December 8: Is plagiarism over?

God on a wheel, am I tired. My eyes hurt, my brain hurts, my butt hurts, my shoulders hurt — even my hurt hurts. What on earth have I gotten myself into? I feel like the sports announcer for the Ball State University athletics department.

Surprisingly, what sticks in my head from today is NOT the various actually-useful tidbits of programming knowledge that our kind, wonderful instructors bestowed upon us… y’know, the stuff that I paid to be here for. Instead, as I sit here nursing what feels like a terrorist attack above my parietal bone, I’m thinking about a brief discussion we had about plagiarism in the field of software engineering, where so much depends on sharing. What does it really mean to plagiarize in a world where copying from others is not just encouraged, but downright necessary?

This attitude toward plagiarism has trickled down to the rest of us. And that’s not the only tech worldview we’ve embraced: we now live in a world molded, to an uncomfortable degree, by the conventions and attitudes of computer science. But since most people are not computer scientists, those notions are misunderstood and warped — more stereotypes than dicta. We pay a lot of lip service to the principle that plagiarism is bad… but nobody seems to actually believe that principle or live by it. Faking academic credentials is depressingly common all over the world. Journalists plagiarize, even when they’re covering the problem of rampant plagiarism. And here in the USA, we just elected a president who has admitted to plagiarizing in graduate school — evidently deeming him preferable to an incumbent who freely and joyfully plagiarizes the ideas and accomplishments of others. When barriers to the free exchange of information evaporate, and piracy is elevated to a political rallying cry and a human right, are there really any consequences to exercising that right by stealing ideas with proud abandon and claiming them as your own?

To see the answer, we need only walk around New York City: 25,000 dead, half a million sickened, the world’s sixth-largest municipal economy on life support and millions barely fighting off poverty. But I’d argue this isn’t the result of a pandemic of viral pneumonia, or even the result of the hapless, disjointed and ignorant (often boastfully so) response to COVID-19 from this city’s leaders. After all, other countries have weathered this global crisis with consequences far less deadly and severe.

No, I’d argue that our current predicament is a direct consequence of the techification of political and scientific discourse in America, and the concomitant softening of our hostility to plagiarism. The theft and repackaging of an idea, without any regard for or understanding of where that idea came from or what it means, cheats us all of the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, our society, and our obligations to each other. What happens when any and all ideas are treated as equal, and stolen and traded like baseball cards? That’s how depraved conspiracy theories, dangerous pseudoscience, and fraudulent schemes acquire the tantalizing and intoxicating iridescence of truth. Then it’s only a matter of time before they’re “traded up the chain,” wriggling their way up from the sewers of the internet hive-mind, latching on to seemingly-reputable “big media” outlets, and infecting otherwise intelligent, well-meaning people looking for answers in a scary world — leaving irreparable, catastrophic damage in their wake.

This pandemic, like previous pandemics, will subside, and this amazing city I love so much will return to something resembling normal–of this I’m certain. But I fear that our current epidemic of weaponized consequence-free plagiarism, and its accompanying symptoms of ignorance, selfishness and dishonesty, is far from reaching its peak.

Now… to bed. Another mental nuclear explosion tomorrow. Pray for me.

Oh geez, Josh Frank decided to go to Flatiron? He must be insane…

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