6.2 Poisoned flowers – understanding architecture as a regulator

When Lessig uses the term ‘architecture’ in relation to the real world he is referring to more than just buildings and bridges. In this context ‘architecture’ means the ‘laws of nature’. The laws of nature – the architecture – of a world can constrain or enable behaviour. For example, gravity ensures we do not all get jettisoned off into space as the earth spins on its axis. Robert Moses' bridges are a clear example of more conventional architecture imposing constraints on behaviour. If you are not used to thinking of architecture as a regulator of behaviour you may find the following exercise useful. It will help you to:

  • appreciate the force of architecture as a regulator of behaviour;

  • understand how architecture can eliminate the need for law in certain circumstances.

Think of a world where we can make up the laws of nature as we go along, like they do in cartoons on television – gravity switches off when the Road Runner eats the grain under the heavy weight and switches on again when Wile E. Coyote moves under the weight. The good cartoon character draws a door on a wall and opens it to escape. When the bad guy tries to follow he goes splat into the wall. Now the poisoned flowers:

Imagine a cartoon world in which a woman, Martha, grows flowers. These are beautiful to look at and have a delightful scent. They are also poisonous and if touched will kill. Some petals fall onto a neighbour's garden. The neighbour's dog eats them and dies. The neighbour gets angry.

What can we do about it?

  • 1. Bring the dog back to life. We can make up the laws of nature as we go along.

  • Let's introduce another constraint here: although we can change the laws of nature we are limited in how much we can do and we cannot change the past. Therefore the dog stays dead. Very sad.

  • 2. Create a dog that can't be poisoned?

  • That protects the new dog but what about the neighbour or anyone else?

  • 3. Ok, then make the flowers lose their poisonous nature when they leave Martha's garden.

  • We have another problem here: Martha makes her living selling the flowers. Their poison is the primary feature that makes them attractive to her customers.

  • 4. Ok then, why not make the plants poisonous only when in the possession of the person who bought them or who legitimately owns them? If they're stolen or the petals are blown away then they lose their poisonous nature.

We have now solved two problems instead of one. The laws of nature, in this cartoon world, can be designed to mean that stolen flowers lose their value the instant a thief gets them. Theft is a change of possession but not a legitimate change of ownership. The dispute between Martha and her neighbour is resolved NOT by changing behaviour, but by changing the laws of nature.

This cartoon place is a world where problems can be programmed away. It is a bit like the internet in that regard. The important things to ask about such a place (especially cyberspace) are:

  1. What does it mean to live in a world where problems can be programmed away?

  2. When, in that world, should we program problems away?

As well as the questions and answers above, try to develop some of your own with colleagues and/or with readers in the unit forum. We also recommend that you discuss this with your friends and family. You can give one person the ability to decide which laws of nature you can change and which you cannot. It is amazing the number of different alleys this takes you down and it can be highly entertaining, particularly for those who enjoy a good argument!

It may be useful to think of an example of architecture controlling behaviour on the internet. Lessig has taught at a number of universities including Chicago and Harvard. In his first book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, he tells the story of the different approaches that these two universities took to the internet. When he was at Chicago, between 1991 and 1996, academics could connect their computers to jacks throughout the university campus. When the computer was connected, the user had complete access to the internet – open, anonymous and free. Lessig gives the credit for this to the administrator who made the decision about the kind of network the University of Chicago should have. The administrator was a civil rights scholar who valued the ability to communicate anonymously.

At Harvard, however, computers had to be registered and approved. Communications were monitored and tracked to individual computers. There was a code of practice outlining acceptable use, which users had to sign up to, and only approved members of the university could get their computers connected. As at Chicago, this arrangement also arose from the decision of a university administrator, but one with a different set of values to the administrator at Chicago, and one who was perhaps more focused on management control of university resources.

In recent years Lessig has moved to Stanford, where there is yet another distinct set-up in relation to network access. On one occasion he was locked out of the network by a systems administrator who had detected file-sharing software on his machine. He was using the file-sharing software to distribute his own notes to his students.

Note: The ‘poisoned flowers’ story above is based on an extract from Chapter 2 of Lessig's first book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.

As far as the laws of mathematics relate to reality they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.

(Albert Einstein)

6.1.5 Law, norms, market forces and architecture all regulate behaviour

6.3 Circuit and packet switching