Lawrence Lessig and the Future of the Internet
BY JASON GANTENBERG I JUNE 7, 2009
When George Orwell's famous protagonist from 1984, Winston Smith, begins to read The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, supposedly penned by the revolutionary Emmanuel Goldstein, Orwell writes that the best books are the ones that tell you what you already know. Granted, Winston arrives at this revelation while hiding from the eyes [and telescreens] of the oppressive government of Oceania, but despite the obvious political differences between 1984 and life in our Information Age, Lawrence Lessig's Code: Version 2.0 (also known as Codev2) often elicits the same sensation and serves, in no small part, to vocalize many of our nagging intuitions and fears about the internet.
When the World Wide Web first popped up in the late 1980s and 90s, there was a feeling that this was the new Wild West, that cyberspace would be unregulated and anonymous for the rest of its days. I was a child then, and my association with computers was limited to what I could find on the 5-inch floppy disks in my father's office, mostly DOS games like Castle or Mosaic. It wasn't until the rise of Napster, when I was somewhere in the bowels of middle school, that the Internet became a thing of interest and potential.
Lessig strikes a stark contrast between the ferocious, libertarian genesis of cyberspace and our increasingly regulated internet. In much more eloquent and nuanced terms than I can muster here, he investigates various facets of our online lives, our anonymity and privacy as well as the ways in which what happens in cyberspace relates to our lives in real space — or at least these are part of his overall thrust.
The real purpose of Lessig's book is to flesh out how we may cope with property and copyright laws in the near future and the new ways in which we will need to define our Constitutional principles where precedents simply do not exist. He spends a great deal of time on the evolution of copyright infringement in the music business and the Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA) and other organizations' repeated attempts to nip piracy and unauthorized copying in the bud. This battle dates back to DAT tapes and VHS, but those from my generation will undoubtedly remember the day that Napster went down, a victim of the industry Goliath that finally won its suit over the filesharing network. His arguments, in part, seek to in many ways condemn the old cops 'n' robbers paradigm saying that record companies failed to change their models quickly enough and recognize the potential of the Internet to reach wide audiences. One gets the sense as well that Lessig seems to think that the old Draconian method of dealing with piracy will soon prove unsustainable and give way to an era of freer copyright and access to various works online.
His own involvement in Creative Commons — an organization that seeks to revamp online copyright by allowing authors to define the restrictions and freedoms governing use of their own work — might be a hint as to his own vision of copyright law's future as the world increasingly moves online.
The value of Code: Version 2.0, and incidentally, the part of Lessig's book that really sort of dredges up Orwell's sentiment about the best books, comes in his synthesis of the natural system of checks that governs our interactions, what he calls "modes of control" or "constraints". Neither of these terms is meant negatively, not necessarily. Lessig takes pains to describe the productive and destructive ways in which all of these constraints might conceivably play their parts. The modes of control he describes are architecture (code), norms (taboos), the market, and the law, and each one affects our association with the Internet in different ways.
To use but one example from the book, Lessig describes the potential use of something akin to a universal identity on the Internet. This would be something different than an IP address, which simply assigns a series of numbers to the computer you are using to access the web. The suggestion Lessig envisions would resemble a sort of electronic government-issued drivers' license in which websites that require certain information — for instance, age-restricted sites that sell pornography or tobacco products — would be assured that one fulfills the age requirement without that person being required to release any other personal information to the site.
Naturally, this system brings to mind at least a few questions not the least of which might deal with the logistics and security involved as well as the concern over privacy, though I have boiled down the discussion to its bare bones. These concerns are not lost on Lessig, and in each solution he posits or scenario to which he refers, he presents the pros and cons, the potential ramifications, and the boons in a very digestible way. One need not be a computer geek to appreciate or understand the concepts he introduces, and those who are well-versed with cyberspace or computer science or law will benefit from the exhaustive reference list Lessig provides.
It would be wrong of me to say, however, that Code: Version 2.0 only tells us what we already know. As Lessig points out toward the beginning of the book, there are those of us who simply use the Internet for things like shopping, banking, and email, and then there are those of us (an ever-increasing number) who spend time in cyberspace, who possess what can only be considered as lives online. Those from the latter group might have thought a bit more deeply about what it means to be a citizen of the Internet, but for everyone else, Code: Version 2.0 might present some much-needed food for thought. I can say, even speaking as a computer hobbyist and one involved relatively deeply with the Internet (notwithstanding professionals and legitimate freelancers), that Lessig's book did not fail in illuminating many issues of which I either had only a latent understanding or, sometimes, even none at all.
In this way, I suppose Lessig's observations don't exclusively adhere to Winston Smith's own feelings, but I still maintain that much will seem oddly familiar. When he cites those who have criticized his work, Lessig's refutations and clarifications sound almost like echoes from past conversations, and though much of the book is undoubtedly tinged with his own views and opinions, most of his reasoning is sound, and his knack for making seemingly complicated subjects easy to understand makes plain a relatively even-handed approach to tackling what might be some defining questions of the next ten years.
The internet is a still-evolving phenomenon, and though it increasingly encompasses larger and larger portions of our lives, it is still ill understood, both in the possibilities it creates and the concerns it aggravates. With technology on its exponential tear into the future, we are all inescapably tied to its evolution and must take an active part in deciding how we are going to shape the Internet, and thus, parts of our lives. Lessig would argue that we do have the power to affect a change and make these decisions for ourselves, but sometimes, the avenues to such change or modification of the architecture are not apparent. Even if you might not agree with all or any of Lessig's assertions about the globalization of the Web or the role of government in deciding its nature, his book serves as an invaluable springboard to meaningful consideration of the issues that confront us now and will continue to do so in the near and immediate future.
To put it plainly, Code: Version 2.0 should be required reading for anybody with a stake in the future of the Internet — and that's just about everybody.
 Lessig makes reference to a 1993 article by Julian Dibbell regarding early internet communities called MUDs (multi-user dimensions). These are word- and code-based environments in which players create their own relationships and surroundings using either the programming code of a given MUD or their own words via object and character descriptions. The article describes a scene from a MUD called LambdaMOO in which a player "raped" a group of people. Of course, the odd question of what might constitute rape in cyberspace brought to light many interesting and twisted questions about our relationship to this new space. It's a thought-provoking (if mildly disturbing) read.
Lawrence Lessig's Code: Version 2.0 is available as a free PDF download.