Friday, January 16, 2009

Lawrence Lessig, James Agee, and Obsolete Telegraph Operators

I was one of the poor souls at the Lolita Bar Debate on "Is Intellectual Property Theft?" who sided with the vote-losing open-source pro-piracy types (no surprise to CSB regulars), which makes me all the more disappointed that Lawrence Lessig has joined the devil's party in opposing all graft, rather than simply opposing the bad kind:
Trust is at the center of those institutions, in the sense that if you want people to listen to you when you tell them that they should vaccinate their children against malaria, people need to trust that when you say the vaccines are safe, they are safe.

If you don't have that trust in society, what happens is that people don't vaccinate their kids against malaria, and malaria starts to take off, and as it takes off there are devastating consequences for the population. Trust is at the center of that relationship. The question is how we build trust.
"The question is how we build trust." Indeed it is. If machine politics teaches us anything, it is that personal politics does so while bureaucracy simply breeds suspicion.

I've thrown up this James Agee quote on CSB before, but it bears repeating:
The Postman Always Rings Twice is also interesting as the third current movie — the others are From This Day Forward and Deadline at Dawnwhich represents the Law as an invincible and terrifying force before which mere victims, whether innocent or guilty, can only stand helpless and aghast.
When the law is impersonal, it necessarily becomes Agee's vast, inscrutable edifice. How could such an image fail to result in mistrust?

I have some sympathy for the position that suspicion of government is a good thing, but consider this quote from Ronald Dore's British Factory, Japanese Factory, which illustrates why a relationship of trust between management and labor is better than a culture of opposition:
Inability to declare redundancies hardly inhibits Hitachi's technological flexibility, whereas English Electric often was so inhibited because union strength made managers scared to resort to the redundancy dismissal solution they were accustomed to—and retraining, if it were considered as an alternative, would be severely hampered by union craft rules.
To unpack that tangled excerpt (which would make more sense if you'd read the whole book): In Japan, it is taken as a given that neither management nor labor wants to lay off workers; this allows management to do what it needs to do in order to keep "obsolete" workers on, including retraining workers or reassigning them to different factories, as a soldier might be reassigned to a different base. In England, however, the unions regard it as their job to hamper management's flexibility; this has the intended consequence of making it harder to fire workers, but it also makes it harder for dead-weight workers to be deployed productively.

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