In a recent article, Peter Franklin draws a parallel between capitalism and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings mythology, likening Facebook, and social media in general, to the rings of middle earth — powerful rings gifted by Sauron, Lord of Mordor, to the leaders of middle earth, secretly influencing them, binding them to darkness, and increasing the power of the dark lord.

There’s a larger concept in this mythology about power, which does not necessarily imply evil. The artifacts and tools that we create have power and purpose. In our modern world, open data and open source software can be powerful forces that create positive impact. With open source software, freely distributed libraries and applications influence behavior, affecting properties of the systems that rule our lives. By making certain things easy for other software developers, one small piece of code can have outsize effects on unrelated commercial software. Open and easily accessible datasets can create positive economic impact that can be more evenly distributed than investments of capital.

If you don’t know the story, or if it has been a while, you can catch up on the lore, reading Tolkien Gateway’s background on the Ring Verse or listen to Tolkien reading the Ring Verse on YouTube.

Tolkien’s reflection on power

Tolkien’s ring mythology aptly illustrates that to exercise power, one must give it away (and risk losing it), which he explains in one of his letters. Dr. Rhona Beare’s correspondence led Tolkien to elaborate on the rings of power as a mythical representation of power or, in his words, potency:

The Ring of Sauron is only one of the various mythical treatments of the placing of one’s life, or power, in some external object, which is thus exposed to capture or destruction with disastrous results to oneself…

a mythical way of representing the truth that potency (or
perhaps rather potentiality) if it is to be exercised, and produce results, has to be externalised and so as it were passed, to a greater or less degree, out of one’s direct control. A man who wishes to exert
‘power’ must have subjects, who are not himself. But he then depends on them.
— 14 October 1958 [1]

Whether it is capital investment, the intellectual property of source code, knowledge that you have collected as data or a small golden ring, you can amplify your power by giving it away, but then you must rely on others. Like Frodo, we can all exercise free will in deciding what to do with the power we are given. Destroy the ring, keep the elven chain mail shirt, go adventuring or enjoy our home in the shire. We decide.

[1] originally published in a booklet, later in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, pdf)

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