair (Publisher’s Weekly subscriber link). Even so, great translations will always require a human touch. But sucky translations are about to get cheap and ubiquitous.

There’s now a free and copyright-free corpus of 500 billion words from Hugging Face. Does that mean large language models no longer need to rip off authors?

Brent Underwood went 900 feet down into an abandoned mine to record the audiobook for his book Ghost Town Living: Mining for Purpose and Chasing Dreams at the Edge of Death Valley (Publisher’s Weekly subscriber link). You probably should listen — for all we know you’ll hear him going quietly insane.

Former New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick is shopping a book on football. Anyone who’s ever heard him in a press conference knows what to expect. About four pages that say “It is what it is” and “We did what was best for the team.”

Yes, I and hundreds of thousands of others in Maine lost power for two days due to an ice storm. Yes, my house got really cold and I was forced to stay in a Best Western with lots of dogs and children and no Wi-Fi. I’m fine now. I prefer electricity, internet, toaster ovens, refrigerators, and all the modern conveniences.

Three people to follow

Emily Green, startup wizard and all around wise person.

Nate Elliott of the Good Data Project, crusader for using data and statistics wisely.

Sarah McArthur, editor of Leader to Leader, an innovative leadership journal.

Three books to read

AI 2041: Ten Visions for Our Future by Kai-Fu Lee and Chen Qiufan (Crown Currency, 2021). Visions of AI in the form of short stories.

Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well by Amy C. Edmondson (Atria, 2023). How to turn mistakes into insight.

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis by Jared Diamond (Back Bay, 2020). A leading philosopher of history examines how nations save themselves — or don’t.

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