Exporting the Apocalypse

By Ted Byfield, 10 April 2000
Image: Centralised, decentralised and distributed networks

Mainstream publishing has never shied away from the apocalypse; death, decay and panic sell books. Rational, legalistic narratives about political oppression brought about by technologies of total control should be a different story. So why, after decades of political philosophy which has promoted similarly pessimistic theses, the current media flurry over Lawrence Lessig’s recent and populist book Code? Has fear of an erosion of the foundation of Western culture - free will - reached its critical mass? Ted Byfield finds out.

In late 1998, when Y2K ’hysteria’ was coming to a full boil, sci-fi writer Bruce Sterling predicted that the first days of 2000 would bring a swell of unrest, as people suddenly realised that the deus ex machina of technical failure had not, in fact, fixed all those pesky problems - you know, the ones that have been piling up because of [ please provide your discontents here ]. Sterling was right, I think, though a bit overoptimistic in the precision of his forecast. Civilisations are big, messy, sprawling things, even when they're counting down to a precise deadline.

’Y2K’ was (and still is) a moral story about anxieties over the extent to which society, through the sinful agency of pharisaical technocrats, delegates the bulk of its discretion - the ubiquitous rule-bending, expedient corner-cutting, useful corruption, and forgiveness that grease the wheels of society - to interconnected, interdependent, and, above all, unforgiving cybernetic systems. The problem, then, is how to arrive at a more stable relationship between social values and their technical implementations; and since it wasn't cured in a lightning-flash of collapse, its resolution will presumably mirror its development - a long and painful process. Hence the contradictory quality of dystopian visions expressed in terms of 'technology': one extreme held that the technologies central to ideologies of globalisation would malfunction and precipitate total chaos; the other holds that they'll continue to advance toward perfection and thereby bring about total order.

The latter of the two uneasinesses is becoming more evident - or maybe merely more mainstream - in the US. One of its more articulate recent airings is a very middle-of-the-road, mass-market book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, by Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig (he's also known as the court-appointed 'special master' in the US case against Microsoft). There are others - for example, Simson Garfinkel's widely praised new book Database Nation, which describes this decidedly unprivate hell:

"You're planning a trip to New York City for Valentine's Day with your sweetheart. You call up your travel agent to make a reservation, then [later] discover that your email inbox is filled. There are more than 5,000 restaurants in the Big Apple, and a third of them have sent you electronic coupons.... You pick up your phone [to] call your travel agent and yell at her for selling your name. But...instead of hearing a dial tone you find yourself speaking with a representative for United Airlines. Your travel agent [had] ticketed you on American.... As you get up, your phone rings again. The Caller ID box says that it's from your sweetie... Surprise! [It's] a local travel agent (who has programmed her telephone switch to give out fake information on the Caller ID).... When your tickets show up, you discover an advertisement for a prescription drug (one you've researched because you've been thinking about taking it) printed on your boarding pass. Even [the "air phone" is] displaying a tiny personalized advertisement.... When you finally get home a week later, you discover that your home has been burglarized." Lessig never indulges in such (very reasonable) grotesquery to make his point, but his concerns are quite similar. Actually, insofar as his goal is more systematic - to describe the transformation in the governance being effected through digitalisation - it's even more extreme. In Code, he argues that the Net is quickly becoming not, as ballyhooed, a space of liberation but, rather, an instrument of oppression; and that it's doing so with a force and scope exquisitely adapted to undermining the foundations of democracy. How? Law and programming, he says, are melding into a single entity - 'code' - that will determine individual and social degrees of freedom to a far greater extent than ever before. The practical result of this new lingua franca of control is a ubiquitous, 'real-time', and effective regulatory environment in which pedantic distinctions between "May I?" and "Can I?" begin to dissolve: if you may not, you cannot.

Such a dissolution implies more than merely that finger-wagging grammarians, those epigones of 'Western culture', might soon be out of a job. If what one may do and can do become one and the same, the subjective basis of much of Western culture - for example, morals and ethics based on notions of a free will - has an appointment with the junk heap of history Real Soon Now..If that sounds a little apocalyptic, it is, though it's a sort of updated apocalypse, steeped in a rationality that rejects the mystical revelation and cosmic rupture traditionally envisaged as accompanying The End. Thus, Lessig neither chases his discussion down the rabbit hole of individual subjectivity (he is a lawyer, after all) nor tries to examine it through the majestic looking-glass of history. Instead, he busily explores the warren of 'cyberspace' as a contemporary social phenomenon, describing its many quirky facets in policy, regulatory, legal and technical terms.

But much as, over the last several years, the Net has been offered as a universal panacea, a magical incantation capable of solving virtually any problem, Lessig casts it in darker tones. Not because he believes it to be bad or dangerous, though; on the contrary, he extols the ways in which the Net has offered new generations the rare opportunity to revivify some basic questions of politics, morals and ethics, and - better still - to develop social structures that exemplify their beliefs. But, he argues, the very strengths that led to internetworking's precipitous rise, malleability and extendibility, are what makes it so very adaptable. And so the question becomes to what is it being adapted? His answer: an emerging "axis between commerce and the state" that will lead us into a " of perfect regulation," "an architecture that perfects control."

For those with more 'radical' political views than Lessig's, this 'axis' - which isn't really an axis at all, because the two poles aren't really opposed - is more of a historical given than a brave new world; and its vicissitudes have for the most part been differences in degree, not differences in kind. In this view, digital technologies may accelerate, intensify, and shift the centuries-long expansion of governance's (not government's) regulatory scope, but they do so only on the basis of firmly established social structures. Unless, of course, internetworking ('cyberspace' or 'code', as you prefer) really has introduced an epistemological break, and this 'axis' which relies on it really is precipitating a fundamental transformation in the fabric of governance - its scope, its techniques, its configuration.

