Lessig, Lawrence. Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Lessig warns us that decisions are getting made all around us on very important issues, based on society's move to digital technologies. He then calls on the reader to identify values that are being effected and determine how best to address them. One of the major insights of the book is that we can break these considerations down into four broad modalities of regulation or constraint: norms, law, market and architecture/code.

Though Lessig's conclusions tend to be relatively pessimistic, one can also read his book as a powerful call to action. As he states, recognizing the transitions that are occurring can hopefully give us some guidance on "how we might reclaim the values that are important in this [cyber]space, and how we might insist on bringing to it values that are now absent." He points out that the modalities are malleable. Contrary to much of the contemporary hype related to the "information revolution," very little of what we take to be the current digital environment is actually inherently or naturally determined. Technology is a human creation and can be reconstructed to take on just about any attributes we value enough to build into it. Existing laws are also open to interpreting, resulting in "latent ambiguities" that arise when trying to apply them to new situations.

Given some set of values, one can use Lessig's four modalities as a means to define our landscape and strategies for action. When we are able to recognize radical change in one or more of the modalities, it is time for us to decide how to either resist or adapt to this change in order to continue promoting our values effectively. Although "latent ambiguities" in existing laws, policies and principles can often be challenging, they can also provide us with an open door into new opportunities. When an ambiguity in the traditional version of a modality arises, this provides us with a chance to attempt a resolution of that ambiguity that promotes our values. Lessig shows us that the modalities interact with each other in dramatic ways, and often scoring a victory relative to one can often help to promote our values relative to the others.


Lessig is both a well-recognized legal scholar and a persuasive writer. Though his own political views understandably reveal themselves on occasion, he does a fairly good job of presenting numerous dilemmas, then leaving it up to the reader to resolve them.


Anyone who cares about a social issue that is touched on by ICTs can gain insights from Lessig's book. By attempting to recognize and negotiate the four modalities that he explains, one can decide what strategy makes sense for promoting one's values. As Lessig explains, the ambiguities in the system will get resolved somehow; it is the decision of each individual to decide whether or not to take part in the process.

» Next: Making Advanced Technology Work for Community-Serving Organizations: The Potential Impact of OSS and ASPs