Designing Utopias, IP Law Edition

The apparent absence of artifice — one might say, the calculated absence of artifice — so dominates California’s cultural and natural landscape that when I return from a trip out West, as I just did, I have to spend a few days cognitively re-situating myself in the manufactured East.

What that means is that I’m a native Californian who has lived in Pittsburgh for a long time. Each occasional re-immersion in the land of my youth means re-assessing that place in light of my current experience. As part of “Code,” Lessig once distinguished “West Coast Code” (computer code — open, networked, bottom-up) from “East Coast Code” (legal code — closed, proprietary, top-down), noting that each “regulated” behavior, but in different ways.  But I think that he (as a native Pennsylvanian) mis-read the Californian metaphor. California’s contribution to contemporary jurisprudence — to thinking about code, and openness, and to IP and tech and culture — cuts quite differently.

The leftmost edge of the US is about utopianism — just as so much of the US in general is dominated by utopianism — but utopianism of a very specific flavor, and utopianism unlike the utopianism of the contemporary East Coast.

East Coast utopianism is often about Being. In Pittsburgh, for example, Pittsburgh exceptionalism about who “we” (Pittsburghers) “are” (we’re amazing!) dominates all sorts of public conversations. And Pittsburgh and Pittsburghers are hardly alone among Eastern communities in their self-regard for their present (if sometimes unrecognized or unrewarded) greatness, but they are uncommon (and therefore an uncommonly good example) for the linkages among achievement, greatness, and place. Pittsburgh today is an interesting city, even occasionally cool or hip, precisely because it is so explicit and obvious about its interest in recapturing and then repurposing its 20th century glory. There is 21st century glory ahead, but — as in Boston, or New York, or even Cleveland — 21st century glory is about affirming and extending existing glory. We already occupy the promised land.

West Coast utopianism is about Becoming.  Existing communities don’t make the point as clearly as new communities do (whether existing communities includes only big ones, like San Francisco or Los Angeles, or small ones, like San Luis Obispo); novelty, in fact, is the entire point. Few in California have achieved their utopian vision; utopia is by definition always a work in progress.  We are designing utopias — entirely new places. We are headed *to* the promised land, or we are *building* the promised land. The New York Times just carried a couple of short pieces that, juxtaposed, make the point all too clearly.  “Utopia Rules at Sea Ranch, a Community Born of ’60s Idealism,” about the Sea Ranch planned second-home community on the bluffs between Bodega Bay and Mendocino (my family was one of many that vacationed at Sea Ranch in the 1970s) appeared at the same time as “The Happiness Project,” about Disneyland. Behavioral rules and regulations at Disneyland are legendary, whether we’re thinking of customer behavior or staff behavior. That’s the utopian design. The idyll of Sea Ranch was/is no less scripted, architecturally and behaviorally.

West Coast “code” is, in other words, just as law-specific and regulatory in a traditional sense as East Coast “code” is.  Apple and Google — West Coast code in Lessig’s sense — are Disney-ish, in a digital context.  But they are forward-looking rather than backward-looking.

Walt Disney himself was, in a way, the Steve Jobs of an earlier, pre-digital era, a showboating aesthetic imperialist who had an instinct for producing extraordinarily inspiring and comforting cultural objects. (I visited the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, which is a great place and which reminded me constantly of the Disney/Jobs resemblance. I am far from the first person to notice it.) Mickey Mouse was the totalizing cultural icon, the iPhone, of 80 years ago, a cheap entree to the E-ticket ride of the future. Up at Sea Ranch, the visioneer behind that project, Lawrence Halprin, played the same role.  Sea Ranch represents the California natural sublime; Disneyland represents the California cultural sublime.  Of course, they are the products of quite distinct utopian impulses; Fred Turner’s history “From Counterculture to Cybereculture” explains.

Does this all have anything to do with IP law? In a general, conceptual sense, I think so. IP policy in the US is understood to be guided by “progress,” a word and metaphor that comes from the US Constitution and that pays off in the copyright concept of “originality” and the patent concepts of “novelty” and “nonobviousness.” IP law speaks directly to collective interests in new stuff; new stuff makes us collectively better, in some way. But to what end? My Californian bias suggests that “progress” should be informed by a “Becoming” utopianism rather than a “Being” utopianism. (Which is hardly an uncomplicated resolution, to be sure.) Much IP debate and discussion today, it seems to me, is “Being” rather than “Becoming.”

