Lessig's doomsday look at cyberspace

Lawrence Lessig's new book offers a devastating analysis of the destruction of the Net's once acclaimed freedom and creativity. It also carries a dire warning to change our abusive ways.

6 min read
The hype is deserved: Lawrence Lessig's "The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World" offers a devastating analysis of how the freedom and creativity originally built into the Internet are now being built out of it by corporations and lawyers with a vested interest in controlling what people do online and deciding who has access to what.

An impassioned follow-up to Lessig's celebrated "Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace," written in 1999, "The Future of Ideas" is an elaborate warning: about who is calling the shots in cyberspace; about what it means that controlling interests such as the Recording Industry Association of America, Fox Networks and AOL Time Warner have made the Internet a war zone of intellectual-property disputes; and about how those disputes grow out of a massive forgetfulness on our part about what our founding fathers intended copyrights and patents to be. In short, "The Future of Ideas" warns us about the freedom that we are losing with every day that we allow the deceptive comfort of our one-click existence to convince us that the architecture of the Internet is good, and that all is well with the virtual world.

Published the same week that Microsoft released its controversial Windows XP operating system, "The Future of Ideas" is a timely cautionary tale about how best to understand such inter-related phenomena as Napster's fall, Time Warner's merger with AOL, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and the proprietary games cable and wireless companies are playing as high-speed Internet service providers. The Internet, Lessig reminds us, was originally designed to be an intellectual "commons," a free public space open equally to all (see, for example, the mission statement of the World Wide Web Consortium). But in recent years corporate heavyweights have begun using copyright and patent law to turn large swathes of the Internet into their own private property. Code is kept secret; content is restricted. Increasingly, ideas are not free; increasingly, the fact that they are being regulated is invisible; increasingly, we are not free--to make use of the innovations of others or to innovate ourselves.

At once a hard-hitting analysis of how the Internet is becoming a corporate theme park and a civic lesson in how far America has deviated from its original democratic ideals, "The Future of Ideas" is a book that should be read by all--from lawyers, policy-makers and corporate leaders to software developers, educators and everyday end users.

In recent years corporate heavyweights have begun using copyright and patent law to turn large swathes of the Internet into their own private property.
But that reading should be as skeptical as it is attentive. For if Lessig's message is urgent, his methods are those of the insurrectionist. The book is designed to spark fear in its readers; its mission is not simply to explore and to inform, but to frighten and to inspire action born of that fear. Lessig wants his book to change the shape of the Internet. And in order to do that, his book needs to change those who read it. "The Future of Ideas" provides a lot of hard data and persuasive analysis in order to effect that change. Just as importantly, it makes use of some extraordinarily powerful rhetorical tools.

The metaphors surrounding "The Future of Ideas" are instructive in this sense. Tellingly, Kirkus Reviews notes that Lessig's "timely polemic" is "part manifesto, part jeremiad"--a cross, in other words, between two of our most sensationally incendiary genres. Numerous reviewers have picked up on the messianic quality of the book Michael Wolff has dubbed "the 'Silent Spring' of ideas." For example, Marc Rotenberg of Salon.com describes it as "Internet liberation theology." And George Scialabba of The American Prospect begins his review of "The Future of Ideas" with a play on the opening lines of Marx's "Communist Manifesto": "A specter is haunting culture," he writes, "the specter of intellectual-property law."

Lessig's skilled melding of these evocative modes of writing ought, at the very least, to give us pause. Arguments cannot be separated from the way they are made: The form of Lessig's treatise is inseparable from its substance. Part manifesto, part jeremiad, "The Future of Ideas" delivers the formulaic punch of both.

The manifesto and the jeremiad are emotion-driven genres that get much of their power and sweep from rhetorical pyrotechnics. Built on overstatement, oversimplification and a blithe refusal to acknowledge that there are always alternative points of view, neither the manifesto nor the jeremiad has room for ambiguity. One-sidedness is their nature: Marx's manifesto would not have been a manifesto if he had given capitalism its due; the Puritan ministers could not have put the fear of God in their congregations if they confessed to doubt, or admitted that there was more than one way to read the Bible. On the basis of this one-sidedness, manifestos and jeremiads predict the future. Amid scathing indictments of our moral slackness and gloomy forecasts of our impending doom, they show us how, if only we change our ways--if we overthrow capitalism, say, or devote ourselves to God, or wrest control of the Internet away from the powers that be--we will not only avert disaster but will create an ideal world, a communist utopia for example, or an eternal paradise, or a thriving, truly democratic culture.

If Lessig teaches us nothing else, he teaches us that if ideas are to have a future, we must understand their past.
Americans have always loved fire and brimstone preaching. It sustained the thirteen colonies, which built America out of the Puritan ideal of the exemplary city on a hill. It has fueled American literature: Writers as diverse as Hawthorne, Faulkner and Morrison have consistently sought to teach us how we reap and repeat the sins of our fathers. And it has shaped American political and social movements. From the Civil War to the civil rights movement, from Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, the spiritual-jeremiad-that-is-also-a-political-manifesto has been at the center of our consciences, our conflicts and our imaginations.

When Lessig writes in this vein, he evokes a national tradition that extends back several hundred years to the Puritan ministers who taught their congregants to see themselves as sinners in the hands of an angry God, who dangled their souls over metaphorical hellfire, and then urged them to prove their faith by doing good works on earth. Lessig's sermon is a secular one, to be sure, but the elements of pessimism and prophecy are essentially the same. Dangling us over the black hole of an eerily Orwellian damnation, Lessig exhorts us to take the lessons of the Constitution to heart--to liberate culture from the grip of corporate evil by revising intellectual-property law, by creating online public conservancies, by ensuring neutral platforms, and by making wireless spectrum a public resource. Do this, he exhorts, and we shall be free again. Do this, he promises, and ours will be a golden future rich with the shared creativity of collective intellectual life.

Lessig's is a kind of open-source millenarianism, an apocalyptic picture of cyberspace that sees salvation much as the Puritan preachers did, as the result not of fate or chance, but of each individual taking personal responsibility for his spiritual--or, in this case, virtual--well-being. To observe this is not to take away from either the power or the truth of what Lessig has to say. Rather, it is to show respect for his message: If Lessig teaches us nothing else, he teaches us that if ideas are to have a future, we must understand their past.

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