Lessons of Lessig

This post is the eleventh in a series that will be for a graduate course called Theory and Audience Analysis. For the course, I will be posting weekly questions and follow-up analysis about the various readings we are assigned. This post delves deeper into two texts by Lawrence Lessig, “Code 2.0” and “Remix.”

In Code 2.0’s chapter 4 “Architectures of Control,” Lessig made this summation of cyberspace that stuck with me:

Whatever cyberspace was, there’s no reason it has to stay this way. The “nature” of the Internet is not God’s will. Its nature is simply the product of its design.

Lessig is talking about the infrastructure of the Internet – the fact that IP addresses don’t reveal who someone is and that information is broken up and sent via many paths before it arrives at its intended target. These rules for the large part are arbitrary. They were determined by whoever wrote the code to make them that way. They have been largely accepted, which is why we don’t really question or think about them, but these rules could be redesigned and altered. Lessig asserts that because these rules are changeable there is no divine body that rules over the Internet. There is not one-way for things to be.

The idea of code as law is crucial and it raises some interesting queries. Are code writers lawmakers? gods? How is the law regulated? Who enforces it? What happens when cyberspace law conflicts with real-life law?

Lessig addresses this final question in his discussion of copyright and free speech. While regulations of free speech may vary from country to country – in cyberspace regulation is entirely dependent on the code. A government can prohibit conversation on a certain topic, but when “code is law” those conversations can continue on the web unless the government alters it, and an astute code writer could usually find a way around it. The example of Jake Baker, a Michigan Student that was protected under Free Speech laws when graphic writings of his were uncovered, proves that the rules of the “real”-world can’t always translate online.

Lessig further discussed copyright laws and the economy of the Internet in “Remix.” He defines a new hybrid economy that cyberspace has created – a combination of commercial economy (where things are bought and sold and copyright matters) and a sharing economy (where value is determined without regards to money). The trick is maintaining the fine line where sharing and commercial economy interact. Sharing economies typically depend on people to contribute to a software or product. However as with all things they eventually accrue tangible costs. They can go the non-profit route like Wikipedia, but more often they team up with a commercial enterprise to continue. Yet, the commercial economy can’t simply take over. The product still needs the sharing community, and a sharing community can be easily alienated when they aren’t getting a cut of the commercial revenue.

In these situations, Lessig describes the need for “mutual free riding,” the creation of a hybrid economy that both satisfies the sharing community while being financially beneficial to the commercial company. Lessig sees a potential for the success of these dual incentives, but first he calls for a need in policy changes. The fast pace of technology means that real laws are often playing catch up to the ever-changing code laws. Currently the laws protecting copyright and commercial economy in the US haven’t yet evolved to fully consider the scope of cyberspace. There is a tug and pull between real laws and code laws, and the future of these hybrid economies hang in the balance.

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