01 November 2005

A Good Walk Spoiled

To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities then before the evil days come.

And that is why I blog, to share the shiny things that I’ve found. Thoreau was not, however, talking to future bloggers, but to walkers faced with the partitioning of the landscape into private property, and thus the possibility that their sauntering might become trespassing. It is an interesting story in itself, as the Concord of his day still retained the memory of an enclosure movement similar to that of Tudor England.

When Concord was settled, the colonists attempted to reproduce the common field system, in which some land was communally ploughed, and other land left open for communal grazing. The English custom was already in decline, as landowners discovered the joy and profit of raising sheep, and began to fence them in. As access declined, food prices rose, increasing the value of the landowners’ holding, and thus accelerating enclosure. The process was blamed for depopulating the countryside and increasing poverty and crime. Thus, Sir Thomas More, in Utopia (1516):
The increase of pasture …by which your sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men, and unpeople, not only villages, but towns; for wherever it is found that the sheep of any soil yield a softer and richer wool than ordinary, there the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men the abbots, not contented with the old rents which their farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good. They stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclose grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them. As if forests and parks had swallowed up too little of the land, those worthy countrymen turn the best inhabited places into solitudes, for when an insatiable wretch, who is a plague to his country, resolves to enclose many thousand acres of ground, the owners as well as tenants are turned out of their possessions, by tricks, or by main force, or being wearied out with ill-usage, they are forced to sell them.

Karl Polanyi (The Great Transformation, 1957) called it “a revolution of the rich against the poor.” Not like anything like that would happen these days…

The colonists fenced off part of the land for individual ownership (initially about 25%), and tried to use the remaining commons for the combination of farming and cattle grazing that they had used in England. Soil and weather conspired against them, though, and as early as 1653, they began fencing off additional land for farms. The commons was gone by 1778, but the Great Meadow – the floodplain along the Concord River – continued as communal hayfields until 1862.

There’s a full treatment of the Concord situation in a recent book by Brian Donahue - The Great Meadow: Farmers and the Land in Colonial Concord (New London: Yale University Press, 2004).

From the standpoint of the blogger, indeed of the online community in general, the enclosure of the commons is an analog for the modern problem of intellectual property (freeware vs patent, free e-text vs copyright, etc.) James Boyle has a lengthy treatment of the historical lesson of enclosure for the electronic public domain in the Winter/Spring 2003 issue of Law and Contemporary Problems. He notes in particular that the mere fact of referring to a wide variety of issues (exploiting the electromagnetic spectrum, downloading music files, reposting journal articles, etc.) under the single rubric of ‘public domain’ lends them a certain moral dimension, highlights their interconnections, and emphasizes the difficulty of treating them by market methods alone.

Boyle focuses on property issues. It would be interesting to look at other aspects of the problem. One recurring concern of the blogosphere is credentialing and professionalization; when does the self-identified expert attain the rights of the journalist (such as access to official sources), as well as the responsibilities (commitment to accuracy)? Another is the danger of professionalization, which leads to the enclosure of subject areas and thwarts the rambling essence of the blog.

But I wander afield. Indeed,
I wander afield, thriving in sturdy thought,
Through unpathed haunts of the Pierides,
Trodden by step of none before.
(Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, Book I)

One should recall, of course, that philosophizing by aimless wandering is as old as Aristotle.

It requires a direct dispensation from heaven to become a walker. You must be born into the family of the Walkers. Ambulator nascitur, non fit.

Thoreau again. But he was wrong. Walkers can be made. In a report in Physical Review Letters (sorry, expensive subscription only), Ludwig Bartels and friends (University of California at Riverside), working with Talat Rahman (Kansas State University), have fabricated a walking molecule.

9,10-dithioanthracene – also known as DTA – looks vaguely like a skateboard with two fat ‘feet’ on either side of the narrow dimension. Poised on a copper substrate and poked with the tip of a scanning tunneling microscope, the DTA molecule starts to walk. Well, not so much walk as waddle. One foot goes up, the other goes down, the body of the molecule swings from side to side, and the whole thing moves in a straight line – for more than 10,000 steps in one test. There’s a movie on the UCR website that shows a simulation of DTA waddling across a surface.

Bartels says that DTA could be used to guide molecular motion for molecule-based information storage or computation. IBM proposed such an application in the 1990s, using molecules positioned along lines like an abacus.


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