One Way Forward (Excerpt)

In this excerpt from the Byliner Original “One Way Forward,” the bestselling Lawrence Lessig considers the history of open source and “read-write” culture, and argues for the promise of a political equivalent to such movements.

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  1. Let’s start with the hope: The couch potato has left the couch.

    This is critically important, yet just part of a much bigger trend.

    In the past I’ve written about “read-only” cultures—cultures in which people passively consume culture created professionally elsewhere. That’s the couch potato. That’s your four-year-old (but not your six-year-old) with your iPod. Think: lost to another world, while also lost to this world.

    Such read-only cultures can be contrasted with “read-write” cultures. These are cultures in which amateurs create their own culture, or versions of culture, and share that creativity with others. Think remix videos on YouTube, or photos on Flickr, or Wikipedia, or the links and RTs on Twitter.

    Amateur, however, not in the sense of amateurish. Some of it is; much of it isn’t. But whether it is or isn’t, that’s not the point. Instead, think amateur in the sense of people who create for the love of creating, and not for the money.

    The virtue in this kind of amateur lives deep within our culture. We want our kids to learn to play the piano, even if we don’t expect them to become concert pianists. We’d be proud of our kids becoming the resident expert on some obscure subject in some corner of Wikipedia, even if we knew their expertise wouldn’t earn them a living. And we’d be deeply saddened if the only sex that a close friend ever knew was professional, rather than amateur, sex.

    The life of the professional—the wage earner, the laborer, the doctor, the lawyer, the teacher—is important and edifying and produces enormous social and individual wealth. But a life lived solely as a professional is not important and not edifying and produces only a kind of poverty—certainly individual poverty, but social poverty as well.

    Until the twentieth century, all culture was “read-write.” All culture lived not only through professionals performing but also through amateurs re-creating and re-performing. Professionals composed music, but amateurs sang it and played it and adapted it. “When I was a boy,” John Philip Sousa testified to Congress, in 1906, “in front of every house in the summer evenings you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or the old songs.” But technology—the phonograph or the player piano, he feared—was going to take this amateur practice away. “Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day.” The consequence? “We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cords will be eliminated by a process of evolution as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.”

    Sousa was certainly right—about the technology of the twentieth century. It did much to make us much more passive. We had more and better music to consume. Think of record shops: an extraordinary diversity literally at our fingertips. We became much better consumers and, much less frequently, creators. Creativity was for the professional. We were to shut up and listen.

    Sousa would certainly be wrong, however, to say this about the technology of the twenty-first century. Digital technology has not only improved the ability to consume; it has radically democratized the ability to create. When I was a kid, creative sorts shared mixtapes. My kids will share remixes. In five years, if all your kid can do is push play, you’ll worry that something is wrong.

    The critical point is that the same read-write transformation is now happening in politics as well. Until the twentieth century—or, more precisely, the rise of broadcasting—all of politics was read-write. The energy of democratic politics inspired by Andrew Jackson and perfected by Martin Van Buren was to get people out of doors—to canvass, to debate, to argue, and (not to romanticize this past too much) to promise the necessary patronage or buy the necessary votes.

    The twentieth century killed this political read-write culture as well. As campaigns were professionalized, command and control were centralized. The audience was expected to shut up and listen. The worst possible idea was for ordinary supporters to produce their own copy. Campaign material was professional material. The job of the amateur was simply to show up and vote. Yet here again, the twenty-first century is reviving what the twentieth century killed. Technology has returned the amateur to politics. It has invited the blogger to comment, or to criticize. It has encouraged citizens to post on YouTube or Meetup or to make iReports. It has made a Tweet central. And this has happened not just here, but across the world. The possibilities have changed. There are more channels. Scratch that: there’s no such thing as a “channel” anymore. There’s only an endless stream of created work, some professional, some amateur, all trying to motivate people to act and to believe differently.

    As these new technologies have invited the amateur back in, they have excited the passions that this chapter has described. These passions, in turn, fit the pattern of social movements that students of this age will recognize. It is a pattern that is common to every important social “surprise” in the last generation. No one (outside of MIT) imagined the Internet; this kind of movement created it. No one (outside of MIT) predicted GNU/Linux, the free software operating system that took on Windows; this kind of movement built it. No one anywhere conceived of Wikipedia as even possible; this kind of movement wrote it. No one predicted the energy of the Tea Party or the Occupy movement or the other parallel movements around the world, but all of them fit this same form. Indeed, as I’ve gathered the material for this short book, I’ve been most struck by the universal invocation of the ideals of “open-source culture” to explain these movements.

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    Preview more of Lawrence Lessig's One Way Forward.

Originally published in Byliner, February 2012