Lawrence Lessig's new book, The Future of Ideas: the fate of the commons in a connected world , is strongly related to his previous book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace . In Code, Lessig pursued his thesis that the computer code behind all online activities functioned as a set of laws, and the impact that that has on regulation of the online world. In Ideas, Lessig explores a related concept that was hammered on heavily during the Microsoft anti-trust cases -- that holders of intellectual property (copyrights and patents) will squelch freedom and innovation online.
Lessig starts off by looking at the idea of a "commons," a community resource of some sort. The traditional commons is a public park or piece of land, but Lessig is more interested in looking at less-traditional commons on the 'Net and other communications systems. He moves on to examining some of the innovations that have been spurred by the recent growth of the Net -- typically startup companies that have taken advantage of the commons represented by TCP/IP and HTTP to provide a new service or product. If you follow Slashdot religiously, you probably read about most of these companies at least twice -- once when they started offering their innovative new whizbang, and again when they were sued by Megacorp, Inc., and shut down. The final part of Ideas covers the lawsuits, or more precisely the efforts by entrenched players to keep anyone else from playing. The distinction is important, because lawsuits are not the only way to keep upstarts from being able to participate: control of the code is also an important tool. For every control through lawsuits story that Slashdot runs, there's an equivalent story about control through code.Just as in Code, Lessig is not optimistic about the future. Why should he be? So far, despite every warning, every attempt to sound the alarm, the forces trying to shut down innovation are winning in an utterly convincing fashion. A blurb compares the book to Silent Spring, the famous book about the environmental effects of DDT. Silent Spring was more or less successful -- DDT is now banned for most uses in the U.S., and the book had great effect in raising environmental awareness, but overall, environmental quality has continued to suffer. Lessig's book is not likely to be as successful. Attacking DDT was relatively easy compared to attacking the unlimited expansion of intellectual property, which has many multi-billion dollar companies willing to fight to defend their continued erosion of the public commons.
This should suffice to summarize Lessig's book. The ideas in it should not be unfamiliar -- Lessig is hardly the only one espousing this point of view today, though he is one of the most articulate. The final chapters have Lessig's suggestions for ways to reverse this trend of quashing innovation -- different ways of managing the electromagnetic spectrum to produce a better wireless commons (it's worth noting that the unlicensed 2.4 Ghz band has been the source of most recent wireless innovation), ways to create an Internet commons on the wired network (some municipalities are already doing this, laying municipal fiber to the home and following an open access policy), changing copyright law and patent law to put more code in the public domain, changing contract law so that end-users can't be forced to sign away their rights. All are good suggestions. Despite the hopeful notes in parentheses just above, most of these suggestions stand little chance of being adopted any time soon. But perhaps Rachel Carson was looking at much the same uphill battle against DDT.
Ideas is most comparable to The Control Revolution by Andrew Shapiro, an earlier effort to explore the changing dynamics of control on the net. Shapiro was much more optimistic, and writing without much of the recent evidence that Lessig uses to make his point that innovation is being squashed thoroughly. If you will, there is an optimism scale -- John Perry Barlow defines one end of the scale, Shapiro is in the middle, and Lessig occupies the pessimistic side. Smart money is on Lessig.
All in all, it's a fine book. I think I prefer Code though, for a variety of reasons -- I find the central premise of Code to be less obvious, more ground-breaking. Or perhaps I've just read so much about "innovation" during the Microsoft trials that I can never again read the word without wincing. As with Code, Lessig has extensive footnotes, making this a scholarly work (for the scholars) but a perfectly readable book even for non-scholars. In any case, it's strongly recommended.
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