The Super User Problem

In offices you have this thankless job called super user—not to be confused with the UNIX role of the same name. A super user, sometimes called ‘power user,’ is a person who is not part of the IT department but who does menial IT-related tasks such as fixing broken printers, explaining colleagues how to bold text in a word processor, and so on. He, usually a he, is the colleague who knows a bit about computers. The IT department are grateful for his existence, because he is their first line of defence against really dumb questions. He is the chap who checks that the printer is on when other users complain it is broken.

Although not every field has a name for the type of person who sits between the laymen and the experts, most fields do have them. The problem with the super user is that unlike the layman and the expert, he is never right.

You can see how this works by looking at a simpler realm, that of time-telling. There are broken watches, regular watches, and high-precision watches. The third category always tells the right time, the first tells you the right time twice a day, and the second category, the super user watch, never tells the right time because it is always a bit off. That is to say, the regular watch knows enough about time that it can take a pretty good guess at what time it is, but it almost never tells the time precisely. If it did with any regularity, it would be an ‘expert.’

In the law business you can see this principle at work too. People who know nothing about the law still have opinions about it. And since these people are the customers of the law’s salesmen (lawyers, judges), they tend to be right about the law once in a while. The lawyers and judges are the legal experts. They tend to be right a lot. But the person who has made it a point to get to know the law a bit almost always guesses wrong about where the law stands.

I am afraid that is the point where I am right now with regards to copyright law. I can see the point of the laymen, and I can see the knowledge of the experts, and all I can hope at the moment is that I can have some kind of useful role in bringing the two together, because this law is broken.

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