Cato Unbound Debate: Lessig’s Code at Ten (Part 3: Thierer response)

by on May 8, 2009 · 7 comments

The Cato Unbound online debate about the 10th anniversary of Lawrence Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace continues today with my response to Declan McCullagh’s opening essay, “What Larry Didn’t Get,” as well as Jonathan Zittrain’s follow-up.

In my response, “Code, Pessimism, and the Illusion of ‘Perfect Control,’” I begin by arguing that:

The problem with peddling tales of a pending techno-apocalypse is that, at some point, you may have to account for your prophecies — or false prophecies as the case may be. Hence, the problem for Lawrence Lessig ten years after the publication of his seminal book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.

I go on to argue that:

Lessig’s lugubrious predictions proved largely unwarranted. Code has not become the great regulator of markets or enslaver of man; it has been a liberator of both. Indeed, the story of the past digital decade has been the exact opposite of the one Lessig envisioned in Code.

After providing several examples of just how wrong Lessig’s predictions were, I then ask:

[W]hy have Lessig’s predictions proven so off the mark? Lessig failed to appreciate that markets are evolutionary and dynamic, and when those markets are built upon code, the pace and nature of change becomes unrelenting and utterly unpredictable. With the exception of some of the problems identified above, a largely unfettered cyberspace has left digital denizens better off in terms of the information they can access as well as the goods and services from which they can choose. Oh, and did I mention it’s all pretty much free-of-charge? Say what you want about our cyber-existence, but you can’t argue with the price!


I am forced to admit, however, that Lessig’s book has had enormous impact of the field of cyberlaw and digital technology policy:

This brings me to what I believe is the most important impact of Code: the philosophical movement it has spawned. As Declan noted in his opening essay, Code “offered a burgeoning protest movement [a] unifying theme and philosophy” in that it was both a polemic against cyber-libertarianism and a sort of call-to-arms for cyber-collectivism. It gave this movement its central operating principle: Code and cyberspace can be bent to the will of the collective, and it often must be if we are to avoid any number of impending disasters brought on by those nefarious (or just plain incompetent) folks in corporate America. Led by a gifted, prolific set of disciples such as Jonathan Zittrain and Tim Wu, as well as increasingly influential activist groups such as Public Knowledge and Free Press, Lessig’s cyber-collectivists continue to preach skepticism regarding markets and property rights, and a general openness to — and frequent embrace of — government solutions to digital-era dilemmas. [...]  Prof. Lessig and his movement are winning the battle of ideas on the cyber-front today. We have Code to thank — or blame — for that.

Please head over to the Cato Unbound website to read the entire thing.  Prof. Lessig’s response is scheduled to be posted on Monday.

Previous post:

Next post: