Lawrence Lessig has a piece in the Huffington Post stemming from a presentation he gave last week at an award ceremony. Lessig was a judge for a video remix contest put on by web video host Vimeo, and as part of his participation on a panel he gave a speech relating to the importance of remixes, and how they relate to copyright and fair use. (Lessig is known for his expertise in this field, given that he has written entire books about remix culture and related matters.)
I bring this up not to touch upon Lessig’s statements about remixes and fair use (which he recapitulates in the article), but to discuss what happened next, as it has considerable bearing on the nature of our interaction with reporting and forwarding on the web. Part of Lessig’s talk was taken out of context by a reporter covering the panel, leading to a brief Internet firestorm.
The reporter quoted Lessig as saying, essentially, “you have the right to take [someone else’s work] and use it” but “you [should] give them credit” when you do so. The reporter did not set this within the broader context of the discussion, which would have added an unspoken “for the purposes of making the kind of remix that is covered by the fair use exemption to copyright law.”
Thus, the reporter made Lessig out to be (as one Twitter reposter commented) “[calling] for en-masse copyright infringement” instead of reporting what he was actually saying: when you make fair use, you should also attribute even if you don’t legally have to—it’s just common decency.
This led to a considerable Twitter and Facebook backlash, including the above statement and others such as "I think there should be widespread demands placed upon Harvard to fire him…." But in fact Lessig did not actually say the things that made everyone so angry.
The problem, Lessig writes, is that talks, presentations, and statements frequently lose their context when they are transcribed to the Internet, and when someone from a different context happens across them it can lead to stunned disbelief in what they just heard—which in turn leads to those people loudly denouncing it without actually bothering to fact-check it. It shocked them, so it must be true.
[S]omehow, as a culture, we, or maybe just we who are old, have forgotten how to deal with stuff we can’t believe. The rhythm of FOX/MSNBC makes us think the outrageous must be true, because it is outrageous! Nothing sane, or boring, is uttered by anyone anymore. Why would they? Why would they waste their time?
Lessig is right that we have a tendency to believe the outrageous more easily than we believe the commonplace. But he is wrong in that this is something new, brought on by FOX, MSNBC, and their ilk. In fact, as I wrote in an essay on my personal blog, a writer who was a keen student of human nature noticed it almost ninety years ago.
In the story “The Hole in the Wall” in his 1922 story collection The Man Who Knew Too Much, G.K. Chesterton’s detective Horne Fisher says to a companion:
"You’ve got to understand one of the tricks of the modern mind, a tendency that most people obey without noticing it. In the village or suburb outside there’s an inn with the sign of St. George and the Dragon. Now suppose I went about telling everybody that this was only a corruption of King George and the Dragoon. Scores of people would believe it, without any inquiry, from a vague feeling that it’s probable because it’s prosaic. It turns something romantic and legendary into something recent and ordinary. And that somehow makes it sound rational, though it is unsupported by reason. Of course some people would have the sense to remember having seen St. George in old Italian pictures and French romances, but a good many wouldn’t think about it at all. They would just swallow the skepticism because it was skepticism. Modern intelligence won’t accept anything on authority. But it will accept anything without authority."
This little quirk of human nature has led to a number of erroneous beliefs and urban legends floating around, that we believe and propagate solely because they seem to go against conventional wisdom. For instance, the idea that we only use some tiny percentage of our actual mental capacity (which is often held up as “proof” that ESP is plausible) is actually a complete myth. And I’m sure you’ve heard it said that pizza wasn’t really invented in Italy, but rather in New York. (It was invented in Italy after all, at least in some form.)
But we believe these things, or at least we don’t question them when we first hear them, because they make that kind of counter-intuitive sense Chesterton noted. And that holds especially true in the Internet age—the more outrageous a forwarded email is, the more likely we are to forward it on to our friends without first doing even the rudimentary research of a Snopes search. It’s no wonder people were ready to believe (and loudly declaim) the worst of Lessig based solely on one second-hand report, without first checking the context for themselves.
I’m not sure that Chesterton was right even then when he called it a modern point of view. It seems to me that it might be an outgrowth of an evolved safety response, and thus it would have been with us all along. After all, the unbelievable does occasionally happen in real life, and the cavemen that are willing to believe that a saber-toothed tiger is where it’s not supposed to be and react accordingly are the ones who will survive if it actually is there. (“The Boy Who Cried Wolf” suggests that this was a problem even in Aesop’s time.)
Regardless of what we might think of Lessig’s actual positions on fair use and reuse of others’ creative works, or indeed of anything anyone says on the Internet, we owe it to ourselves (if not to them) to make sure that what we’re responding to is actually what was said—if only so we don’t end up looking foolish and eating our words afterward. I know I’ve been as guilty of this myself as anyone else, but at least being aware of it might help us do better in the future.