If indeed the rise of 'code' poses a threat of catastrophic dimensions, the central question on which the answer hinges should be something pretty close to the problem of technological determinism: "brutally simplified," as Lessig likes to put it, whether technology determines cultural development or vice versa. If the former, then the jig is definitely up, if only because go-go financial markets see technical development as a better investment than (for example) criticism, and distribute wealth accordingly. If the latter, though, there's a lingering chance we can snatch the shreds of freedom from the electromechanical jaws of defeat.

Well, the question would be one of technological determinism if one's approach were guided by an old-world adherence to the dictates of more or less systematic philosophy. But Lessig's approach is Philosophy American-style, the testy, fractious and discursive world of law - specifically, case law - wherein matters of ethics and morals are sorted out on an incidental and, above all, social basis. True, he's a Constitutional scholar, and throughout Code he makes constant (at times irritatingly nostalgic) reference to the founding principles and principals of the United States. This approach is both frustrating and refreshing: frustrating because it often seems as though basic philosophical questions are forever deferred in analyses of this kind; refreshing because, by assiduously avoiding falling headlong into some canyonlike footprint left by a Great Philosopher, Lessig frees himself to explore the flora and fauna of digital landscapes with surprising fluidity. And American legal theory provides abundant conceptual tools for examining, classifying, and analysing its manifold curiosities.

What such a socially minded approach does not provide, though, is historical perspective - maybe of the kind that would have made clear how great is the divide separating Code's Orwellian warning from its methodical survey of the myriad ins and outs of cyberspace, or from the smattering of minor policy and legislative reforms with which the book closes. Lessig goes to great pains (as a good Constitutional scholar should) to make clear how the legal ramifications of a choice here, a decision there, a ruling somewhere else could prove to be extremely problematic; but, even accounting for this legalistic mode of pessimism, one doesn't get the sense that the sum of these parts is as ominous as he suggests at the beginning and end of Code.

Whence, then, his pessimism? The mere presence of a post-non-Y2K dour mood hardly means that everyone (least of all a jurist intimately familiar with bug-ridden Microsoft wares), would fall prey to fears of total control facilitated by software. Here, I think, the most serious failing of Lessig's approach - which in its earnest pragmatism and insistent faith in legalism will seem to many Europeans to exemplify Americana - becomes clearest.

If one accepts that America's much-noted penchant for litigiousness is its equivalent of philosophy, then American philosophy is, as Gilles Deleuze would say, philosophy very much in the service of the state. From the perspective of a practitioner - Lessig's perspective - the fanatical libertarianism that defined many of cyberspace's cultural foundations (and it is to libertarians that Lessig addresses Code) would seem to pose a serious threat. But in seeking to rebut the naive libertarian belief that the 'market' could ever have offered a viable alternative form of or forum for governance, Lessig makes much the same misstep they do, which is all too understandable in the culturally malnourished context of the United States: in looking beyond the province of the public sector, he sees only the private sector, commerce. But he sees it through the lens of government; and, not surprisingly, through that lens it looks like government.

The phenomenon Lessig decries, this developing "axis between commerce and the state," is definitely a worrisome trend. But his basic claim, that it's being effected through 'code', is a bit hard to swallow. After all, many of its components - the disappearance of public spaces, the expansion of surveillance, the ambivalent complexities of media, the emergence of transnational regulatory regimes, workplace automation, and so on - have been staples of critical commentary for decades. The idea that these developments don't provide the necessary impetus to propel overdeveloped countries through a transformative historical threshold into a new form of governance, but that digitising, networking, and automating them does provide that impetus...smells like Net-hype.

In a way, it's tempting to disregard Lessig's larger thesis as a slightly overwrought dystopian projection of mundane and trivial 'real'/'virtual' foibles onto the dignifying screen of history, even if he avoids making such a claim explicitly. But such ready reductions, like his own inadvertent inversion of libertarian categories, have worn a bit thin over the years. Simple inversions, negations, and reductions tend to overemphasise simplistic declarations of 'sameness' or 'difference' with little regard for subtler modulations - basically, how the circumstances in which such claims are made are changing.

There can be no doubt that the sheer mass of human communications is expanding at rates nearly impossible to imagine, or that the technologies facilitating this expansion are presenting complex challenges - jurisdictional, fiduciary, forensic, contractual - to traditional structures of governance. To insist that this, in all its fantasmagorical detail, will leave cultures somehow unaffected or free of discontents seems awfully blasŽ. But to adopt a position that imagines itself to stand outside this communicative sphere, and either announce or condemn the possibility that these changes are in fact signs of a fundamental rupture in the fabric of culture - such a gesture could benefit from a slightly more blasŽ attitude. To the extent that Lessig struggles, not completely successfully, to focus on practical examples and analyses, his efforts are extremely admirable, for all their flaws.

As to these larger historical questions, they'll ultimately fall to the proverbial future historians to grapple with. And since these historians will no doubt need to immerse themselves in digital technologies to make sense of their material, it's quite possible that the pre-digital world - with all its the ubiquitous rule-bending, expedient corner-cutting, useful corruption, and forgiveness - will present itself as a bit of an epistemological mystery. But it's entirely possible that In The Future we won't need any historians, at least not in the way we now understand them, because the totalised environment of surveillance Lessig warns of will have put them out of a job.

Ted Byfield <tbyfield AT>