A look at Lessig’s “Code”

I’ve always been very interested in looking back at the things people wrote about the internet ten or fifteen years ago. Back when the shape of things was so different, and we didn’t really have much of an idea of what was going on, or especially where things were going, but we tried to get a handle on it all anyway. Code was published in 1999, over a decade ago, before the dot-com bubble burst. Given the time (and the timing) it is not in any way surprising to see that there are plenty of things Lessig got wrong. What I find most fascinating is the number of things he got right, or at least right enough.

As is inevitable with this sort of predictive stuff, when you’re right, you tend to be right about structural things rather than specific details. Lessig rightly observed that 1) the structure of the internet, the protocols upon which it is built, are viewpoint agnostic, 2) commercial interest drives development of new protocols, 3) commercial interest benefits from better identification technologies for all sorts of reasons.

He was wrong about details like the advent of a wide-spread unified identity protocol. Which, in some ways, strikes me as quite interesting. It seems to suggest that users are willing to provide identifying information for specific purposes, but that carrying a sort of “photo ID for the web” isn’t something they want to do. This, perhaps, has to do with the increased awareness of identity theft risks, and people would rather not put all their data in one place due to the risk of compromise. Even if, ironically, that’s safer than the current “put it in many places” strategy.

Thomas

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