Sunday, September 30, 2012

CC BY and the Truth-Printing Business

Why are dollars worth anything? Why are digits on a bank statement worth anything? When my server tells our payments provider to move bits from your credit card, why does it matter to you?

In practical terms, dollars are valuable because other people will give you stuff or do things for you in exchange. Or at least they will if you can convince their bank to change the digits in their bank account. Their bank has to trust your bank which has to trust you. It all works because we all trust it will work. And why do we trust that it will work?

There are governments and laws to back them up. Why do we trust the government and laws? In practical terms we trust the government and laws because... well... they have ballot boxes. And judges and police forces. But mostly we trust the government and legal system because it sort of works and is often not abusive. At the bottom, it's because there's this web of trust which collectively holds everything together. Until of course, it doesn't. Because there isn't a bottom, it's turtles all the way down.

If you haven't heard of Bitcoin, let me give you this non-technical summary. Bitcoin is a recent implementation of the idea that money based on a web of cryptographically secured assertions is sounder than money based on a web of governmentally secured assertions. If as many people believed in cryptography as believe in astrology, we'd be using Bitcoin today.

The magic result is that an entity that gets society to trust its currency can then print money.

When the currency is truth rather than coin, judges and guns don't work so well. Traditional hierarchical authority systems are breaking down. What's replacing them is open authority systems. Systems such as wikipedia which allow everyone to participate in the construction of truth, not by being correct, but by being fixable. And to the frustration of many, Wikipedia delegates all its authority to things that are "citeable".

So how do you get to be an authority that Wikipedia believes? The two criteria that seem to matter most are
  1. Openness. If wikipedians can't read you, you don't exist. 
  2. Authority. People need to believe you. 
If you notice the circularity here, you'll see that printing truth and printing money are not so different.

As usual, I take a long time getting around to my point. Which is this: If you want to be in the business of printing truth, the best license to choose for your business is the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). For now. And if you're printing science, medicine, technology or even philosophy, I really hope you want to print truth.

The Creative Commons part speaks to the need to be open. In the age of the internet, you can't print truth and keep it secret. No one will believe you.

The Attribution part builds your most valuable asset, your reputation. No one believes anonymous assertions.

You might ask about other options, for example, Non-Commercial (NC), No Derivatives(ND), Share-Alike (SA).

I've written about reasons to use NC and ND. Those reasons don't apply to the truth-printing business.

Can you imagine if your dollar bill said "This note is legal tender for all non-commercial debts public or private". That would be silly. The whole point of money is that it doesn't change depending on its use. And its the same with truth. There ain't no such thing as non-commercial truth. You can't control the uses of the truth you print. You can't even demand that people who consume your truth share that truth the same as you do..

A lot of people get confused about using no-derivative licenses. They think that if you print that the sky is blue, your credibility will be hurt if someone reprints a derivative of your truth and says the sky is black. But that's exactly what the attribution requirements prevent. But more than that, if you print your truth as chiseled in stone, then no one will believe it in a few years or so, because we all know that the truth hasn't been chiseled in stone for at least two thousand years. Nowadays we can make cryptographically strong proofs that assertions aren't being fiddled with and were made by the entities they're attributed. We can track the trail of assertions through history. And the provider of that chain of provenance is you, the truth printing proprietor. The longer the trail of conflicting assertions, the more crucial your authority as a truth printer becomes.

The problem of turning the currency of truth into harder currency is left as an exercise for the reader.
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