Ken Garrett

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Code as License'

Code is law in the cyberworld. We usually focus on code as law in the sense that code acts as a regulation. It limits our freedom to do that which we want to do. For example, code can be used to tether us to a central node that limits the generative functionality of our computers.

Tivo is a great example of code being used as a regulation. Each Tivo box is a powerful computer, running Linux. Yet the code is written in a way that disables our ability to harness the power of that computer. The regulatory code renders it nothing more than an average appliance, when it could have been an empowering gateway to the cyberworld.

In fact, the Tivo service could fall under the regulatory power of the government, and be used to limit even those rights to which we have become accustomed in the world of atoms. If they so choose, the FCC could force the Tivo service to send an “update” to each Tivo box that deletes Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, as if it never happened. Our freedom to interact with culture is thereby limited.

There is, however, another aspect to the concept of code as law. Rather than a regulation, code can be a license to participate in semiotic democracy. The architecture of the internet itself was designed so that freedom is the default state. Unless intermediaries get in the way, the cyberworld is a place where end-users are instantaneously connected. Even more importantly, these citizens of the cyberworld begin their cyber lives equal.

Second Life is an excellent metaphor for the internet as a whole. The basic architecture allows you to do whatever you want. You can build your own island, you can start a new business, and you can even redesign the way you look. You are constrained only by your own ability to use code creatively.

Using the License to Appear in the Court of Public Opinion

The FDA discriminates against gay males. From their perspective, the discrimination makes sense. They are tasked not only with keeping the nation’s blood supply plentiful and clean, but also with maintaining the illusion that their screening mechanisms are more effective than they are. Many Americans continue to believe that AIDS is a gay man’s disease. Rather than explain the scientific truth, the FDA capitalizes on this fear by implicitly adopting the myth that gays are diseased. “If we prevent this tainted population from donating blood,” the reasoning goes, “then the populace will believe that the blood supply is that much safer.” And they do.

Because the FDA is ultimately the only decision-maker that matters, I have to convince them to change the policy. But they currently have no incentive to do so. The lie works for them. If they allow gays to donate, and even one person contracts HIV from a blood transfusion, the blame falls on the FDA. If they change the policy and nobody gets sick, it is a non-event. The FDA has no potential upside, and a lot of potential downside. In the risk-averse world of politics, this discriminatory policy is a winner.

That is why I am going straight to the court of public opinion. The only entity that could persuade the FDA to change is the voting public. This is not an issue that a majority of Americans would get behind. But in our system of interest group capture, it only takes a determined minority to effect change.

What inspires me most about the cyberworld as a medium to move people is that code becomes a license to speak in a voice much louder than my terrestrial one. As a blogger, podcaster or viral video creator, my thoughts are transmitted worldwide, instantly. I don’t need a publisher to approve of me; I don’t need a broadcaster to think he can make a profit off of me.

The challenge is to actually make my voice heard in the court of public opinion. As just one of many equal end-users, I cannot force another end-user to act. Code licenses me to speak, but that same code licenses others to ignore me. My challenge is to use the code that others have built onto the basic framework (such as YouTube, Blogger, Google and Firefox) to make my voice stand out among the din of 100 million websites. And once my voice is heard, I need to persuade others to follow me.

In general, whether in the world of bits or atoms, empathic argument is the most effective way to make an argument. This is probably the most important lesson I learned in CyberOne. It was easy for me to understand how the other side would view this issue, because I am conflicted about my own position. I really do want the blood supply to be safe. A few extra individuals dying needlessly of AIDS is not a price I’m willing to pay to end this discriminatory policy. But I believe there is a way to make the blood supply safer while also ending the discrimination. Because I learned to argue empathically, I am able to construct my argument in a way that will address any objections to my argument and hopefully convince even my opponents.

When I first began to think about the method that would best persuade the jury in the court of public opinion, I was stumped. The topic is too esoteric and boring to expect more than a handful of people to want to listen to a podcast. It lends itself to explanation on a website, but I couldn’t think of a way to draw people to the site. Homemade videos posted on YouTube are the hot new way to reach people, and if I had one I would use it as a teaser to lead people to my website. But it seems that the only way to create buzz on YouTube is if the video has a beautiful girl, a cute kid, a funny animal, a gruesome injury, or a copyrighted clip of a comedy show.

The FDA’s discriminatory policy against gays does not lend itself to a video with any of those elements. But what I hope will create buzz about my video is the stark hypocrisy of the FDA’s policy. If I can hold the attention of the court of public opinion for just a few minutes, I believe I can illustrate how unfair and unnecessary the policy is. All I need to do is create enough outrage in viewers that they are moved to visit my website and ally with me in the cyber world and in the world of atoms.

Code has given me a license to speak, and it has also equipped me with the tools to be heard in the court of public opinion. After a semester in CyberOne, I am both motivated and prepared to stand up in front of the court of public opinion and make my case.