The Idea of Control / The Control of Ideas

While increasingly apparent, collaboration and a free interchange of ideas remain extremely difficult. Constitutional law professor Lawrence Lessig has spent the last decade writing about the way that ideas are controlled. In his book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, Lessig builds on the technical and legal definitions of code in an attempt to collapse the distinction between the design and implementation of computer programs that facilitate communication—and as a result define it—and the regulatory role that law has traditionally played. He argues that computer code needs to be subject to the same kind of scrutiny, accessibility, and malleability that we demand of our laws. In his second book, The Future of Ideas, Lessig's discussion centers more around the idea "control" defined similarly.

By adding to Lessig's conception of "code" the regulatory role of social and socio-historic forces, this project advances a revised concept of "control" in an attempt to tie Lessig's discussion of code into a larger analysis of the way that we manipulate and control ideas and their expression in text. It attempts to use this analysis to gain insight into the nature of the effect of control on collaborative writing in a broad and interdisciplinary fashion. The analysis alludes to the interconnectedness and underlying similarities between significantly different and apparently disparate articulations of systemic control.

I use control to refer to the systematic limitation of the collaborative manipulation, use, growth, development and distribution of text. Lessig presents the regulatory power of code and then warns his readers that in choosing code, we would best served by flexible and "open" systems. Like code, control is a tool but, unlike code, control can not be easily dismissed as just a tool. The term alludes to the fact that through our ideas, we too can be controlled; humans and societies are controlled, not coded. Control demonstrates how openness and flexibility are a step in the right direction but that they are only one step. As such, the limitations of systemic individualized control create a hostile environment for collaborative writing. For the purposes of my essay, I describe control as it is articulated in three interconnected ways: as conceptions of authorship, as technology, and as systems of law.

Control as Conceptions of Authorship

Social conceptions act as one piece in the production and articulation of control. The modern discourse around authorship began in 1969 when Michel Foucault asked, What is an Author? Foucault drew attention to a shift in the definition of an "author's" role that represented a "privileged moment of individualization in the history of ideas, knowledge, literature, philosophy, and the sciences" ([Foucault2002]). Scholars and theorists of various academic disciplines have spent the last thirty years responding to Foucault in what has grown into a vibrant intellectual discourse on authorship. While a clear picture is no closer than it was in 1969, much has been said about the fact that the importance, role, and definition of authorship has undergone major changes since the beginning of the eighteenth century.

One of the foremost participants in this discussion is Martha Woodmansee, who explains, in one of numerous essays she has written on the subject, that the notion that the author is the only participant in the production of a book worthy of attention and special rights—as opposed to just another craftsman—is rooted in the Romantic notion that significant writers, "break altogether with tradition to create something utterly new, unique—in a word, 'original'" (16). This highly individualized conception of authorship has, to one degree or another, dominated Western society's popular consciousness for the past three centuries and paved the way for copyright and a highly centralized publishing industry.

This popular belief in an author's primary, even exclusive, role in the creation of a text creates a social system that defines the way that texts are written, read, and understood. Through its highly individualized slant, Romantic authorship limits collaborative writing in important ways. Groups of authors do not sit down to write novels in part because most authors believe that this is simply not the way that novels are written. By eliminating the desire, social acceptability, or social space for deviant methods of textual production, conceptions of authorship play a meaningful role in controlling the production of text.

Control as the Technology of Writing

In a different but highly interconnected manner, texts are controlled by their technological and material context. A popular example illustrating this point is the Hebrew Torah and the Christan Old Testament. While both books share the same words, they are read and understood in very different ways. This is in no small part due to the technology through which the words on the page are accessed. To this day, the Torah exists in temples and synagogues in scroll form. As a result, the congregation's relationship to the text is one that progresses linearly, or perhaps cyclically, over time. Christianity coincided in its early growth with the rise of the more familiar codex form—a form that the religion helped popularize. As a result, Christianity is rooted in a less linear and more "random-access" method of interaction with its own Holy Book. The result is two religions with radically different interactions and interpretations of the same text. While the material itself is only one factor in the parallel development of the religions, the effect of material forms should not be underrated.

Nowhere is textual materiality more evident than in the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. Gutenberg's invention of movable type represented a radical departure from existing systems of literary production and distribution. This played out both in the use and interpretation of existing work and in the creation of new texts. It is clear that people produced radically different documents in print than they did in scriptoriums. The triple-decker novel is impossible without printing just as pulp fiction is impossible without the cheap paper, cheap printing, and cheap and extensive distribution.

As computer technology appears poised to redefine literary production again, the technology itself is no longer "hardware" like printing presses and movable type but computer source code. As such, our ability to manipulate the terms on which we can communicate and collaborate, as long as we have access to source code, is instantaneously and almost infinitely flexible. We can add a line here, subtract a line here, change a line here and we create a different system and a different environment to shape and control the creation, distribution, or manipulation of literature.

Control as Copyright

Mentioned previously, Lessig's concept of "code" compares computer software's malleability and its regulatory effects with law. By regulating in a similar fashion, technology and law control the production of text. Copyright, the primary legal mechanism regulating the production and distribution of written expression, can stand in for law in the following discussion discussions.[1]

The idea of authors, the technology of reading and writing, and the legal mechanism of copyright are heavily intertwined. The myth of Romantic creation provides the backbone and justification for current regimes of strong copyright. Intellectual property, articulated as parallel to other forms of property, must be owned by an individual.[2] The rise and evolution of copyright as we know it today can be read in relationship to the decline and devolution of collaborative models of authorship and technology facilitating a more interconnected, person-to-person mode of production and distribution.

Copyright's inception can be traced to the invention of the printing press, although its first articulation followed Gutenberg's invention by more than a century and a half. As technology is redefining literary distribution and eliminating the need for strong centralized distribution systems, society is faced with a discrepancy between the social systems of control that govern the way we feel about the creation and transmissions of text, the technological systems that defines the way that we create, give, get and borrow, and the legal system that define the ownership of these works.



Obscenity law, libel law, and to a lesser degree trademark, trade secret, and a handful of other special cases and exceptions each regulate what can and can not be written or published for particular reasons.


For the purposes of property, intellectual or otherwise, the individual need not be a person. Under most countries' laws, corporations act as individuals and hold similar rights. Like other forms of property, intellectual property can be transfered, or bought, from an individual by a corporation—although for the purposes of my argument, this distinction does not matter. Corporate authorship will be discussed in more detail later in Chapter 4.