Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy
By Lawrence Lessig Penguin
328pp. | $25.95
John Philip Sousa, the March King, was no fan of the gramophone. "These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country," the composer told a congressional committee on copyright reform in 1906. "When I was a boy ... in front of every house in the summer evenings you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or the old songs. To-day you hear these infernal machines going night and day." Home playback was killing the hootenanny along with the values sustained by amateur musicianship. Sousa argued that as the player piano and the phonograph grew in popularity, people would lose the ability to learn and adapt and play songs for themselves. Music would forfeit its place at the center of communal life; even the vocal chord, he warned, would become a vestigial organ, "eliminated by a process of evolution."
Sousa's century-old technophobia might seem an odd touchstone for Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford law professor who is routinely described as a Web guru, cyberlaw visionary, and augur of our digital future. But according to Lessig's new book, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, Sousa's moment and our own are at opposite ends of a single technological arc. When Sousa testified in 1906, the participatory culture of the sing-along was being replaced by a consumer culture built around store-bought recordings. (Lessig, borrowing a distinction from network management protocol, calls the participatory culture "Read/Write" and the prerecorded culture "Read-Only.") Today, at our end of the arc, the two cultures are again in flux. After a century of Read-Only dominance, says Lessig, the Read/Write culture Sousa saw being killed off is making a comeback through networked digital technologies flavoring interactivity, community, and open access to culture making. This time, it appears, the infernal machines are on the side of the sing-along. Or at least of its 21st-century cousin, the mash-up--that emerging genre of songs and videos digitally assembled from elements of existing source material.
Unlike C. P. Snow's description of the gulf between science and the humanities, Lessig's "two-cultures" narrative is not about divergent, seemingly irreconcilable cultural tendencies. Instead, Remix argues that the digital revolution will produce a new equilibrium between Read-Only and...