October 23, 2006 · Lessig
There’s a great line in Gore’s movie about how he thinks about the process of making presentations. Each time, he says, he goes through the presentation “removing blocks” — trying to understand where people aren’t understanding what he’s saying, and changing it so there is understanding. Sometimes it’s not possible, of course — sometimes there’s just disagreement. But sometime disagreement is just misunderstanding.
As I read some of the responses to my post about Web 2.0, I’m beginning to have a Gore moment. I used the word “ethics”; that word is creating a block. Many read that word (reasonably, of course) to suggest I’m trying to impose a moral code on the the Web; distinguish good from bad, right from wrong; a kind of PCism for PCs.
That’s a totally reasonably way to read what I wrote. It’s not, however, the point of the post. I don’t have a moral code to impose on the Web. I was instead describing the elements, as I see them, of a successful Web 2.0 business. My argument is not “do X because it is good”; my post was “do X to keep and spread the success you’ve had.” My claim is not that walled gardens never prosper (see, e.g., AOL). It is that walled gardens wither (see, e.g., AOL), at least in the environment of Web 2.0.
It was clumsy to try to frame that point as a point about ethics. I realize in reading the responses, I hang the normative within “morals”; ethics, in my (private?) language, is about how we (differing depending upon the group) behave. So in that sense, it was how Web 2.0 companies behave, not because god told them to (remember: amoral), but because they believe this is how best to behave.
But there’s another set of responses I don’t think there’s a simple way to answer. There’s a certain mindset out there that thinks the way the world was cut up in college is the way the world is. So whatever set of texts you read as a sophomore, somehow they define the nature of world forever. Seared in your brain is the excitement of figuring out the difference between Capitalism and Marxism, or communitarianism vs. libertarianism. And so significant was this moment of education that everything else in life must be ordered according to these sophomore frames.
I don’t know the best way to respond to this sort of soul. Obama apparently addresses it in the context of politics, when he comments that the last 3 presidential elections have all been framed in terms of the debates of the 1960s (Vietnam, the sexual revolution, etc.), and the best response to this framing is just to move on.
That’s what I wish would happen here. Put your college philosophy books away, and start reading research about what’s happening now. Understand it first, then craft the label. Because when you understand what, say, von Hippel is writing about, it has absolutely nothing to do with communism/communalism/communitarianism/commuwhatever-you-want. It’s all about how business prosper in a new technological environment. There’s a good argument (indeed, great books) skeptical about whether there is a new technological environment. Fair enough. But there are also businesses “democratizing innovation” (free PDF here) not because they’re a bunch of communapinkos, and not because they miss the Cultural Revolution.