Sunday, August 22, 2004

Quickies re: Lessig's Code... and Free Culture

I've been reading Lawrence Lessig's articles, speeches, and blog for a long time now. I recently (finally) got Lessig's three books from Powells, and spent a chunk of my weekend reading them. I've finished Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace and Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity. I'll probably read The Future of Ideas over the next week. Initial reactions:

  • Code is a broader and more original book than Free Culture. If you read only one of these two, Code is probably the one to read. It lays out a fairly broad theory for understanding the regulation of human behavior, one that goes beyond mere law (as it is traditionally conceived) and encompasses markets, social norms, and architecture (code). It's an idea that I'm still digesting, but it's at least thought-provoking.

  • On the other hand, Free Culture does have the following to say for it: it's a faster and perhaps livelier read, animated by a righteous fire that probaby grows out of (among other things) the heartbreaking loss in the Eldred v. Ashcroft case which Lessig argued before the Supreme Court.

  • When tech types read or hear Lessig, there's an overwhelming sense of recognition, that Lessig, unlike most law types, "gets it" when it comes to technology and the law. Reading Code makes you realize that Lessig actually "gets it" even better than many technologists. Back in 1999, it was still commonplace among Internet theorists to claim that the Internet was beyond the reach of governments. The Net would dictate, and governments would adapt or even disappear. Lessig dissented, powerfully, and I suspect it won't be long before his views become accepted as common sense. Indeed, this may already have happened.

  • I saw Lawrence Lessig give a keynote at OOPSLA'03. In an hour and a half he explained all the major ideas that appear in Free Culture (which runs 300 pages, not counting endnotes). He did it without using more than a dozen words on any given presentation slide, and he did it with absolute clarity. Of course, Free Culture (the book) develops his ideas more gradually, and explains his arguments in more detail, and is generally worth reading even if you've seen one of his talks. But that OOSPLA talk seems even more impressive in retrospect, having read the book, because I realized the tremendous density of ideas he packed into it. By contrast, I have a lot of trouble explaining a ten-page scientific paper in half an hour. (That's not an entirely fair comparison, because scientific papers have more text on a page and pack a higher density of technical details than a book like Free Culture, but still, believe me, I'm a much worse speaker than Lessig.) If you haven't seen Lessig's OSCON'02 talk, you should check it out.

  • Funny Lessig verbal tic: many things are "increasingly X", for various X. BTW the hit count on the Google link underestimates the number of occurrences of this word; a grep through the ASCII version linked from the FC remixes page reveals that there are 54 lines containing the word "increasingly".

    (Appropriately enough, there would have been no easy way for me to do this count if Lessig had not made his book available free in electronic form.)

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