Cato Unbound has an outstanding online debate going on right now about Lawrence Lessig’s book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace as it hits 10 years. Declan McCullagh started things off with a post entitled, “What Larry Didn’t Get,” offering a libertarian critique of Lessig’s approach and accusing him of favouring “technocratic philosopher kings.” Jonathan Zittrain has the latest post, “How To Get What We All Want,” which focuses on the similarities between McCullagh and Lessig and takes a middle ground between libertarianism and government regulation, arguing for civic technologies. Adam Theier has a post going up on Friday, and Lessig himself will have the last word on Monday. I highly suggest you check it out, if you’re at all interested in these issues and haven’t seen it already.
Now, I haven’t yet read Zittrain’s book, The Future of the Internet — And How To Stop It, but from the sorts of things I’ve read about it, I don’t think I share his pessimism. However, one line in his contribution to the debate really resonated with me. After talking about the dangers and limitations of proprietary technologies controlled by vendors (e.g. iPhone, Kindle, Facebook), he remarks:
This is the future of the Internet that I want to stop, and it’s small solace that geeks can avoid it for themselves if they can’t easily bring everyone else with them. [emphasis mine]
I get so frustrated when people rationalize the locked down nature of the iPhone by saying that they can just unlock it. Unlocking an iPhone is not freedom. (1) It still rewards Apple, the maker of the chains, through the purchase; (2) it’s a disservice to the vast majority of people who don’t have the skills to unlock their devices.
I strongly believe that if geeks want to do something useful to solve the problems that Lessig and Zittrain identify, it has to involve supporting free (libre) technologies that don’t have any chains, instead of just buying into proprietary technologies and removing their own chains.
The counterargument to Zittrain’s thesis isn’t a jailbroken iPhone; it’s an OpenMoko Freerunner.
This is why Zittrain holds up Wikipedia as an example of a civic technology; he notes the fact that Wikipedia is licensed freely. Free culture and free software are what produce civic technologies.
I don’t share his pessimism, but I sympathize with his argument for civic technologies.
Civic technologies seek to integrate a respect for individual freedom and action with the power of cooperation. Too often libertarians focus solely on personal freedoms rather than the serious responsibilities we can undertake together to help retain them, while others turn too soon to government regulation to preserve our values. I don’t think .gov and .com never work. I just think we too easily underestimate the possibilities of .org – the roles we can play as netizens rather than merely as voters or consumers.