I started reading Lawrence Lessig’s Code 2.0 this morning, and am immediately struck by its clarity and prescience, as well as its various connections to some of my other intellectual interests. It is a book that I feel has been in the background of my thought – I had known or osmosed some of its ideas from being around similar intellectual ideas and influences, as well as from hearing/reading some of Lessig himself. While there are many interesting points I could comment on here, there are three resonances that jumped out to me most strongly in relation to my own intellectual interests and background.
First resonance: historical echoes in the “irregulability” of blockchain
The first resonance that struck me right at the outset of the book is something that I have considered before: modern rhetorics and conversations around blockchain and its regulability (or irregulability) have clear and obvious historical echoes with similar conversations that occurred in relation to the ~90s internet (“cyberspace” in Lessig’s term).
The most obvious example of this is Barlow’s “Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace”, which Lessig cites and quotes right at the outset. Like many modern (and especially early) blockchain/crypto-adherents, Barlow is committed to a kind of libertarian utopianism for cyberspace. Lessig quotes from Barlow: “We reject: kings, presidents and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code”. Addressing “Governments of the Industrial World”, Barlow writes: “I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather”. Important for Lessig, Barlow’s point here is not just that cyberspace regulation is undesired, but also that it was impossible by dint of its very nature. The echoes with blockchain rhetorics are so obvious that they hardly need to be outlined. And of course, there is surely some historical continuity here – as the modern internet became increasingly commercial and capitalist, early believers turned to blockchain and bitcoin and the myth of Satoshi to reclaim a chance at these Barlowian libertarian values.
I found it interesting too, how Lessig motivates this libertarian excitement in relation to the decline of communism. Government in this setting, had been the oppressor (in Lessig’s frame), and so there was thirst for new modes of governance – the market; new forms of digital self-organization – to take its place. This is interesting to me for how it too echoes with blockchain conversations that I have had and observed. Rising interest in this blockchain space – even among those (like some of my friends) who disagree with its oft-libertarian fundamentals – is driven in part by loss of faith in other existing modes of governance. This accounts for, among other things, the consonance of crypto-adherents and Reddit’s /r/wallstreetbets and their GameStop fervor. Both are undergirded by a distrust in the existing economic/financial system and the rules that govern it.
On a broader level, similar intuitions (albeit somewhat more articulately laid out) drive forward parallel Neo-Brandeisian / LPE conversations about antitrust and competition policy as they relate to dominant technology platforms (Amazon, Google, Facebook), and the broader “neoliberal consensus” that supports them. Conceptual linkages between the Neo-Brandeisian antitrust-ers on the one hand, and blockchain believers on the other is a topic I’d like to explore more in the future. In my view, both camps are driven by a similar dissatisfaction with the current state of the dominant-platform-controlled commercial internet; however, they advance solutions that are at once similar and deeply different: both prioritize the return of a kind of “democracy” to digital space; however, one camp seeks this value in the guarantees of legal institution, while the other seeks it in the immutable logics of code. This is a fascinating Lessigian parallel (“Code is Law”) that I need to explore and write about and expand upon more.
Second resonance: the “all-constructedness” of digital space
The second resonance that emerges for me in these first few chapters is what I’ll call the “all-constructedness” of digital space. That is: unlike the “real” (non-digital) world (assuming for now that such a separation can be drawn), which is – at least in some cases – governed by largely (or at least locally) immutable rules, the rules of cyberspace are always and forever constructed, all the way down. No rules of governance are fixed and immutable in online space – instead, they are always built and written in code by people. Online space is, to put it another way, a wholly “built” environment in a way that the “real” world is not.
To illustrate this point, Lessig gives the example of a conflict between neighbors in the online space Second Life. One neighbor’s poisonous digital flowers are eaten by the other neighbor’s dog, killing it. The point of the example is that, in cyberspace, there are solutions available to this problem that are not available in the “real” world: perhaps the dog’s logic can be re-coded so that it need not die so painfully on consuming the flower, but instead to re-spawn good as new; perhaps the flowers themselves could be re-coded to only be poisonous when they were in the possession of someone who had purchased them. This latter option, in Lessig’s telling, turns out to be a particularly clever one, as it improved things both for both neighbors, benefitting the flower-grower by discouraging now-pointless theft of flowers. But again, the point here is that online space is wholly constructed and so also wholly mutable – a set of choices instantiated in code that can in an instant be changed for everyone. As VR technologies grow and online worlds become ever more immersive, this point is likely to become only more true and relevant to the world.
This point resonated for me with two other intellectual references. The first reference point comes from my experience working as a corporate platform designer, and the related academic and public discourse surrounding corporate tech platform design. Of course, platform designers deeply appreciate the reality of Lessig’s point about the constructedness of digital space. As such, they attend closely to every detail of platform design – button placements, colors, review systems, algorithms, information architectures, and so on – “optimizing” each for their desired (corporate) ends. Such (even minor) design decisions, they understand, are consequential modes of governance to encourage/incentivize/manipulate/control their users. Much of the so-called “techlash” critiques – from algorithmic bias, to clickbait, to radicalization, to dark patterns, to online harassment and so on – can likewise be understood as highlighting the various social costs of these design decisions, at least as made with corporate ends in mind by mostly well-off white men in San Francisco.
