The Nature of Ideas and Bits: Why Sharing that Nude Photo is a Bad Idea

While reading an interesting book called Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty and Happiness After the Digital Explosion (which I’ll write about soon) I came across a quote by Thomas Jefferson concerning the nature of ideas:

“If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of everyone, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it”

In other words an idea is entirely yours if you don’t share it but once you do it becomes almost impossible to keep it from others. Yet, at the same time, the idea does not diminish or become any less because it is shared. Economists would say ideas are “non-exclusive” and “non-rivalrous”.

The quote reminded me, too, of a recent Facebook post by Econet founder Dr Strive Masiiwa where he said ideas are the most valuable things in the world. He was right, but once shared, they cease being exclusive- and perhaps their value falls.

I found myself thinking how these two properties make ideas both very powerful and very dangerous. It is because of this that we make progress, but the same properties lead to genocides, pogroms and discrimination.

But I digress; the reason why the quote is mentioned in Blown to Bits is to highlight the nature of “bits”- the digital signals that are the backbone of modern communication- and the possible consequences of sharing them.

Once you share, say a photo on Facebook or anywhere on the web, your control of that photo (in reality the bits that give you the illusion of there being an image) virtually ceases. Interestingly you would still have 100% of that image but no way of controlling its distribution.

These are some of the consequences of the digital age, and that’s what Blown to Bits is about.

Think about this the next time you get a brilliant idea, or more likely, when you want to upload that half-nude picture taken when you got drunk at a Christmas party in the village.

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