Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.


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Last night, I was on a panel about DRM with Richard Stallman from the Free Software Foundation, Danny O'Brien from from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Harry Halpin from the World Wide Web Consortium following a Free Software Foundation protest march against DRM, which the Free Software Foundation defines as "Digital Restrictions Management" but more commonly refers to "Digital Rights Management."

In the Q&A, someone asked me what I thought about disobedience. I said that I thought it was important and tried to explain why. I'm not sure I did a terribly good job, so I'm posting something here that's a bit more complete.

One of my Nine Principles is Disobedience over Compliance. One day, when meeting with Mark DiVincenzo, the General Counsel of MIT, he raised an eyebrow when he saw this on one of the displays in my office. I had to explain.

You don't win a Nobel prize by doing what you're told. The American civil rights movement wouldn't have happened without civil disobedience. India would not have achieved independence without the pacifist but firm disobedience of Gandhi and his followers. The Boston Tea Party, which we celebrate here in New England, was also quite disobedient.

There is a difficult line--sometimes obvious only in retrospect--between disobedience that helps society and disobedience that doesn't. I'm not encouraging people to break the law or be disobedient just for the sake of being disobedient, but sometimes we have to go to first principles and consider whether the laws or rules are fair, and whether we should question them.

Society and institutions in general tend to lean toward order and away from chaos. In the process this stifles disobedience. It can also stifle creativity, flexibility, and productive change-and in the long run-society's health and sustainability. This is true across the board, from academia, to corporations, to governments, to our communities.

I like to think of the Media Lab as "disobedience robust." The robustness of the model of the Lab is in part due to the way disobedience and disagreement exist and are manifested here in a healthy, creative, and respectful way. I believe that being "disobedience robust" is an essential element of any healthy democracy and of any open society that continues to self correct and innovate.


> There is a difficult line--sometimes obvious only in retrospect--between disobedience that helps society and disobedience that doesn't.

The way I usually practice/understand disobedience is that it comes with the responsibility. Maybe, it's exactly about this being responsible for our own acts and assume the consequences of our own choices.

When breaking the law, the rule, the policy, etc, we usually do according to a set of personal ethics (even when following a movement), we understand the risks and the possible outcomes. Successful disobedience is often the new rule/policy that might be broken in the future by a new generation of disobedience.

Deleuze kind of framed this another way (or at least my interpretation of Deleuze). For Deleuze, the system needs to resist the law, or more exactly that Jurisprudence (which is driven by the now law cases) is more important and healthier than the strict application of the law (code).

TL,DR; Question authority. Don't obey by default.

I'm new to your work and am blown away by the conceptualization of the principles, particularly as it relates to basic human sustainability. I am journeying like many as we wake up in consciousness around the implications of climate change, and I see so many ways your principles can support/ inform efficient, 'right' action. Would you care to comment specifically about the challenges we face as humans regarding climate change from the perspective of your principles and the possibility for innovation that could bring us back from a brink position?

Very true. The laws, the rules, the regulations are all manifestations of somebody's thinking. They may be, one, wrong in first place or two, become wrong with time. But to change them somebody else must prove it wrong and that starts with disobedience.
Thank you for thought provoking post.

I think that difficult line your refer to between disobedience who helps society and disobedience that doesn't, it's set by critical thinking: when we make acts of disobedience who are the visible expression of criticism - hence a critical thought - then those acts are justified. If there's not critical thinking behind disobedience then that's just stupidity. And, we are sadly loosing the ability to make critical thinking, to question authority principles and so on - which is why I appreciate even more this post and the work you are doing at MIT Media Lab.