Notes EM: Fiction vs reality


Tim Wu on my book:

Too much assault and battery creates a more serious problem: wrongful appropriation, as Morozov tends to borrow heavily, without attribution, from those he attacks. His critique of Google and other firms engaged in “algorithmic gatekeeping”is basically taken from Lessig’s first book, “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace,” in which Lessig argued that technology is necessarily ideological and that choices embodied in code, unlike law, are dangerously insulated from political debate. Morozov presents these ideas as his own and, instead of crediting Lessig, bludgeons him repeatedly. Similarly, Morozov warns readers of the dangers of excessively perfect technologies as if Jonathan Zittrain hadn’t been saying the same thing for the past 10 years. His failure to credit his targets gives the misimpression that Morozov figured it all out himself and that everyone else is an idiot.

What my book actually says:

Alas, Internet-centrism prevents us from grasping many of these issues as clearly as we must. To their credit, Larry Lessig and Jonathan Zittrain have written extensively about digital preemption (and Lessig even touched on the future of civil disobedience). However, both of them, enthralled with the epochalist proclamations of Internet-centrism, seem to operate under the false assumption that digital preemption is mostly a new phenomenon that owes its existence to “the Internet,” e-books, and MP3 files. Code is law—but so are turnstiles. Lessig does note that buildings and architecture can and do regulate, but he makes little effort to explain whether the possible shift to code-based regulation is the product of unique contemporary circumstances or merely the continuation of various long-term trends in criminological thinking.

As Daniel Rosenthal notes in discussing the work of both Lessig and Zittrain, “Academics have sometimes portrayed digital preemption as an unfamiliar and novel prospect… In truth, digital preemption is less of a revolution than an extension of existing regulatory techniques.” In Zittrain’s case, his fascination with “the Internet” and its values of “openness” and “generativity,” as well as his belief that “the Internet” has important lessons to teach us, generates the kind of totalizing discourse that refuses to see that some attempts to work in the technological register might indeed be legitimate and do not necessarily lead to moral depravity.

One of the theoretical frames that I use in my dissertations is path dependency. Specifically, I consider whether early decisions with regards to Internet standards (small, early, decisions) actually lead to systems that are challenging to significantly change after systems relying on those protocols are widely adopted (i.e. big, late, decisions aren’t that influential). Once systems enjoy a network effect and see high levels of sunk capital, do they tend to be maintained even if something new comes along that is theoretically ‘superior’?

I mention this background in path dependency because a lot of the really interesting work in this field was written well before Lessig’s and Zittrain’s popular books (yes: there’s still excellent stuff being written today, but core literature predates Lessig or Zittrain). There’s also a extensive literature in public policy, with one of the more popular works being Tools of Government (1983). Hood, in Tools, that outlines how detectors and effectors work for institutions. Hood’s work, in part,  attends to how built infrastructure is used to facilitate governance; by transforming the world itself into a regulatory field (e.g. turnstiles, bridges and roads that possess particular driving characteristics, and so forth) the world becomes embedded with an aesthetic of regulation. This aesthetic can significantly ‘nudge’ the actions we choose to take. This thematic of ‘regulation by architecture’ is core to Lessig’s and Zittrain’s arguments, though there are no references to the ‘core books or sources’ that really launched some of this work in the academy.

This said, while there are predecessors that Lessig and Zittrain probably ought to have spent more time writing about, such complaints are true of practically any book or work that is designed to be read by the public and policy makers and academics. The real ‘magic’ of Zittrain and Lessig (and Morozov!) is that their works speak to a wide audience: their books are not, i would argue, written just for academics. As a result some of the nuance or specificity you’d expect in a $150 book that’s purchased by the other 10 specialists in your field is missing. And that’s ok.

Morozov’s key complaint, as I understand it, is that really important problems arise from how these authors’ books are perceived as what they are not. In other words, many people will not understand that many of the more populist books on ‘the Internet’ are being written by people with specific political intentions, who want their books to affect very particular public policy issues and that, as a consequence, these books and other writings have to be read as political works instead of ’dispassionate academic works’.* Their writings act as a kind of trojan horse through which particular ways of thinking of the world become ‘naturalized’, and the authors are ‘first’ to write on topics largely because of their skill in writing about the present while avoiding elongated literature reviews on the past.

I can appreciate Morozov’s concerns around language framing issues, and around the (sometimes) sloppy thinking of these authors. And I can appreciate Morozov’s critics who see him as being blunt and often similarly failing to ‘show all of his work’. For the public, however, I hope that they don’t necessarily see the very public conflicts between Morozov and his colleagues as necessarily an academic dispute in public so much as an unmasking and contestation of divergent political conceptions of the Internet and of literature more generally.


* I write this on the basis of having attended conferences with American legal scholars working in this area. Papers and reports are often written with specific members of federal sub-committees, Congressional and Senate assistants, or federal/state justices in mind. In effect, these authors are writing for people in power to change specific laws and policies. As such you should always hunt for what is ‘really going on’ when reading most popular American legal scholarship.

Notes EM: Fiction vs reality

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