Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Web, The Humanities, and The Law

Cathy Davidson, over at HASTAC, argues that without the humanities our current information age would be like the Industrial Revolution without the steam engine. Here’s why: 
without the humanities, virtually everything about the World Wide Web is a muddle. All of the key issues of how knowledge is exchanged, how it is created, what its role is in the world, how it functions and changes, how one kind of idea influences another, how knowledge travels, leads to a complex History of Ideas the likes of which we have not seen before.  We need the equivalent of all of the resources of histoire du livre—history of the book—to understand all of the relations of producers, consumers, distributors, systems of literacy and education, access, divide, and on and on. …

[Tim Berners-Lee] wanted from earliest age to make a computer that could be like the human brain. The World Wide Web approximated that because it is based on a human, social, interactive, creative, associational concept of thought and humanity. It is rooted in a view of human nature and is designed to facilitate that human nature. There was a sense of humans as learners and as seekers of knowledge, and a sense that the WWW had to be as unregulated as possible because, if you allow humans to contribute, they will.
And they do. Here is a fascinating story from NPR about social media and history: “The Face Of A Famous Skull Found On Flickr.”

But there is a problem. See Lawrence Lessig in “For the Love of Culture: Google, Copyright, and our Future”:
the problem here is not just antitrust; it is not just privacy; it is not even the power that this (enormously burdensome) free library will give this already dominant Internet company. Indeed, the problem with the Google settlement is not the settlement. It is the environment for culture that the settlement will cement. …

The law has always set limits on the freedom of property owners to allocate their property as they want. Families in Britain wanted to control how estates passed down the family line. At a certain point, their wants became way too complicated. The response was rules--such as the Rule Against Perpetuities--designed to enhance the efficiency of the market by limiting the freedom of property owners to place conditions on their property, thus making it possible for property to move more simply. That is precisely the impulse I wish to recommend here: that we limit the freedom of lawyers to craft infinitely complicated agreements governing culture, so that access to our culture can be preserved. …

we need an approach … that crafts the balance that any culture needs: incentives to support a diverse range of creativity, with an assurance that the creativity inspired remains for generations to access and understand.