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20 December 2007

Nerd Factor X Verisimilitude Me Use Brain

lessig law code technology book


Code 2.0

Cover of Code 2.0 by Lawrence LessigSo I recently finished Lawrence Lessig’s Code 2.0 and I am compelled to pass some sort of comment on it. Book reviews aren’t really my strength, but this one definitely deserves attention of some sort.

First the easy stuff. This book is a new edition of an earlier book with the obvious title. The changes and updates have been through an interesting process whereby the entire text of the book was posted on a wiki and anonymous contributions were invited to produce the successor. This might make you a bit wary about the overall continuity and structure of the book but I’m happy to report this is not a problem at all. Follow the link above and you’ll note that the entire text of the book is still available online, and indeed contributions are currently being sought for Code 3.0.

As you might expect from a Creative Commons founder, Lessig is putting his money where his mouth is by putting it all online under a CC license. Notwithstanding this, you’ll probably want a paper version. I bought my copy through my usual source, the Book Depository (£8.40 shipped anywhere).

OK so it’s already an interesting book, but what is it about? (You may be wondering) Let me see if I can do it some kind of justice.

For me the book is an extended but highly thought-provoking discussion of the interaction between technology and law, underpinned by an impeccable understanding of both. A key concept that Lessig introduces early on in the book is the idea that regulation of human behaviour occurs through four “modalities” of control operating together in varying degrees.

These modalities are: the law, social norms, markets, and “code”. The latter term obviously invokes the world of the internet primarily, but the same principles extend quite elegantly into real-space by simple substitution of the term “architecture”.

In any given situation, our behaviour is regulated by one or more of these modalities. He uses the example of breaking into your neighbours’ house to steal his new TV, obviously bad behaviour that we wish to regulate. The obvious reason why you don’t engage in this sort of behaviour is because it is illegal and you face punishment if you do. But in addition social norms also act to restrain you in a similar manner. The market exerts a kind of restraint because if you can afford a new TV yourself, you’ll hopefully be more motivated to just go and buy it yourself instead of stealing it from your neighbour. The last modality at work here is of course the architecture of your physical environment, which includes physical barriers (locks on the doors & windows) that also act as a constraint on your behaviour. The combined effect of these modalities is that your neighbour’s TV is kept safe.

The bulk of the book explores how the different modalities interact, and how governments can and should regulate behaviour by manipulation of each of these, particularly online.

A key premise is the (quite easily observable) fact that on the Internet, code dominates most of the other modalities of control. For example, the reason why you can’t post defamatory content in comments on this blog is that I will delete them and (if you persist) block you. The same applies to spam, albeit with reduced efficiency.

However, my reasons for blocking you are crucially not informed by any kind of constitutional values. And while that may be OK for my humble blog, it is almost certainly not in the general case. A key theme which resonated with me is the degree to which online behaviour is increasingly being regulated by code under the control of private interests.

The book spends considerable time exploring the nature and degree to which the existing US constitutional institution is challenged by technology. The concept of “latent ambiguity” is introduced, where technology has evolved to force an ambiguity in constitutional principles that the framers had never envisioned. This is explored in issues relating to intellectual property, privacy, and free speech among others. Such ambiguities need to be resolved adequately before the government can adequately regulate behaviour through code.

This is pretty fascinating stuff if, like me, you have a passing interest in technology, society and the law. Whilst reading I found myself pausing many times to consider the ramifications of what Lessig was saying in the book.

Being an accomplished lawyer I would assume Lessig knows his law, but I can confirm that he is also extremely technology-savvy. It is scary at times how quickly he can explain deep technical issues and instantly distill relevance to society in general and the law in particular.

Because of the scope of the book he is necessarily explaining legal issues to a technical audience and vice versa. I’m happy to report considerable success at the former. He is a patient explainer of issues, leading the reader carefully through a background of objective historical and current facts to thoughtful analysis before venturing (with appropriate disclaimers) into opinion and speculation.

This is not to say that the book is an easy read. The issues are big and necessarily complex. I found myself sometimes having to reread sections and will probably re-read the book (probably when Code 3.0 comes out). There is a lot to digest and think about here.

If I had to criticise anything it would probably be that Lessig sometimes assumes too much familiarity with the US constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights. For foreigners like me, a quick refresher on these before reading the book will probably help.

Overall, a highly recommended book. Should definitely keep you busy over the holidays.