I recently had the pleasure of reading In Search of Jefferson's Moose: Notes on the State of Cyberspace, a book which draws connections between Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States, and the Internet as we know it today. David G. Post, the book's author, agreed to participate in a Signpost interview.
1. Thomas Jefferson was a staunch advocate of free public education, proclaiming that "No one more sincerely wishes the spread of information among mankind than I do, and none has greater confidence in its effect towards supporting free and good government...The most effectual means of preventing the perversion of power into tyranny is to illuminate as far as possible the minds of the people." Do you believe that Jefferson would condemn Wikipedia as a corruption of the formal education system he sought to create, or that he would support it in its goal of providing free access to the sum of human knowledge?
It's difficult for me to envision Jefferson condemning Wikipedia as a corruption of formal education. Jefferson was himself a great "encyclopedist" – not only did he write Notes on the State of Virginia (which is, in effect, a very large encyclopedia entry on "The New World"), he also contributed an article on the New World (anonymously) to the great Diderot/D'Alembert "Encyclopédie," the first great encyclopedia in the West. So he would, surely, have been amazed and delighted by an encyclopedia that was available to pretty much everyone in the world at the click of a button. You're right that he was a staunch advocate of free public education – as I put it in the book, he practically invented the idea of free public education; but the "formal education system" he sought to create was a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end he sought was an informed and engaged citizenry, and Wikipedia, though it has many flaws and problems, is without question a valuable step along that road.
2. Both Thomas Jefferson and Justice Hugo Black were First Amendment absolutists, meaning that they both believed that there should be little (if any) impermissible forms of speech. In November 2008, New York Times journalist David S. Rohde was kidnapped by members of the Taliban, but news of the kidnapping was kept secret for several months due to a 'media blackout' in which Wikipedia, the New York Times, and several other major publications participated. Do you think Jefferson and Black would disapprove of this manipulation of mass media, or would they agree that the freedom to publish includes the freedom not to publish?
That's a hard one. Nobody would be in favor of "manipulation of mass media" – the question is who is doing the manipulating. For First Amendment absolutists (like Black and Jefferson), that makes a great deal of difference – government interference with the press is qualitatively different from any other kind of interference with the press (ultimately, because the government has the monopoly on legitimate use of force, and can impose its will in a way that others cannot). The freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment's press clause is freedom from government interference. To the extent the decisions here – to publish the stories or not to publish them – was made without that interference, the First Amendment has done its job.
3. Both Wikipedia and the early inter-networks greatly benefited from the free exchange and competition of concepts, as is true for many real-world markets. Both Wikipedia and what we have come to know as the internet also share a feature that seems to have been lost in real-world society: non-representative forms of government whose powers are derived directly from the consensus of the governed. If representative governments were created to overcome the difficulty of holding discussions and evaluating consensus in a spread-out and diverse society, and if online communities have adequately shown that it is possible to establish consensus in equally spread-out and diverse communities, do you think there will be a shift in the way "real-world" societies are governed? Could we, as John Blossom puts it in Content Nation, find ourselves going back to the ice age?
This is a profoundly important question, going forward. Whether there will, or will not, be some sort of shift in the way realspace societies are governed is not the sort of question I'm ever comfortable answering – the future is fundamentally and irrevocably unpredictable, and people who pretend otherwise strike me as fools. But "Is there something important we can learn from 'governance' efforts on the Net that could be applied to ordinary governance questions in realspace?" and "Can you imagine a world in which those lessons were learned and implemented?" and "Can you imagine a transition path leading to that world from the world we live in today?" – my answers to those are "yes." The Net is proof of an idea that virtually nobody would have believed, 25 years ago: consensus governance can scale, it can work in enormous, "anonymous" communities. You would have been laughed out of the room, 25 years ago, were you to have suggested that. I don't even think the early IETF folks would have been able to say, with certainty, that it would work; remember, they weren't sitting down to design "the Internet," they were designing a good network that was, at the time, quite small. They thought it could scale, and they tried to design it to scale – not just as a technical matter, but as an administrative, governance matter – but they didn't know, for sure that it would work – they couldn't know, for sure, that it would work, because it had never worked before. But it did.
It is, as I say in the book, an extraordinary, even breath-taking, achievement: the most successful international engineering project of all time – by far! – run entirely by self-appointed volunteers in an organization with no legal status whatsoever, one that anyone who was interested could join, and which operated entirely by "rough consensus." Call it "project management," or call it "governance," I don't much care which you choose – there's something to learn here about how group decisions can be made.
I'm not sure I'd call this a move "back to the ice age." I get the metaphor – but to some extent, at least, it obscures rather than illuminates the central point about scale. At this scale, it's a new phenomenon; government by consensus among millions of people couldn't work in the ice age, but it might work now.
4. The Wikipedia model also challenges the principle that incentive is the mother of creation, a principle which is discussed in Jefferson's Moose specifically with regards to patent law. Is there a lesson to be learned for "real-world" invention? Or do the elements of massive-scale collaboration and anonymity prevent this type of creation from occurring in the real world?
There are a number of issues raised by your question. The success of the Wikipedia model – "peer production" – surely has many important lessons for realspace inventive activity, although I do not believe that they can be replicated wholesale without the assistance provided by the technological underpinnings that allow large numbers of people to collaborate on single works. That is, I don't think we see the same kind of peer production experiments in realspace as we do on the Net, for the simple reason that the constraints of time and space and physicality that operate in realspace make such large-scale collaboration prohibitively difficult, in most circumstances. This, in my opinion, is one of those places where "the Net is different" applies – the relative ease with which such projects can occur in cyberspace needs to be taken into account in designing cyberspace-specific legal rules that will foster the kinds of creative activity that cyberspace enables; there's little reason to think that realspace law will be adequate for this task.
The second point you raise involves the question of incentives. Our copyright (and patent) laws are based on the fundamental premise that providing property protection for intellectual creations is necessary to provide authors and inventors with the incentives necessary to induce them to devote the time and effort required to create useful and aesthetically-pleasing works. That assumption, to the extent it holds in cyberspace, covers a much narrower range of works than in realspace, as the success of the Wikipedia model (and indeed the existence of so much creative content on the Net) testifies. We don't need copyright law, and shouldn't have copyright law, to incentivize authors to create things that they'd create anyway, in the absence of copyright protection; the existence of so much creative content on the Net illustrates quite clearly that copyright protection is not necessary for many, many creative works, and, to the extent that's true, copyright is just functioning as what the economists call "deadweight loss" – a net negative, a restriction on dissemination and distribution with no quid pro quo benefits.
5. Are there any final thoughts you'd like to share with us?
I do have a few final thoughts to share. I'm getting ready for a symposium tomorrow, up at Fordham Law School, which is focused on my book and Jonathan Zittrain's "The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It." [Zittrain's book was previously reviewed in the Signpost.] While I was preparing my remarks, I couldn't help but notice the significant role that Wikipedia plays in both books – it's my candidate, at the end of the book, for cyberspace's "moose" (although to be candid, in the course of discussions since my book was published, I think that Larry Lessig has come up with a better candidate: see REMIX: buy the remix), and Zittrain uses it throughout as an example of new kind of social system emerging on the Net. So to the Wikipedia community, I'd say – you're up to something damned important. Don't lose sight of that. Those of us who may be on the "outside" of your work care deeply about your work, and want to learn more about it – what works, what doesn't, and how online communities like yours can be made stronger and more sustaining.