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A West Coast Coder Goes to Washington

05/25/2011 12:25 pm ET
  • Nancy Scola Nancy is a writer and blogger focused on the intersection of technology and politics.

Stanford professor and Internet guru Larry Lessig is on
the cusp of making a decision on whether
or not to run for the open
seat in California's 12th congressional district
. As a geek
of sorts
with a background on Capitol Hill, it is to me a particularly exciting prospect. But as we wait for Lessig to make up his mind, I keep coming back to a potential hitch in his run suggested by Lessig himself in his book href="http://www.code-is-law.org/">Code and Other Laws of
Cyberspace
. And it goes to the differences between how "code" is composed on the West Coast and how it gets crufted together on the East Coast.

Let me try to explain. In that work, Lessig talks about the idea that we
denizens of 21st century America live under the dominion of
not one by two types of code.
In one corner, there's East
Coast code
-- the laws and regulations hammered out
through the Washington, DC, political process that gets codified, bound,
and then shelved at the Library of Congress. And in the other, there's West Coast code --
the bits and bytes cobbled together by programmers in the garages and
corporate parks of California. You run into East
Coast code every time FICA takes a bite of your paycheck. You come face-to-face with West Coast code every time you boot up your laptop.

It's an interesting dialectic, and Lessig convincingly makes the case
in Code
that both are tremendously powerful. But let's face it -- right
now America's imagination has turned west, to Silicon Valley. The purveyors of
West Coast code sit tanning in California and crafting a breathtakingly
exciting new order. In California, it seems to make sense that Google's
algorithms are the most powerful of weapons. In California, it's
perfectly natural that a 23-year-old like Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg
is both a CEO and thought leader.

Still, East Coast code has a long arm. And Washington DC hasn't been all that shy about treating the Internet and technology as just as regulable as everything else that lies between the Atlantic and Pacific; as Lessig writes in Code:

There is a long history of
power moving west. It tells of the clash of ways between the old and
the new. The pattern is familiar. The East reaches out to control the
West; the West, partially, resists.

If Larry Lessig does indeed decide to make go at Congress, his run
would be a challenge to that traditional east-to-west flow.
Lessig's arrival in the capital -- in spirit if not in practice --
would be a statement that California has a thing or two to teach DC
about how to run the world. His colleague, the wildly entertaining
Oxford professor Jon
Zittrain, put it this way: " href="http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2008/02/21/professor-lessig-goes-to-washington-maybe/?mod=googlenews_wsj">I
think he would be the man from Mars in a good way: I come
from Silicon Valley, and I am here to change your ways."

Funny stuff. But what I don't think we should overlook is why those "ways" are what they
are. Why East Coast code and West Coast code are such altogether
different beasts?

Well, we have to keep in mind that when it comes to DC, coding ain't
easy. Lawmaking requires that an idea wend its way through the
deliberative processes of two houses of Congress. If it's to have any
hope of success, it likely needs the support of agencies, a rough
consensus amongst stakeholders, and then finally, in most cases, a
willing president. Even when it's not contentious, it's convoluted.
It's no real surprise why the legal thinking that comes out the end of
that process is often ugly code.

Now compare that to the way that West Coast code is crafted in the
Internet age. Much of it, of course, gets written in dorm rooms and
home offices, but it may as well be a vacuum. I may not be much of a
coder, but one thing I do know one thing: real coders flourish in
controlled, knowable environments. Have an idea for a new web app? Fantastic. Get
to work. You know the coding platforms available, the browsers your app
has to run in, the speeds and parameters of the Internet it will run
on. Cobble something together tonight, buy a domain name in
the morning, and launch it at lunch.

By dinner, you're the proud master or mistress of genuine West Coast
code that might already be shaping the world order in some way, small
or large. With any luck, you'll be claiming a prize at SXSW by spring.

Of course, the Beltway is anything but the sort of
controlled environment that coders thrive in. Heaven knows that the nation's capitol could use some
of the "anything's possible!" spirit that the west seems to have in
spades. But as Lessig himself wrote, when
East Code code tries to impose itself on the opposite coast, "The
West...resists." And if Mr. Lessig makes it to Washington with his West Coast
code vibe in tow, the question may well be: what happens when the East
resists?