Apparently, they're scratching their heads in the Transition Team: what exactly do we do with ten million e-mail registrants to barackobama.com? While the current talk is all about rights and privacy and the correct use of citizens' information, perhaps the question should be reversed. What will those ten million do with Barack Obama?
If the account of the digital generation given in both of these books is accurate, then the new connected constituency that partly pushed the Obamacrats over the line will be neither mute nor tractable. The campaign phrase "Yes We Can" was both a lift from Cesar Chavez's Mexican migrant labour movement of the Seventies ("Si se puede!"), and a crisp summation of the experience of the Net-Gens – where the right to cultural consumption and expression, and civic activism, is an icon-click away. "Yes we can vote once every four years" is unlikely to be their mantra for the new adminstration.
Lawrence Lessig and Cory Doctorow outline the energy and dynamism of these "netizens" in different ways. And they have different kinds of cautionary advice for politicians struggling to make the most of their irrepressible activism. Strikingly, both Remix (a lucid academic work on technology and copyright) and Little Brother (a schlocky but ideas-packed teen potboiler) are motivated by the same initial anxiety. Why are we criminalising a generation of youth for being creative with new technology?
Lessig is much more the responsible, sympathetic pop-on-the-porch, Doctorow the buzz-cut geek who can't see a firewall without hacking through it. With glorious American consistency, both invoke the Constitution and its framers to defend the enterprise of digital natives. As some wag once said, for all its glitz and buzz, the US is still the oldest modern nation in the world.
Remix sums up the argument Lessig has been prosecuting for 10 years. The entertainment industry's "war on digital piracy" is more about their failure to make a business model out of new technologies, and the failure of regulators to legitimate that model. It's much less about the rise of a new criminal class of "intellectual property thieves".
What does "copyright" mean when every digital device that plays a song or movie literally "makes a copy" on to that machine? And when the machine gives you opportunity to remix or adapt that copy? Lessig takes great pleasure in the story of the mom who put a clip of her baby on YouTube, dancing to Prince's "Let's Go Crazy". She then received a court order from Warner's corporate lawyers to take it down. With all the dudgeon of the legal academic, Lessig asks whether paying "armies of eight-hundred-dollar-an-hour lawyers" is the right way to respond to genuinely "amateur" creativity like this.
Thankfully (and I'm writing as a rights-holding musician here), Lessig isn't anti-copyright. He only wants it to apply sensibly – particularly in this dynamic new environment, where the circulation of culture is operating at light-speed. Some of his broad solutions are pretty familiar to artists. He wants to take the principle of the "performers royalty" for radio – invisible to the audience who listens for free, but which all stations pay – and extend it to internet service providers as a whole.
Remix brilliantly puts a name to those businesses trying to bridge the gap between the commercial (Amazon) and sharing (Wikipedia) aspects of the web: the "hybrid" enterprise. Their looser, less paranoid approach to copyright allows fans to explore their enthusiasms. Lessig cites many studies – Warner's U-turn around fan usage of Harry Potter is a prime example – to show the commercial benefits this brings.
I don't quite go along with his general enthusiasm for "remixing" as an art form. Musicians who explore harmony, melody and rhythm might ask: is it more important to play and compose a new soul riff, for new times, than just rest on the auratic power of a James Brown sample? But Lessig is surely right that digital culture requires governance that is more subtle and ecological, judging a balance of forces between commerce and community, than precise and draconian. The Democrats could do a lot worse than give the formidable Lessig some work in this area.
Doctorow's frantic cyber-kid thriller indicates the wild counter-culture of tech activism that must lurk around this ten-million-strong Obamanation. It begins in the near future with a successful and bloody Al-Qa'ida attack on the Bay Bridge in San Franscisco. A group of 17-year-old kids, out in the streets playing a fantasy game with their wireless devices, get taken for a cell of indigenous terrorists by marauding Homeland Security goons.
Their brutal treatment radicalises one young hacker, Marcus, who constructs an undetectable crypto-internet out of game consoles (the "X-net"). Through it, Marcus organises a campaign of playful, urban resistance to the police state that is solidifying around his beloved, ragged city. His self-justification are those lines from the Declaration of Independence: "Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it."
Doctorow's America is essentially the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld regime, after the Next Big Attack. Their panoptical paranoia provides him with many opportunities to show the ingenuity of the digital hipster who says "yes we can" to any subversive opportunity computers, software and networks can bring. For Doctorow, "little brother" means sousveillance versus surveillance – the eternal vigilance of the netizen in defence of the principles of their Republic. For Lessig, the "little brothers" are Amazon and Google, recording our online activity. He seems to trust them to use that information for purely commercial purposes, and not surrender it to a watchful state.
I am more comfortable with Lessig's belief that policy, whether digital or otherwise, can ultimately be conducted with reason and responsibilty. But I fear that Doctorow's explosive scenario will be the real test of Obama's attitude to the networked empowerment that has, to some degree, brought him to office. What will his ten million do if, one day at the terminal, "Yes We Can" becomes "No, You Can't"?
Life In Brief
Lawrence Lessig is a professor of law at Stanford Law School, California, where he is the founder and co-director of the Center for Internet and Society. Formerly an expert in constitutional law, he turned his attention to the law of cyberspace, and how the law should govern the digital exchange of information and ideas. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, his books include 'Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity', 2004.
Pat Kane is the author of 'The Play Ethic', and one half of Hue And Cry (www.hueandcry.co.uk)Reuse content