March 18, 2005

Reflections on "Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace"

I've been trying to come up with a way to concisely express why Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace is such an important book, in my view. Now, likely few people reading this will argue with me. Since almost all blogs are confined to a small self-selected fan audience, I know to the readers here I'm preaching to choir. Yet still, I feel there's something to say. Perhaps just to those few who are contrarian, or lump the book with cyberguru excesses (or maybe if censorware company people are still reading me daily, they'll learn something - I sometimes wonder if the government agents who made investigative files on writers and artists, ever obtained a second-hand education in high culture from their subjects).

To some, Code was an intellectual beacon. To me, the significance of its importance cannot be overstated as a standards-bearer. It's hard to explain this to many people nowadays. Years ago, far too much of the intellectual discussion about the Internet was dominated by a stifling net-libertarianism. There's a reason I developed a habit of writing so harshly about anything related to Libertarianism. That came from years and years of being harangued by what I call "the street-preachers of the Information Superhighway". Just compare Declaration of Independence, real and imaginary.

The book Code was a rallying-point for intellectual opposition to the net.libertarian view. It was someone with prestigious legal, public-intellectual, credentials, making the case for an important way of thinking. No-one (well, almost no-one), was going to listen to me, a no-credential no-status programmer writing on mailing lists, about these issues. But they would hear the arguments being made by a Professor at Harvard Law School and Fellow of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

I can't convey what a tangible, empirical, difference, the book made. Prior to it, when I talked about structural implications and outcomes, and how designs can have effects, I'd mostly just get bafflement. Or worse, Liberbabble. After Code came out, I found the magic phrase was "Like Lessig writes in Code". People may not in fact have understood, may only have thought they did. But soooo much of my typing was saved. Not to mention a great easing of the struggle for intellectual credibility.

This is one of the few times I could sincerely gush the PR phrase "I'm excited to be a part of this project". Though my full thoughts are actually more nuanced. Note I don't consider this free-speech activism (so I don't think I'm being inconsistent), merely volunteering editorial assistance. I had some trepidation, for complex reasons. But having a chance to be heard, to play a serious role in the rewrite of such an important book, won out.

My thinking is that Code truly made a difference, and I'm hoping my participation will make a difference.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in legal | on March 18, 2005 08:36 AM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

Subscribe with Bloglines      Subscribe in NewsGator Online  Google Reader or Homepage


Ironically enough, when it comes to Lessig's books I'm a contrarian. Yes, liberbabble sucks, but isn't liberalbabble just as bad? The fact that people shut up when you namedropped code makes it sound more like they were cowed by Lessig's rockstar status than convinced by any argument. Lessig's attempt to seek out moderate ground seems to doom any hope for real progress.

Posted by: Aaron Swartz at March 18, 2005 09:01 PM

I don't quite understand your objection, particularly the last part about "Lessig's attempt to seek out moderate ground seems to doom any hope for real progress." How is he harmful by being moderate? (there's always a generic radical/liberal schism, but I'm not sure that's what you mean).

Also, people didn't *shut up* in the sense of being cowed. Rather, they now had a reference point which they found sufficient.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at March 19, 2005 01:45 PM


As a fellow contrarian, I understand that people should take pause when we actually assign praise to something.

Code was of course brilliant-- it changed my understanding of the world. The model of what can be "regulable," and how it can be regulated, was elegant and meaingful. When I first heard the related argument from Helen Nissenbaum in the mind 90's in school-- that computer code embeds certain values-- I thought the whole thing was loony. At the time I felt like most armchair value-slingers, that "values" means how much skin you see on the screen, etc. It's far more complex.

It's funny, these days at my office, I still remind my co-workers that the software we develop exhibits certain values, and we need to be mindful of that. (We call our software rules for cryin' out loud).

At the Berkman BloJo conference, I held up bumblebee-colored copy of Code for all the room to see, lest they forget.

If I am envious of Aaron Swartz for one thing, it is that he has four years (natch, 3+) years ahead of him in school to gain an appreciation for this work. And he can meet the rockstar himself there.


Posted by: Jon Garfunkel at March 19, 2005 03:19 PM