You've Woken Up!
Video Interview with Professor Lawrence Lessig, Copenhagen, June 10th, 2006, on the occasion of the official launch party of the Danish Creative Commons licenses. The interview was produced and transcribed by Morten Blaabjerg, Crews Cut Production.
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Architecture of the internet
MB : [Professor Lessig,] I've read several of your books, and in most of them you often use the term 'architecture' when you talk about the internet or code. Why do you use that expression?
LL : Well, I want by the word 'architecture' to invoke the idea of constraints or enablements that you find in the world. Of course, they've been constructed. It's not like stairs have not been built and thereby block people, who are on wheelchairs, but it is the sense in which you find a certain set of constraints, that either make the world able to do certain things, or disable to do certain things. And I think it is really important to recognize how policy makers and businesses, and people can modify those constraints, and thereby define the freedoms that exist in a certain space - or eliminate freedoms that exist in a certain space. Of course, it's always historically been the case that policy makers could think in this particular way, but now it's especially important, because the plasticity of space is so much greater than it was before.
MB : So in other words, you mean... There's a lot of people who perceive the internet as anarchistic and uncontrollable... How is your opinion on that subject?
LL : It is a classic place to see the mistake of ignoring architecture. It is the case of course, that the internet as originally architected made it very difficult for governments and business to track down who people are or what they are doing, and therefore to regulate them in that sense. But it's also pretty clear, that that's simply a function of the design of this space. And there are many other designs that are consistant with the functionality of the internet, that increase the capacity to identify who people are and what they are doing, and therefore to increase the capacity to regulate them. So in my first book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace my whole argument was, to the extent you believe in the freedoms the internet enables, you gotta defend them. You can't just say, they are by necessity part of the internet, because there's lots of powerful forces, who would like to remake the net, to remove those freedoms.
The push for change
MB : What are those forces?
LL : A lot of the remaking is done not for any malicious reason, but as a kind of natural outgrowth of other activity. For example, think about commerce on the World Wide Web. Before Netscape introduced the cookies-technology, it was very difficult to use the web to sell things, because if you went in, you bought something, and put it into your shopping cart, and then you went to different page, the computer would not know you were the person who just bought 500 copies of Lessigs latest book, because there was no way to identify you as the user; it was a stateless architecture. So cookies are designed to deposit on your machine, so that they can figure out you're the same person who just bought 500 copies of Lessigs book — and that enables commerce.
Well, one thing it enables is commerce, another thing it enables, is the easier ability to track people, to see what they're doing on the World Wide Web. That's a consequence of that architectural design, and that was designed for benign reasons, but the consequence can actually be quite malign in the way that it's used. So that was one particular example.
And then, the government too wants to push to enable easier identification of behaviour on the internet, because they've got legitimate laws, they're trying to enforce, or legitimate behaviours — or illegitimate behaviours they are trying to regulate. So, government too would like to see a more regulable internet.
And the third main player here, are individuals themselves. I mean, we hate spam. We hate the idea that you can connect your computer to the internet and it's vulnerable to virus'es. So people too, would like to see the internet developed in a way, that you can regulate behaviour much more, and when you put these three together, business, government and individuals, you have a lot of pressure to modifying the architecture to increase the regulability of behaviour there, and that's in fact what we're seeing.
A terrified industry
MB : Part of this process is taking place in the heavy enforcement of copyright law, especially from the media industry. What do you think the media industry wants to achieve, by enforcing copyright laws?
LL : Well, you know, most of the media industry is just terrified, it's panicked. Because they can't see what the business model looks like, in the next 25 years. The music industry in particular had a very comfortable business model for the last 20 years. It basically comprised : some new technology comes along and everybody has to rebuy all of their content for the new technology. So, records got replaced by 8-track tapes, which got replaced by cassettes, which got replaced by CD's. And that process of replacing was their business model, it's how they made money. Now, they don't know how to make money anymore. So their natural instinct is to try to use the law to give them as much control over innovation in this space, as they possibly can get. Totally understandable.
What's not understandable is why policy makers are so oblivious to the obvious game, that's being played here. And instead of worrying about protecting one particular industry, why aren't they worrying about protecting the wide range of creativity, that's affected by the draconian laws, which they're enacting to protect one industry?
So, the industry is terrified, but, at least in my tradition, what we wanna do is create industries terrified of new innovation; that's what competition is! It's supposed to be a system, where competitors fight each other to produce the greatest innovation they can, to attract the largest market that they can. You know, Adam Smith said, you can rarely get a group of competitors together without them beginning to conspire about how to eliminate competition. Well, the bothered version of that, is you can't get a bunch of competitors together with government officials, without them conspiring with government officials, that government officials act to eliminate competition. And I think, that's what you're seeing happening here. What we gotta do, is find a renewed faith in the idea, that new technologies can help in lots of ways, not in every way, but can help in lots of ways, and we gotta encourage that opportunity.
