Remix: Part 1

Lawrence Lessig’s Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy strikes me as a work of common sense and unique humor. Lessig’s voice, unlike that of many other lawyers I’ve read, is not only accessible but also enjoyable. He’s persuasive and, at times, self-deprecating, which makes identifying with his points of view easy. His real-life examples are informative and always applicable to the point he’s making. In short, I really like Remix. Lessig is an example of an enlightened individual who possesses the language and the tact to make a case for legalizing and encouraging hypertextuality. I particularly like that he lives by the rules he discusses. I enjoyed his anecdote about his fear in reading the comments on his blog, and I greatly admire his willingness to keep that space one that is free and open. As a former reporter, I understand exactly how hard it can be to let yourself be flamed online by faceless entities because you have conviction about the greater good.

I’m excited that Lessig uses technology terms to frame his overarching analogy. I certainly find that RW and RO references help me separate the two competing cultures he’s discussing. I do wonder if there are instances where Lessig recognizes the situation as being more complicated than this simple pairing; I trust these will come out in the parts of the book I haven’t read yet. Assuming this, I hope Lessig will complicate these terms in the ways they deserve. I’m thinking of the dangers in conceptualizing art as RO. Even though the enlightened people like Lessig might conceive of something as RO, that doesn’t mean it isn’t RW in a more Sousian context. Just because we have technology doesn’t mean we’re obligated to use it or to view the world from a technologized perspective. On the other hand, in an increasingly RW world, that critique goes both ways.

All things said, this terminology also makes me wonder about the audience of this book. Although Lessig provides an explanation of the technologized roots of the RO/RW dichotomy, I suspect a footnote isn’t enough to get someone onboard who didn’t already know these terms. In other words, I think Lessig is probably preaching to the choir. Anyone who knows the difference between RO and RW is probably fairly likely to recognize the value of both and the empowerment of RW. For that matter, despite the fact that I agree with most of what Lessig has to say, this particular analogy is pretty slanted. After all, the only time anyone ever consciously recognizes that a file is RO is when they’re trying to change it and can’t. Many people, though, will see this analogy as neutral. My own bias is that I’ve been trained to look for the ways that technology is anything but neutral.

I love that Lessig begins his book by framing it in terms of his state of mind before and after having children. Not only is this a point that will create driving force for his audience, but it calls into focus the often-overlooked reality that our children will actually think differently because of their exposure to technology. This, like all else, is a dynamic that was/is resisted at first. I remember bringing my Pokemon to school. At that time, 10 years ago, there were about three other kids who understood the empowering possibilities of this game. The others made fun of us, even though it was clear they were interested. But they were too caught up in the “American” perspective of, as Lessig says, “Here’s something, buy it” rather than “Here’s something, do something with it” (79). In this case, I was an early adopter. Remix is coming, and basic change in how future generations think is coming with it. To use George Lakoff’s scholarship about conceptual metaphors as a frame, the neural pathways and structure of a modern child’s brain are very different from the structures of the brain of a child 20 years ago.

While I’m completely on board with most of Lessig’s arguments and while I heartily appreciate his treatment of hypertextual elements of media, saying “I agree” throughout this piece is about as useful as the second presidential Gore/Bush debate. So, I feel obligated to turn to one part of this text that I took exception to, and that is Lessig’s own biased perspective. This bias does inherent damage to some of his points. The following is what I consider the most egregious (but not the only) example: Lessig argues that a remix of George Bush’s words in a 2004 debate “lets us understand Bush’s message better” (73). He’s discussing a remix that includes a lot of clips of Bush saying “it’s hard work,” and he says the mix works because “it is well known that at least before 9/11, Bush was an extremely remote president, on vacation 42 percent of his first eight months in office” (73). Well, I didn’t know that, but I still laughed. And when Lessig goes on to say the same concept wouldn’t have worked with Bill Clinton, I laughed out loud. Regardless of any strange percentage-based research or the “truth,” Clinton’s cultural legacy is one of a guy who got action from an intern while he was supposed to be working. And Lessig doesn’t think an ironic “I work hard” critique will work with Clinton? He actually says, “Whatever you want to say about them (Clinton and Bill Gates), no one thinks they don’t work hard” (73). Talk about a violent RO statement. I’d laugh at a clip like this whether it featured Bush or Clinton, but apparently I’d be missing the point. And here I thought Lessig’s argument was that RW culture reinforced diversity, democracy, and differing perspectives. Lessig’s taking up such a heavy political stance really put me off and made me wonder if I should be questioning more.

By the way, the “42 percent” citation is from a Washington Post opinion piece by Charles Krauthammer that is taken rather wildly out of context. The “42 percent” was basically a spur-of-the-moment, computer-enabled guess that Krauthammer is citing and criticizing. By citing this piece in the way he does, Lessig is doing some serious violence to the credibility of citation/remix, in my opinion.

Lessig does quite a bit of this generalizing. (Most often, it’s aimed at lawyers.) Because of Lessig’s conversational and humorous tone, I’d be somewhat inclined to forgive this … but then he takes this Andrew Keen fellow to task for being “sloppy” in exactly the same way (91). Oops.

But even if this compulsion to generalize and to take liberties with citations does damage to some of Lessig’s arguments about the value of RW culture, I don’t believe we should let the foibles of a human being detract from the message he’s trying to send. Lessig brings up a number of interesting and thought-provoking points, not the least of which is the troubled relationship between law and culture. What defines professional, anymore? What defines speech? And who gets to make these decisions? And what are the biases of those people?

But one more gentle critique: Will our kids be as interested in remixing if we don’t criminalize it? Is rebellion part of the attraction? (Well, yes, it certainly is. But how big a part?)

I’m also interested in the larger issues that haven’t been discussed in Part 1. Namely, what does this new (lack of) law look like? Lessig does a brilliant job explaining why copyright is litigated in the way that it is. His discussion of the making of copies is enlightening, and it has interesting intersections of work I’ve read regarding the rights of patients to “copies” of their bodies. While the law is a highly complex thing, and while remix is clearly integral to any culture (after all, how arrogant is it to think you’ve ever done something really new?), I’m still left wondering what, specifically, Lessig is advocating? In other words, I’m—for the most part—on board with his ideas. Now what can I do to make his vision of an empowered RW culture possible?

I hope to find that in Parts 2 and 3 …


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