The Architecture of Humanities Cyberspace

[This is a reading reflection for HIST946: Digital Humanities for Prof. William G. Thomas during the Fall 2011 semester. This week’s reading was Lawrence Lessig, Code, and Other Laws of Cyberspace. You can find related posts here.]

Most broadly, Lawrence Lessig is suggesting that we are going to get the Internet that we build. “Code is law,” he writes, not only in the bits that make up the hardware and software that runs the Internet but also the norms and constraints that are adopted in cyberspace. He warns it is a mistake to assume the Internet carries with it a free and open nature without understanding that new layers of architecture can be built upon the core and change its functions. The threat of the new layers of architecture are whether they will serve as an open gateway to the web or centralize control.

So how does his discussion of economics, politics, and law in cyberspace transfer to our thinking about the digital humanities? I frequently thought of Christina Borgman and her discussion of scholarly infrastructure. As digital humanists, we have a role to take in building the architectures we want and need. And, if we are to follow Lessig, these need to serve the commons. Knowledge infrastructure as mobile, collaborative, and social should be open to allow for interpretation and the reuse of content. Building the content layer for scholarship needs to be a priority for scholars, otherwise we are faced with the potential that the layer will be built by those who are not willing to be open or value monetization or regulation over the free distribution of information.

The challenge increases as we tackle new Internet-centric devices like iPhones, iPads, and Kindles, devices that are generally closed to modification except by the vendors. The systems used here are not at all open. It is up to us to build a humanities cyberinfrastructure that serves our own interests. Otherwise, the system is left to those whose goals may differ from the mission of digital humanists.

The Internet is young. We need to think carefully about the decisions we make today because they will linger in the technology’s long-term development. We need to embrace the values of the original Internet, one that favored openness, and set an early precedent that individuals have the creative and consumptive freedom uninhibited by commercial or governmental decisions.