Code, clues, and conscious clothing

Winter reads to put chips on your chest and fear in your heart.

IT ASTONISHES ME THAT Lawrence Lessig, author of Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (Basic, $30, 230pp.) was asked to testify on behalf of the government in the Microsoft-DoJ trial. After reading Code, I'm wondering if they simply lured him into the courthouse so they could keep an eye on him.

Not that he likes the Redmond Menace either. Lessig is mortally distrustful of bottlenecks, be they government or corporate, and Microsoft is a bottleneck for the code that underpins pretty much all of cyberspace. And s/he who controls the code controls the very soul of the electronic realm.

What makes bottlenecks dangerous? If relatively few folk are building the structure of cyberspace, it's exponentially easier for government or anyone else to put the hurt on them. (This is why the US Government has taken to prosecuting Internet service providers for alleged copyright violations in the war against DVD decryption rather than trying to catch the people actually hacking the code—there are simply fewer ISPs to chase down.) Only by keeping competition to build the code fair and free can we protect ourselves.

It's not exactly light reading—Lessig's a lawyer, and he's serious as a heart attack about making his points unassailable—but it is meaty and deeply satisfying material, and much more clear-eyed about the future than last year's The Control Revolution, which Lessig refers to several times. (The author of that book, "technorealist" Andrew Shapiro, was one of Lessig's students; Lessig apparently wasn't the person who beat Shapiro with the Pollyanna stick that made The Control Revolution one of last year's lesser reads.)

Lessig sustains his arguments beautifully, and he gives readers a concrete sense of the ambiguities of, say, applying 18th-century concepts of search and seizure to 21st-century methods of electronic snooping. You will understand both cyberspace and the Constitution much better after reading this book, which I recommend without reservation that you do immediately. Those who don't understand why the idea of One World Under Microsoft is unacceptable or who believe the old saw that cyberspace is at its core anarchic and/or impossible to regulate need to settle in somewhere quiet and process Code.

If Lessig sees the future at stake in the battle for code, Simson Garfinkel's Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century ( O'Reilly, $24.95, 350pp.) sees us regular people as the battlefield. Garfinkel picks up the ball from Lessig—new technologies' implications for privacy are implicit in the structure of the technologies, and they are often poorly understood, much to ordinary folks' detriment—and runs for daylight.

It's good to see it laid out: dystopia between cloth covers. And Garfinkel is aces at gathering anecdotal data that'll chill you and at exposing historical aspects of privacy legislation that you may not be familiar with. I don't envy him the task of writing a book about privacy, a field that was moving quickly when he started this book five years ago and at this point gives even the most tenacious reporters whiplash on a weekly basis. What Database Nation doesn't offer, and what you might miss, is single-serving solutions. It's a cautionary tale, one designed to get you talking to businesses and elected officials—if you don't curl up fetal first.

BUT THERE'S ANOTHER, brighter aspect to the consumer-corporation interface, argue the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual (Perseus, $23, 224pp.): The ability for individuals to communicate with each other online with unprecedented ease leads to the expectation that businesses, too, will open their eyes and their lines of communication. The Net has cut the knees out from under corporate BSing, and businesses who don't learn how to speak in human voices and take on community concerns are doomed to failure.

The authors—Chris Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger—are a group of well-known Netheads with decades of combined experience in high tech and, not incidentally, fully developed and recognizable voices familiar to readers of their various mailing lists and online hangouts. Last year, after bouncing ideas around, they posted 95 Theses of the new Net consciousness on their Web site. The similarity to Martin Luther was entirely intentional, but the voice was all their own—less Reformation, more Boston Tea Party. And they (and the thousands of online signatories to the Theses, including this writer) were much amused.

Like Lessig and Garfinkel, the Cluetrain conductors are looking to shape policy; it just happens in their case to be corporate policy. They don't deny there's a tremendous problem with privacy and data propagation; they're simply more interested in turning the weaponry around on the corporate (and by extension, government) forces who would use it against us. This isn't exactly an MBA between cloth covers, and there's no way of saying whether in five years we'll regard this as a revolution or a children's crusade, but The Cluetrain Manifesto is a highly effective device for kicking out the jams on what you thought you knew about being a consumer and citizen in the year 2000. Consider alternating this with chapters of Database Nation; you'll sleep more peacefully at night.

Back in the '70s, noted wit Fran Leibowitz criticized the vogue for slogan T-shirts with a stinging "If people don't want to listen to you, what makes you think they want to hear from your sweater?" Fran is going to loathe the future if it's much like Neil Gershenfeld's vision in When Things Start to Think, recently reissued in paperback (Owl, $14, 240pp.).

Gershenfeld is part of the MIT Media Lab, a fun place where the inmates integrate their own bodies with computers and ask why paper can't print itself. When Things Start to Think peeks at things that might be and that are in fact in development now: clothing that goes online, money that manipulates its own value, printers that "print" three-dimensional objects, and so on. Even better, Gershenfeld gives a fine A-to-B-to-C description of how these miracles move from wacky concept to wired prototype, proving that most of the Lab's most "out there" ideas aren't necessarily so far out.

If Gershenfeld misses anything in this blissful vision, it's the dark side of information that Garfinkel examines so relentlessly: If data is gathered, it will be used—keeping a handle on who's using it and how is hard and important work. Gershenfeld feels that ubiquitous technology invisible to the user is apt to protect us as much as expose us, but his blithe confidence is, well, blithe. Still, I like this lively book very much, far more than I do the writings of Media Lab confederate and erstwhile Wired contributor Nicholas Negroponte, and even though I am not looking forward to losing the scent of old books and gaining clothes with IP addresses, I think I will enjoy living in the world he's helping to build.

 
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