To be continued. My next stop is Philadelphia!

Santa’s Brand

Quietbook has a mock re-branding Santa guide up. It is a “refresh.” Refresh. The word triggered a flashback to corpspeak where irony goes to die. I scanned the rest of the page. “*Santa* is a Concept, not an idea. It’s an Emotion, not a feeling. It’s both Yesterday and Today. And it’s Tomorrow as well.” Ah yes. They get it. The Santa Brand book is a great example of the way branders operate. I dove into those ideas in my paper From Trademarks to Brands. These folks take you on a similar but funnier journey. Good times and a belated but truly meant Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all.

Surveillance You Might Dig

NOAA’s video of green patterns earth shows how visualization helps show what data may indicate. The assertion that the visualization and data analysis helps understand weather, fire seasons, fertile areas, droughts, and more are tantalizing. If true at some level, this surveillance seems cool.

STEM education and some more on 3D printing as general purpose tech

3D printing and its related technology is general purpose technology that can train kids for the future. I saw an example of that yesterday when I was able to visit La Jolla Country Day School where sixth to eighth grade kids on spring break were learning basic 3D Modeling and Design. Last week they worked on How to Make Musical Electronics. In the 3D modeling program, Ann Worth, an MIT School of Architecture graduate, guided the youngsters as they manipulated files of their heads so that at the end of the program they could print them. I also watched a video of two girls who had been shown how to make an amplifier and oscillator for their iPhones. Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney, UCSD was their instructor. The kids talked about trial and error, vectors and faces, and circuit boards with energy and joy. How often does that happen? If Katie Rast and her co-visionaries at FabLab San Diego have their way, much more often.

Despite some nerds are cool ideas, we still hear that kids are turned off by math and science and that there is a lack of good Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) education. New programs may change all that. By taking an old idea like shop and updating it, a FabLab (short for Fabrication Lab) offers the chance to make learning about programing, engineering, geometry, and the jot of creation. Kids are willing to engage with formulas; start, fail, and restart projects; and work rather hard at their projects, because there is fun and an outcome for them. The spring break program I visited is called Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math, or STEAM. The University of California, San Diego and FabLab SD worked together to offer the classes (which to me is a tech transfer moment that is quite important).

In the 3D modeling program, the kids started with a series of photos, which were uploaded to 123D (a suite of 3D modeling apps by Autodesk). That service knits the images together into a file that the kids then download. In many cases there are holes in the images. As they made models of their heads, they laughed at the holes in their heads. They then used a program called Blender to learn about filling the gaps. That meant some kids were telling me about vectors, others about textures, and all showed off as they pulled, stretched, and edited files to create the proper rendering of their heads. After that, they grabbed files for the bodies. A range of animal bodies will be virtually sliced up to make the new creature upon which the heads will attach. When asked what they might do next, these folks talked about how metals, glass, and other materials would be awesome so they could make really functional items. Some talked about being able to have a home printer that could make solar cells to power other printers. When told that these ideas were already being pursued, eyes popped out of their heads, and then grins covered their faces at thoughts of what’s next (and I think a little pride at predicting where the technology could go).

The skills learned in these programs will persist even as the machines and software are superseded. Who knows? If I had access to this sort of tech training combined with math and science education, I might have stuck with that path. Even if I didn’t, I’d have a greater ability to play with and understand the technology that surrounds us. In short, congratulations to La Jolla Country Day School, UCSD, FabLab SD, Ann Worth, Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney, and Katie Rast for pursuing ways to make STEM fun and for kids. The ideas here remind me of Julie Cohen’s work about play and its importance in her book, Configuring the Networked Self: Law, Code, and the Play of Everyday Practice. As Rast said on a panel at SxSW, computer labs were often seen as saviors for education especially in low income areas, but they often gathered dust. The key is to have maker spaces that work for the group’s context. A lab need not have the latest technology. If the technology is connected to people in meaningful ways, then the magic can happen. I agree. The magic of playing with technology, understanding what you can do with it, and seeing new possibilities will fire the desire to learn and create. As Neil Gershenfeld (a leader in the Maker and Fab movement) put it, this is a liberal, as in liberating, art. But don’t take my word for it. As one kid told me at lunch, adults’ brains are not as good at learning as kids’ brains, and kids like showing what they can do. Now that is education.