Thursday, September 23, 2004

The Abridged Guide to Lessig for 6-year olds

I've been having an ongoing conversation with John Naughton about the relative difficulty of the ideas in our Open University course, T182: Law, the Internet and Society, based on Larry Lessig's book, The Future of Ideas.

A substantial minority of students have difficulty grasping the basics because policy on the management of intellectual resources is, not surprisingly, not a subject area most people give a lot of thought to.

I've been fairly convinced for some time that the ideas in and of themselves are not inherently difficult because I've been able to explain them to my kids. So John suggested scripting an "Abridged guide to Lessig for 6-year olds" and recording it for the course website. Unfortunately Blogger doesn't host audio files but a copy of the transcript follows (If you'd like a copy of the audio file, let me know at r.corrigan at and I'll email it to you) :

Hi, I’m Ray Corrigan, the author of T182.

At this point in the proceedings we usually discover that a number of people have decided to get a head start by reading the set book first and found they can’t seem to understand a word of it. If you’re one of those people, don’t despair.

There are a few things you need to realise about Professor Lessig’s book.

The first is that it’s NOT a typical textbook. It’s a book-length argument setting out its author’s view of a really important public issue.

Secondly, Larry Lessig is a lawyer by training – a very distinguished lawyer, but a lawyer nonetheless. This means that he thinks and writes like a lawyer, and for some people this is an unfamiliar mode of discourse.

Finally, Lessig’s book is about topics that may be very new to you.

So it’s not surprising that many people who dive straight into The Future of Ideas find that they have wandered into strange and unfamiliar territory.

Now here’s the good news. The ideas you need to understand to get through T182 are not nearly as complicated as a first look at the book might make them seem.

How do I know this? Well, primarily because I’ve been able to explain all the key ideas in T182 to my young son, Jack.

What follows is what a colleague calls my abridged guide to Lessig for six-year-olds, so I should say at this point that if you’ve read the book and had no trouble with it then you should close this MP3 file now. I hope you won’t find that I have been irritating or patronising, but if you do I suggest you to shut off this audio file and move straight to the Web-based course material. If you do this, though, can I suggest that you take note of what the website says in advising you to ‘follow the book as indicated on these web pages.’

Firstly, then, Lessig tells a story of an innovation revolution, the concerns of established industries, and their response, which he calls a counter-revolution. Jack thought this was just a bit like the big kid in the playground always wanting everyone to play his games, even when someone had other more interesting ideas, toys or gadgets.

What about the layers model Lessig uses to describe the Internet? Well, it turned out that this one wasn’t too difficult either because kids are absolutely fascinated by anything to do with nature, science and technology. So they’ll happily accept that the Internet is made up of three layers.

The physical layer, as far as Jack is concerned, consists of the things you can touch – the wires, the plugs, the metal and plastic boxes etc.

The content layer consists of the things he deals with on the computer screen – words, images, sounds and the application programmes he uses, like games or word processors.

The middle layer – the code layer – was a little trickier, but manageable with the help of a couple of electrons called Ella and Ernie. Because my kids are always asking questions, I’ve concocted a whole host of stories about families of electrons who run about inside electrical and electronic devices, enabling them to work. These electrons are led by two main characters, Ella and Ernie. And as far as the code layer of the Internet is concerned, Ella and Ernie just run a kind of crazy post office that enables content to be delivered from one computer to another through the wires or airwaves of the Internet. Any computer that accepts Ella and Ernie’s crazy rules can join in the game of talking to any other computer on the Internet.

So, the physical layer covers the things he can touch, the code layer is Ella and Ernie’s crazy post office, and the content layer includes the things he sees or hears on the screen.

Now to Lessig’s idea of a commons. It was Jack’s younger brother, Nicholas, who gave me the clue about how to talk ‘commons’ on their wavelength. I was babbling on about people needing things to be creative, when he said ‘You mean like the junk modelling stuff, Dad?'

In our house we have some art and junk modelling cupboards that are jammed full of coloured pens, pencils, paper, glitter, paints, stars, glues, cardboard tubes – you name it – all the raw materials you need to be the perfect Blue Peter presenter. There’s no lock on these cupboards but there are the usual rules of engagement, re. being careful with paints, the need to tidy up afterwards etc., and mum and dad are the gatekeepers responsible for access and replenishment of stores. So the Corrigan junk modelling cupboards, though broadly subject to open access to the kids and their friends, can’t be considered to be a commons because they’ve got two gatekeepers.

It was a short step for the kids to imagine an enormous open art and junk modelling cupboard without parent gatekeepers, that they and all their friends could dive into and the potential that would provide for creative chaos. Now that’s a commons.

After layers and commons, the third big idea in the course is Lessig’s model of constraints on behaviour. It’s relatively straightforward and doesn’t really need the Lessig guide for six-year-olds to explain it. Nevertheless, a kids’ eye perspective on it was helpful to me. When I asked Jack what constrained his behaviour, his first question was ‘What does constrain mean, Dad?’ When I explained, he came up with an interesting list. It included:

other children (who, that day, hadn’t wanted him and his mates to build a ‘rocket’ from one end of the playground to the other)
house and school rules
lack of money to buy gadgets, books and sweets
not being able to jump over a tree because gravity weighs you down
locked doors
locked computers when you don’t know the password
the rules of the road
being banned from using the computer (a sanction for naughty behaviour)
and not having his own laptop.

He got some fun out of generating the list and turned it into a list of things he would like to have, but I won’t bore you with the rest of it. The interesting thing for us here was that part of his list mapped onto Lessig’s four constraints:

house and school rules plus the rules of the road are kids’ equivalent of laws
the unwritten rules of social engagement with other children when building a playground rocket are the social norms angle
no money to buy things equates to market forces
and Lessig’s architecture could encompass Jack’s reference to gravity, locked doors and passwords on computers.

So there you have it:

innovation revolution and counter-revolution
and constraints

in the abridged guide to Lessig for six-year-olds. The key point is that the main ideas are simpler than a first look at the set book might make them appear.

Updated due to broken OpenLearn link. I've also put the audio version of this up on the Internet Archive.

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