MB : What are your greatest hopes for what the internet and new technology can do to our cultures, to our societies?
LL : In many ways, the 20th century was the most passive century in human history. In the sense that though people had extraordinary wealth, at least in some parts of the world, an extraordinary wealth, and extraordinary access to knowledge, their relationship to business or to production and to culture and to government was the most passive it's ever been. So you went to work in a factory, or you went to work in a business. What you did was just what you were told to do. If you wanted to participate in culture, what that meant, was consuming culture produced by somebody else. Politics increasingly became broadcast politics, where you just sit back there and watch your television 30-second ad or one-minute ad, and that's all you did, that's what it was.
In my view, the most exciting thing about the internet, is that it revives participatory culture. You see peer-production in the context of the internet, that's producing great wealth, which is changing the way business thinks about its relationship to its consumer. So user-generated innovation is the new buzz word for businesses; it's a great way to become better businesses. But the other part of that is, is that people are closer and more intimately connected to that part of production in a way that hasn't happened in a hundred years. Same thing with culture. People don't just want to listen to music, kids want to take that music and remix it, and share it with their friends. That's what culture is, it's this read/write experience. You know, in my generation creativity was mixed tapes, you know, you could figure out which songs to put on a mixed tape. That's creativity, I agree, people did it well, but in my kid's generation, they're gonna talk about remixed movies, remixed music, and that's creativity [for them]... And that's great, because instead of being just passive consumers, people become active participants.
But the most powerful place, where this is gonna matter, is politics. We've not yet seen it, but it has extraordinary potential, because when people do something more than just listen, to television ads, when they actually participate in writing blog-entries, or persuading people with their own writing, then their commitment to political ideas is much more powerful, much more effective. And I think, that's where the next great revolution is gonna happen.
Piracy and filesharing
MB : At the moment, in Sweden, you're seeing a lot of political debate, following the raid on The Pirate Bay, the website — which has also spawned a political party; with hackers attacking the police website and government websites... Do you think this is the kind of political landscape you're talking about?
LL : Well, The Pirate Party and the people behind it are extraordinarily sophisticated, and this most recent post, a speech at the Reboot conference, called The Grey Commons, is an extremely sophisticated analysis of the problems.
In America, in my view, it's counterproductive to encourage something called quote 'piracy'. And the reason it's counterproductive, is that if that's what you push, then people stop listening to your argument, because they think that it's all about, you just wanna be able to get something for free. And, if they stop thinking about the argument, then we're not gonna make any real progress. So in America, I think this would be a bad strategy, and in fact, I've come to regret my role in certain lawsuits, that have gone to the supreme court, defending the right of peer-to-peer filesharing. Not because I don't believe in the right of peer-to-peer filesharing, but because, as a strategic or even tactical move, focusing on that activity causes more confusion, than it causes understanding.
Now it could be, certainly could be different in Sweden and in Denmark. They've obviously had some significant effect, to the extent you begin to have leaders in the government talking about creating a compulsory licensing system for music. That's much more progress than we've ever had in the United States about this. So it might be a good tactic here, I can't say, I don't know enough. But I do know that, in the American context, this kind of activity would not be productive.
MB : I wonder that... there's often, when you talk about this subject, there's a sense of urgency, a sense of 'we have to act quickly'. But what do we have to do, and why is it so urgent?
LL : I like to use this metaphor from a book, and then this movie with Robert DeNiro called Awakenings. This was the story of people who fell into a catatonic state in the 1920'es. They had a kind of encephalitis, and so they fell into this catatonic state, and for 40 years, they just lived in this catatonic state. And then there was a drug, L-Dopa, that woke them up. And they came back to life, they were normal people again. And there was this drama around coming back to life after 40 years in this catatonic state. But the tragedy to the story is, that the drug wore off, after a relatively short time. So these people were woken up, and then they went back to this catatonic state.
I think that's a metaphor for what's happening with culture right now. We were in this catatonic state for the 20th century, that was the 20th century. It produced some of the greatest tyrannies in human history. It produced some of the greatest progress in human history, but it was a catatonic state, in that sense. The internet has come along, and it has woken us up. It's an extraordinary opportunity for engaged action, cultural, political, commercial... all of it. But the architecture is being changed, right now. And layers of control are being added back onto this platform. And so, like the people waking from their catatonic state, there's the deep risk, that we're gonna go back into this catatonic state, as these technologies facilitate the wee exercise of control. And so, my view is, unless we right now get people to recognize what's happened : you've woken up! Cultures have woken up! And you've gotta defend that freedom now. Before they know it, the architecture will've shiften them back to where we were, back to the 20th century, back into the dark ages.
MB : Thank you very much!
LL : Good luck with the documentary!