The all-constructedness of digital space can be easy to ignore in our day-to-day digital lives. As we browse Twitter, or type up a blog post, or search on Amazon, it’s easy to forget that everything that we are interacting with was intentionally designed by a person with an end in mind, and so embeds some preferences or values over our behavior, whether purely capitalistic (i.e. to get us to buy) or otherwise political (Twitter, for example, purports to favor “healthy conversations”).
Of course, STS scholars have long appreciated that “artifacts have politics” (Winner) – that choices have to be made about how tall to build the underpass, or how big to make the bicycle’s front wheel (Pinch & Bijker) and so on – and that such choices can and do embed social and political preferences of designers, just as they constrain the future behaviors of users. What’s interesting and perhaps unique about the internet, then, is how it is nothing but such choices. (Aside: this reflection convinces me that I need to do more reading in urban planning – Jane Jacobs at least – as I know that similar points have been made there though I am largely ignorant).
On the theme of the internet’s all-constructedness, the second intellectual reference point that this brought up for me is an essay I read recently by Jia Tolentino called “The I in the Internet”. This is an interesting piece that I am hoping to reflect on more. For now what I’ll say is that I understand this piece as also reflecting on the internet’s all-constructed character, albeit with a special focus on what this means for identity and identity-formation online. One can not simply “be” online in one’s natural state; instead, all identity is built and performed (I’d add: and filtered through the pervasive platform structures outlined above). Tolentino links to Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, and traces how the Internet’s constructed identity has influenced the political forms and discourses it has enabled.
Third resonance: Constitutionalism in Lessig and in STS
The final resonance that came through for me in the first few chapters of Code 2.0 is a link with what I think of as Jasanoffian STS. In my read of Jasanoffian STS across various books and articles, a recurring framework is something like the following. As a society, we make – mediated through various institutions – constitutional choices about how to govern the world (I think I am using this world “constitutional” right, but I am not 100% sure). Constitutional choices involve clarifying our values and drawing lines around the world to decide what we will or will not accept, and how things will relate to one another – and instantiating these understandings in a mechanism of governance (i.e. to “rule” the world by them).
In this setting, then, key STS “moments” often arise when novel technological or scientific formations emerge (or become relevant) that challenge or defy existing boundaries and so must be reckoned with – brought into the fold, governed – under the terms of some new constitutional arrangement. STS analysis in Jasanoff’s tradition often focuses on how and on what terms these novel arrangements are made. I am thinking, for example, of Jasanoff’s “Making the Facts of Life” (from an edited volume subtitled “Bioconstitutionalism in the Genetic Age”), which, in (cross-country) comparative terms discusses the confrontation of such a constitutional moment in relation to the treatment of human embryos and human embryonic stem cells in the early 2000s. Previously inaccessible, these novel scientific configurations defied existing categories of governance. The article traces, then, how different countries (Britain, Germany, the United States) confronted the challenge of bringing these novel objects back “into the fold” of governance (e.g. before 14 days the embryo can be used for research; after 14 days it cannot).
In another piece, “Subjects of Reason”, Jasanoff focuses on a similar kind of moment in the governance of air pollution under the Clean Air Act. The disagreement here focuses on the exact boundaries of the category of “air pollution”, and conflicts between legal and scientific modes of informing this boundary. Jasanoff writes (emphasis mine):
Paraphrased, Scalia’s dissent focused on which of two systems of authority should govern when their injunctions are in conflict: the expert, but unelected and extra-constitutional, knowledge of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global arbiter of binding truths about the climate; or the US EPA’s democratically-sanctioned use of words whose plain meanings are accessible to ordinary people, including non-scientists such as the Justice himself. How a form of pollution, or the composition of air, should be understood for legal and policy purposes depended, as Scalia saw, on the answer to a prior question: whose universalism counts for more, that of science or that of law? The answer would determine how a national governmental agency should balance the risks and benefits of extra-territorial phenomena, which human subjects a nation’s regulatory regime would protect, and which institutions and discourses— technical, legal or moral—would dominate in cases of conflict. In short, Jasanoff is pointing to a conflict between two competing modes of governance in bringing a newly-relevant scientific object back “into the fold” of governance.
Lessig is also a constitutionalist and a legal scholar, and so poses his discussion of governing cyberspace in terms that to me feel broadly related to Jasanoff’s. In a similar way, the focus is on a novel sociotechnical formation (“cyberspace”)–and the question is likewise about the terms under which this novel object will be governed. Though I haven’t gotten there yet in the book, I know Lessig offers a taxonomy of governing forces in the context of cyberspace (code, law, norms, markets) and discusses their interplay. I need to read more here, but I am curious to think more about how scientific “expertise” and knowledge creation enter into Lessig’s taxonomy. In STS settings (e.g. the pollution example above), the interplay of scientific “expertise” as a governing force is front and center.
I think, actually, that ideas of scientific expertise play a similar role in many digital spaces, though perhaps in a less public venue (the term “data science” is evocative in this context). Broadly, I see some of my own work and thinking as following in this tradition of wondering about competing modes of governance about digital spaces. And for me, the role of data and scientific/economic “evidence” as a governing justification is (in line, I believe, with STS thinking) more front and center. This connects tightly, in particular, with some thinking / writing I have been doing recently on the role of economic “expertise” in governing gig labor, and stabilizing categorizations of gig workers as independent contractors, as in Prop 22. I will write more on this soon.