Saturday, October 21, 2006

PAINT as an idea

Some time ago I read a SciFi story that had human/alien interactions as part of the story. I don't remember who wrote it or what its title is any longer, but one aspect of the story always stuck with me as being worth of writing about.

PAINT -- yes, that ubiquitous stuff we slop on houses, cars, fences, etc. (maybe some reader will be able to ID the story from this)

The humans in the story never thought much about paint and neither do we as a general statement. Paint is just something we use and don't give much thought to. We take paint for granted. Sure, some people get concerned about colors and such, but that really has little to do with what paint itself really is.

Lets take a step back, broaden our minds for a moment and look at paint the way the aliens in the story saw it.

The aliens had never seen paint prior to their interaction with the bumans in the story. Paint was a foreign thing to them. More interstingly, the IDEA of paint was foreign to them.

The idea of paint you say? Yes, paint is an idea. Paint is the concept of coatings that protect against adverse environmental forces. I discount paint as a colorant here because coloring is a quite different notion that can be accomplished without paint(stains, dyes, anodization, etc).

Paint, as an idea, has considerable intellectual property value. Lacking the paint concept, many things in our world would be very different indeed. Consider how an ordinary car would be affected by lack of paint. It would rust into nothing in a matter of a few years. Ocean going ships would be similarly affected. Wood sided houses would all be weathered grey like an old barn. Sheetrock walls would collect more dust and the outer paper layer would be come fuzzy quickly with the wear and tear of ordinary living.

Certainly, engineers lacking the concept of paint would work around many of these problems by using other methods. Cars and ships could be made from metals that don't rust. House sidings could be made from plastics or rustless metals, sheetrock could be covered with some sort of smooth plastic films, etc.

All of these "workarounds" for lack of the paint idea are more costly than the use of paint though. Paint, the idea, is an enabler of more cost effective engineered solutions. This is why the aliens in the story were keenly interested in paint. They didn't want to buy paint, the product, from the humans, they wanted to buy paint, the idea, from the humans.

Which brings me around to the whole purpose of this essay. I believe we in the west too often view "freedom" like paint in our effort to export it. Too often we try to export it as a product(ex. "elections") rather than an idea. If we can somehow get freedom lacking societies (ex. Islam) to recognize the idea of freedom as having genuine value to them, the actual manufacture of same is easily accomplished locally once that value is recognized.

The aliens could easily manufacture their own paint products once they recognized that paint, the idea, was a valuable one.


Francis W. Porretto said...

The story of which you speak is "The Big Front Yard," by Clifford Simak. If memory serves, it won a Hugo Award as best novelette of 1959.

Alan said...

Yes. Read it as a boy. I was wracking my brains for the author. Mr. Porretto is right on.