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Customer Review

on 24 March 2009
Lawrence Lessig has, rightly, achieved hero status amongst netizens for his early, analytical and compelling advocacy of the need for wise regulation by law - and other sorts of code - of that thing William Gibson termed cyberspace.

Lessig's magnum opus is Code: and Other Laws of Cyberspace - remixed not long ago into Code: Version 2.0 - the second "version" edited communally by wiki thereby demonstrating, as you would expect from a tribal elder, the man has the courage of his convictions. Lessig's renown has accordingly spread: he is a sought after public speaker (and a compelling one - Lessig is a genius with a PowerPoint presentation) and, rumour has it, is a long-time consiglieri of president Obama who in recent times has been linked with the job of running the Federal Communications Commission. Boy would *that* frighten the Confederate horses.

As a prolific generator of intellectual property himself, much of which is available through open source copyright licences, Lessig is in the unusual position, a bit like a stand-up comedian from an ethnic minority, of being able to score hits that others cannot without being written off as a liberal/hacker/stoner hand waver (though it isn't to say that this doesn't routinely happen - a quick trot through the one star reviews on this site ought to persuade you of that).

The thing is, his analysis isn't half as glib as his conservative detractors say it is (or their criticisms are!) Lessig is a brilliant and compelling thinker. Code, in my book, is one of the few essential pieces of 21st century political philosophy to have emerged.

The Future of Ideas was published in 2001 as a follow up to the original Code, and while its arguments are for the main part compelling, they are also familiar, springing as they do from exactly the turf as those in Code: principally the virtue of the end-to-end architecture of the internet and the possibility for a myriad of unimagined innovations and unprecedented technological developments.

This was the meat and potatoes of Code, and it didn't feel as if substantial new ground was being broken here, and where it was - for example Lessig's playful reference to the "Sovietisation" of dominant positions in the market - such interesting and fair observations were let down by their expression. To compare corporate titans with communists will infuriate exactly the conservative readers Lessig ought to be doing more to appeal to.

This book, and the author's outlook generally, aren't without their flaws. Lessig is an idealist in at least two pejorative senses: First, in that he believes that fixing the endemic problems he excellently articulates is a matter of straightforward legal or technological regulation, whereas he has (equally excellently) articulated that the first order problems are themselves not of a legal or technological nature. They are with the meatware, and in particular its peculiar sociological constitution. The same "Sovietisation" that cankers corporate titans also ossifies regulators, and for the same ineluctable evolutionary reasons.

Complexity is inevitable in our social systems precisely because (like the internet and successful corporations) they have evolved from institutions and customs designed to solve earlier, different and often unrelated problems. Lessig is extremely convincing on this. But there's the rub: the fix for these historical circumstances came pre-bundled with commercial and political hierarchies the priorities of which have hardened, for predictable but selfish reasons, in ways which, as Lessig now patiently catalogues, create problems of a different nature altogether.

But nor are these hierarchies all for the worse, and they have the benefit of inertia, we all have an innate (no doubt evolved!) resistance to the idea of abandoning established (read evolved) political structures when they still appear to be functioning, however sub-optimally - especially since those in the upper reaches of the political structures who are best placed to change them are also, almost by definition, least incentivised to do so.

Overcoming these facts of life presents social as well as political issues: it is not simply a matter of passing the law: one needs to build the consensus to pass the law. The old paradigm not only needs to be in crisis, it needs to be *believed to be* in crisis - believed by the very people from whose perspective it is least obviously in crisis.

This is where the conservatives cheap shots, which Lessig laughs off, do hit home: preaching to the choir (which squarely includes me, by the way) won't help: the sermon needs to go over with the sceptics in the posh seats. This does seem to be starting to happen where it really matters - commercial and technological development. Personally I'm less exercised than Lessig is about the mendacity of the Recording Industry Association of America since, well, it *is* only rock `n' roll, however much we might like it.

Secondly, Lessig overstates his case. To win over this congregation of Hollywood moguls and record company execs - a tough crowd - he needs to avoid overreaching. His analysis of the internet's architecture is comprehensive and detailed (herein you will learn more than you bargained for about the packet-switching design of the code layer of the internet) but he is not persuasive that this whole edifice, spanning as it does not just real space, public and private property and also international regulatory space really could be, in its entirety, laid low by regulatory action, much less privately or corporately controlled systems design. These days not even Ma Bell has anything like monopoly power, and technological advances (wifi, internet through electricity circuits) ever more militate against it ever happening again. That is to say, I think Lessig is crying wolf.

Since there will always be (virtual) areas of the net which are differently or less heavily regulated or, to use his awful expression, "architected" (Professor Lessig, if you're reading: the word is "designed") and the commercial energy required to rein in defectors will always be greater than that required to ease constrained systems to keep up with the competition, and, absent real-life Sovietisation (these days not quite as ludicrous a prospect as it would have been in 2001!), market share will always go with gravity - downward, to the service provider who places the least constraints on its subscribers.

This, I think, is borne out by the history of the net in the eight or so years since this book was written. The original Napster may have gone the way of all flesh, but the collaborative internet is in rude health, as ADSL has become mainstream the opportunities for innovation and creation seem as present as they ever were.

Another well established end-to-end network - a city - provides an enlightening metaphor: trains or buses might be privately controlled, the use of cars somewhat (but imperfectly) regulated and (as in any network) there will be places we cannot go at all, but we can always, at the limit, walk. The first lesson of evolutionary theory is: Where there's a will, there's a way.

A week is a long time in technology, and eight years is an aeon: The Future Of Ideas is necessarily dated nowadays, and since the revision to Code, has little to offer that can't be found in that somewhat weightier book.

Olly Buxton
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