Upon first read, the comparison Lawrence Lessig made between Eastern Europe and the Internet seemed out of left field. I wasn’t sure what to do with it. But I spent some time in Georgia/Saqartvelo this year, so I found it impossible to shake the reference and it drastically shifted the lens through which I was going to view his books.
My host family there in a little village called Salibauri, just outside of Batumi on the coast of the Black Sea, had clearly just come into some money. Newer and fancier things appeared every week. When I arrived, my host father Amiran toted the family around in a Land Cruiser. When I left he’d added two more SUVs to the collection. By the end of my time there the entire interior of the house had been destroyed and a massive renovation project was underway. Their neighbors (all seemingly family of some sort) were drastically and obviously less well-off. But after years of deprivation as a result of Russian control, it seemed to me they were not afraid to spend that money on themselves.
I keep thinking about this because in the way Lessig set the history of the Internet up–juxtaposing it with post-communist Europe–the Internet was like a new world for us as a post-capitalist society. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that the Internet opened up the possibility for us to have a new world in a post-consumerist society. When Georgia had the chance to start fresh, they gave democracy a go and then their president Eduard Shevardnadze is assumed to have figured out he could rig elections. The current leader, Mikhail Saakashvili, took over as the result of a nonviolent coup, but is also expected to have some trouble letting go of his power when the time comes.
Communism may have fallen, but it was all the people knew. So they tried some new styles, but the old twists were still in place. The tools for corruption were still accessible and the government used (is using?) them.
Maybe that’s not so far off from what happened with the Internet. We tried to impose the regulations we knew to be true on the Internet. We tried to run businesses that way. And a lot of those things aren’t working (piracy, dotcom failures, etc.). But like Lessig points out, a lot also succeeded on the Internet, almost while no one was paying attention. I think this is what he called spillover.
Is the Internet therefore a success? Is it growing toward something that will be primarily innovative and more effective than capitalism as we knew it? I don’t know. But I think, especially in Remix, Lessig was willing to admit there’s a lot we still don’t know, and there’s a high likelihood that the economics and regulations of the Internet will shift before we notice. We get excited about things for a hot minute and then are ready for a new approach. As he pointed out:
“The hard part is believing that, over time, many will continue to believe that giving back makes sense.”
Do we just move from platform to platform with the same tendencies toward both good and evil in tow? Examining both situations (post-communist Europe and post-consumerist Internet) in this context has shown me that maybe this isn’t the case. Maybe there’s still a window for reworking and finding a better kind of success with a hybrid solution.
My host family might have embraced their relatively new found monetary individualism, but they also held fast to the sense of community that had always been a part of their lives–there was a constant flow of loved ones in and out and around the houses near us–and in this sense what was theirs was also their neighbors’.
Georgia has its problems, but it’s come a long way. With each shift in power, they’re working to create a vision for themselves that will undoubtedly be a result of the influences of at least two very different styles of government.
I’m not sure if I made any progress on the thoughts Lessig put forth. But essentially, I thought he summed up the important things he had to say with this line from Remix:
“It thus encourages this sort of gift economy— not by belittling or denigrating the commercial economy, but simply by recognizing the obvious: that humans act for different motives, and the motive to give deserves as much respect as the motive to get.”