The Illusion That “Choice” Means That There’s Nothing To Fear From Code

Adam Thierer’s reaction essay appeared in the Cato Unbound debate on Friday, Code, Pessimism, and the Illusion of “Perfect Control.” He argues that the basis for Lessig’s pessimism in his book, Code, was his illusory belief that code provides a mechanism for “perfect control.” While he levies some strong criticisms of this position and argues that a regulatory alternative could be much worse, he seems to take an equally illusory position of optimism in the essay.

First, Thierer ignores all the bad stuff:

Not only are walled gardens dead, but just about every proprietary digital system is quickly cracked open and modified or challenged by open source and free-to-the-world Web 2.0 alternatives. How can this be the case if, as Lessig predicted, unregulated code creates a world of “perfect control”?

I’ve already agreed with Zittrain that “cracked open” isn’t good enough, but… did I miss the death of walled gardens? What about the iPhone app store, the Kindle approach and Facebook and the walled garden approach to social networking sites? I still believe there’s reason to be optimistic — open strategies tend to win out — but to ignore all of the latest walled gardens is to ignore several elephants in the room (that’s one crowded room…). This was disappointing as Thierer has provided a much more nuanced view at other times.

Second, Thierer has an awkward take on the difference between “open” and “closed” technologies:

Indeed, despite all this hand-wringing by the Lessigites, there exists a diverse spectrum of innovative digital alternatives from which to choose. Do you want wide-open, tinker-friendly devices, sites, or software? You got it. Do you want a more closed, simple, and safe online experience? You can have that, too. And there are plenty of choices in between. It sounds more like “perfect competition” than “perfect control” to me

This fallacy just grates on me. The spectrum of technologies Thierer presents has “tinker-friendly” and “safe and simpler” at opposite ends. Why don’t we demand both? WordPress defies this spectrum; a hosted blog at WordPress.com is safe and simple, but that code is available at WordPress.org for anyone to install and tinker with on their own servers. Few would disagree that Firefox is safe and simple, but it’s also “wide-open” free software with which anyone can tinker.

What bothers me about this spectrum is that Thierer implies — whether intentionally or not — that “tinker-friendly” means complicated and dangerous, while “closed” allows things to be safe and simple (because we all know how safe and simple Windows is…). There is no reason that technology needs to be “closed” in order for it be safe and simple. WordPress and Firefox are not compromises between freedom and ease-of use, but technologies that insist on both. Yes, it’s a challenge to coordinate freedom and simplicity, but these are not opposites, there is not an inverse relationship.

We should demand better from technologies which limit freedom. Demanding better isn’t simply choosing another product to avoid the chains yourself, but it also means helping your neighbour to do so as well. I’m not sure that this is the cyber-collectivism that Thierer ascribes to Lessig, as Zittrain’s argument for civic technologies takes a middle road between cyber-libertarianism and the “technocratic philosopher kings” Lessig is accused of suggesting, but it’s more than just saying that things are fine because we have some choice.

By making it seem like there’s nothing wrong and that closed systems go hand-in-hand with “safe and simple,” Thierer responds to Lessig’s illusions with an illusory picture of his own. He is right that code doesn’t provide “perfect control,” and that pessimism is unwarranted, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t recognize shortcomings and demand better from the makers of technologies on which we increasingly rely.

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