In 1813, as part of a correspondence with Isaac McPherson, Thomas Jefferson penned a mini-disquisition on the peculiar issues confronting patent law: "That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement, or exclusive appropriation."
Information, to borrow a more recent slogan, wants to be free. According to Lawrence Lessig's dazzling new book, The Future of Ideas, that freedom is under assault, despite recent technological developments that would seem to embody the Jeffersonian vision. "The digital world is closer to the world of ideas than to the world of things," Lessig writes. "We in cyberspace, that is, have built a world that is close to the world of ideas that nature (in Jefferson's words) created: stuff in space can 'freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition."
And yet the freedom of cyberspace and its capacity for mutual instruction is under fire. The very ethos of the web–a kind of organized anarchy, free of both government and private-sector control–has been gravely injured by recent events: changes in copyright law, changes to the underlying architecture of the net, changes in the competitive landscape of the digital economy. "The essence of the changes in the environment of the Internet that we are observing now are changes that alter the balance between control and freedom on the Net. The tilt of these changes is pronounced: control is increasing."
The word "control" itself is used advisedly. Lessig, now a professor at Stanford Law School, begins The Future of Ideas with a shout-out to his former colleague Andrew Shapiro, whose book The Control Revolution discussed the battle between control and freedom without necessarily predicting which side would win (or even which deserved to win). "Shapiro did not predict which future would be ours," Lessig explains. "Indeed, his argument was that bits of each future were possible, and that we must choose a balance between them. His account was subtle, but optimistic. If there was a bias to the struggle, he, like most of us then, believed the bias would favor freedom. This book picks up where Shapiro left off. Its message is neither subtle nor optimistic…. we are far enough along to see the future we have chosen. In that future, the counter-revolution prevails. The forces that the original Internet threatened to transform are well on their way to transforming the Internet."
Translated into another revolutionary's language, Lessig's is a story of all that is air melting into solid. But is our digital future–not to mention the present–really as grim as Lessig claims? Whether you accept the premise of Lessig's argument, The Future of Ideas confirms what his first book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, originally promised: Lessig is one of the brightest minds grappling with the consequences of the digital world today, as deft and original with technical intricacies as he is with broad legal theory. He manages to breathe new life into seemingly exhausted economic ideas–his take on the tragedy of the commons is likely to entrance even the most jaded game theorist–and tell some fascinating stories along the way, on the freewheeling early days of the radio spectrum, or the distributed computing project that harnesses spare processing cycles from thousands of computers around the world to search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.