BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Society fought the law, and the law won ...

This is a somewhat odd book … it's both a technology and a societal book … it both looks at current trends and tries to forecast from them … and yet, when it's over, it's become something of a look at actual law rather than a philosophical projection of “laws”, which comes as something of a surprise. There's a quote by a federal judge towards the end of the book, which sums up a lot of the thrust here: “Beliefs lawyers hold about computers, and predictions they make about new technology, are highly likely to be false. This should make us hesitate to prescribe legal adaptations for cyberspace. The blind are not good trailblazers.” Essentially, The Laws of Disruption: Harnessing the New Forces that Govern Life and Business in the Digital Age by Larry Downes is about how the on-rush of technological change is changing everything, and the way that society is dealing with this is both complicated and not ideal. As any “digital native” will tell you, one of the biggest challenges out there is that most elected officials are technologically illiterate at best, with many being nearly Luddites in their resistance to the digital reality … and the down-side of this appears again and again in totally disastrous legislation and regulation.

Frankly, I “had issues” with some of the places Downes was going here, with my background in publishing (and hence in intellectual property, copyright, etc.); he argues against a lot of things which have long been elements of our creative culture and proposes solutions which are not particularly palatable. An illustrative quote regarding this “new approach” is presented from the comic book icon Stan Lee, who says: “In the digital age authors should be prepared to give away everything of value and make their money on the crap.” … although how much imprinted swag the average author is likely to sell (and back in the day I had Cafe Press stores full of un-ordered merchandise sitting there for each of our books), is a good question. Downes says: ”The Law of Disruption always challenges the existing rules and profit allocations of industries, but in the end it creates more value than it destroys.”, but it certainly leaves destruction in its wake … one hates to think that one's particular niche in the world is simply the next “sealing wax” or sheet music, soon to be inconsequential.

The book is arranged in four areas: “Digital Life”, “Private Life”, “Public Life” and “Information Life”, the latter three of which each contain three of what Downes describes as the nine laws of disruption … Law One: Convergence, Law Two: Personal Information, Law Three: Human Rights; Law Four: Infrastructure, Law Five: Business, Law Six: Crime; Law Seven: Copyright, Law Eight: Patent, and Law Nine: Software.

Historical antecedents are sketched out here, going back to the Middle Ages and how the “killer app” of the time, the stirrup (which allowed Charlemagne to develop mounted troops, evolving into Knighthood, and the Feudal system), and similarly through each law. Other “laws” underlie much of the book, the familiar “Moore's Law” (every 12-18 months the processing power of computers doubles while the price holds constant), and slightly less familiar “Metcalfe's Law” (the usefulness of a network is the square of the number of users connected to it), which lead to the (coined for this book, I take it) “Law of Disruption” - technology changes exponentially, but social, economic, and legal systems change incrementally. Obviously, this expresses itself in the nine “laws” across three spheres as noted above.

One thing that stands out is the idea of “non-rivalrous goods”, unlike a physical object, information can be used simultaneously by many people, so have significantly different economics associated with their creation and use. Downes introduces the concept here of “The Five Principles of Information Economics” ... 1 – Renewability: “Information cannot be used up.”,, 2 – Universality: “Everyone can use the same information at the same time.”, 3 – Magnetism: “Use makes the brand more, not less, valuable.”, 4 – Lack of Friction: “The more easily information flows, the more quickly its value increases.”, and 5 – Vulnerability: “Value can be destroyed through misuse.”. Within the Information Economy there are also, as in the regular economy, what Ronald Coase described as “transaction costs”, these being to costs of Search, Information, Bargaining, Decision, Policing, and Enforcement … each of which will vary by situation and the nature of the transaction, with as much as 45% of total economic activity being taken up by these.

The Laws of Disruption has a somewhat uneven arc … starting out almost “philosophical” but, by the time the author gets to Copyright and Patent, it's nearly “polemical” in favor of massive change in these areas, and somewhat enmired in the legalistic details of these subjects. Of course, along the way, there are many fascinating expositions of what one might not have suspected in the digital field (for instance the vast differences between the thrust of “privacy” regulations between the USA and Europe, and even, in specifics, between the various European countries … what would be a “who cares?” issue in one is frequently the “third rail” in another, and vice-versa), but I suspect that most folks reading it will find it far more engaging in some parts than others.

If you have an interest in the digital world (and, of course, more and more, the “digital world” is defining the “real world”), you might find this a source of unique context for consideration of some of the thornier issues of that environment. It certainly provides lessons to legislators (not that legislators are likely to be paying any attention) of how not writing laws is far more helpful in most situations than grinding out some short-sighted piece of regulation … and one would hope that this concept, if anything from The Laws of Disruption, would work its way into the public consciousness! Being that the book is only a couple of years old at this point, you're likely to be able to find it in your local bookstore, but the on-line big boys currently have it at a deep discount, and new copies can be had from the new/used guys for as little as a penny (plus the $3.99 shipping, of course). This was an interesting read, and I'm glad to have taken in the information, but it's not something that built up a lot of enthusiasm in me … perhaps it's my wariness over messing with Intellectual Property rights, or my general distaste for anything having to do with the legal profession … but this is one that I'd only recommend if you have a specific interest in the topic.

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Tags: book review
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