Gary Flake’s "Internet Singularity"

Dr. Gary William Flake, Microsoft technical fellow, gave a compelling and lively presentation at SearchChamps V4 entitled "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Imminent Internet Singularity."

Flake’s "Internet Singularity," is "the idea that a deeper and tighter coupling between the online and offline worlds will accelerate science, business, society, and self-actualization."

His PowerPoint presentation is text heavy enough that you should be able to follow his argument fairly well. (Ironically, he had apparently received some friendly criticism from colleagues about the very wordiness of the PowerPoint that allows it to stand alone.)

I’m not going to try to recap his presentation here. Rather, I urge you to read it, and I’ll discuss a missing factor from his model that may, to some extent, act as a brake on the type of synergistic technical progress that he envisions.

That factor is the equally accelerating growth of what Lawrence Lessig calls the "permission culture," which is "a culture in which creators get to create only with the permission of the powerful, or of creators from the past."

Lessig discusses this topic with exceptional clarity in his book Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity (HTML, PDF, or printed book; Lessig’s book in under an Attribution-NonCommercial 1.0 License).

Lessig is a Stanford law professor, but Free Culture is not a dry legal treatise about copyright law. Rather, it is a carefully argued, highly readable, and impassioned plea that society needs to reexamine the radical shift that has occurred in legal thinking about the mission and nature of copyright since the late 19th century, especially since there are other societal factors that heighten the effect of this shift.

Lessig describes the current copyright situation as follows:

For the first time in our tradition, the ordinary ways in which individuals create and share culture fall within the reach of the regulation of the law, which has expanded to draw within its control a vast amount of culture and creativity that it never reached before. The technology that preserved the balance of our history—between uses of our culture that were free and uses of our culture that were only upon permission—has been undone. The consequence is that we are less and less a free culture, more and more a permission culture.

How did we get here? Lessig traces the following major changes:

In 1790, the law looked like this:

  PUBLISH TRANSFORM
Commercial © Free
Noncommercial Free Free

The act of publishing a map, chart, and book was regulated by copyright law. Nothing else was. Transformations were free. And as copyright attached only with registration, and only those who intended to benefit commercially would register, copying through publishing of noncommercial work was also free.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the law had changed to this:

  PUBLISH TRANSFORM
Commercial © ©
Noncommercial Free Free

Derivative works were now regulated by copyright law—if published, which again, given the economics of publishing at the time, means if offered commercially. But noncommercial publishing and transformation were still essentially free.

In 1909 the law changed to regulate copies, not publishing, and after this change, the scope of the law was tied to technology. As the technology of copying became more prevalent, the reach of the law expanded. Thus by 1975, as photocopying machines became more common, we could say the law began to look like this:

  PUBLISH TRANSFORM
Commercial © ©
Noncommercial ©/Free Free

The law was interpreted to reach noncommercial copying through, say, copy machines, but still much of copying outside of the commercial market remained free. But the consequence of the emergence of digital technologies, especially in the context of a digital network, means that the law now looks like this:

  PUBLISH TRANSFORM
Commercial © ©
Noncommercial © ©

Lessig points out one of the ironies of copyright law’s development during the last few decades: the entertainment industries that have been the driving force behind moving the law from the permissive to permission side of the spectrum benefited from looser regulation in their infancies:

If "piracy" means using value from someone else’s creative property without permission from that creator—as it is increasingly described today—then every industry affected by copyright today is the product and beneficiary of a certain kind of piracy. Film, records, radio, cable TV. . . . The list is long and could well be expanded. Every generation welcomes the pirates from the last. Every generation—until now.

Returning to Flake’s model, what will the effect of a permission culture be on innovation? Lessig says:

This wildly punitive system of regulation will systematically stifle creativity and innovation. It will protect some industries and some creators, but it will harm industry and creativity generally. Free market and free culture depend upon vibrant competition. Yet the effect of the law today is to stifle just this kind of competition. The effect is to produce an overregulated culture, just as the effect of too much control in the market is to produce an overregulated-regulated market.

New knowledge typically builds on old knowledge, new content on old content. "Democratization of content" works if the content is completely new, if it builds on content that is in the public domain or under a Creative Commons (or similar) license, or if fair use can be invoked without it being stopped by DRM or lawsuits. If not, copyright permissions granted or withheld may determine if a digital "Rip, Mix, Burn" (or as some say "Rip, Mix, Learn") meme lives or dies and the full transformational potential of digital media are realized or not.

If you are concerned about the growing restrictions that copyright law imposes on society, I highly recommend that you read Free Culture.


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