Code and education

I thought I’d put out a little more about code. I’ve mentioned the technical code and Feenberg’s Questioning Technology before in relation to education as a technology. On this blog I also tried to get across the point that "computers are tools for communication, but the form of that communication is dictated by code." Lawrence Lessig in his Code Version 2.0 puts the point across with a little more authority.

Law can change social norms as well, though much of our constitutional jurisprudence seems dedicated to forgetting just how. Education is the most obvious example. As Thurgood Marshall put it, “Education is not the teaching of the three R’s. Education is teaching of the overall citizenship, to learn to live together with fellow citizens, and above all to learn to obey the law.” Education is, in part at least, a process through which we indoctrinate children into certain norms of behaviour — we teach them how to say no to sex and drugs. We try to build within them a sense of what is correct. This sense then regulates them to the laws end.

Plainly, the content of much of this education is regulated by law. Conservatives worry, for example, that by teaching sex education we change the norm of sexual abstinence. Whether that is correct or not, the law is certainly being used to change the norms of children. If conservatives are correct, the law is eliminating abstinence. If liberals are correct, the law is being used to instill a norm of safe sex. Either way, norms have their own constraint, and law is aiming to change that constraint.

To say the law plays a role is not to say that it always plays a positive role. The law can muck up norms as well as improve them, and I do not claim that the latter result is more common than the former. The point is just to see the role, not to praise or criticize it. (p.129)

Here’s some more from the book about code:

“People could communicate in ways that they had never done before. The space seemed to promise a kind of society that real space would never allow – freedom with out anarchy, control without government, consensus with out power. In the words of a manifesto that defined this ideal: “We reject: kings, presidents and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code.

In cyberspace we must understand how a different “code” regulates – how the software and hardware (i.e., the “code” of cyberspace) that makes cyberspace what it is also regulates cyberspace as it is. As William Mitchell puts it this code is cyberspace’s “law.” “ LexInformatica” as Joel Reidenberg first put it, or better, “code is law.” (p.2)

Lessig writes, "Its code, in other words, sits in the commons. Anyone can take it and use it as she wishes. Anyone can take it and come to understand how it works." (p.148) What he’s talking about specifically is computer literacy, but literacy in general works on the same principle. Really, can anyone use Unix as one wishes?


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