What this description omits of course is human agency, which ultimately determines what software does, how it does it, the degree to which it supports or undermines the rules and laws of society, and how it encourages or discourages ordinary citizens to participate in the process of defining those rules and laws.
Lawrence Lessig came to understand the power of software to construct and shape our world when he was (briefly) “special master” during the Microsoft antitrust case. As he later put it to me, “[Y]ou can code software however you want, to produce whatever kind of product you want. And that capability is unique with software: you can't, for instance, say that an automobile will be something that is a transmission and a radio wrapped in one. But you can do exactly that with software, because software is so plastic.”
As such, he added, the Microsoft case was just “a particular example of a more general point about how you need to understand the way in which technology and policy interact.”
Yet, as more and more of our lives are organised and controlled by computers, and the role that software plays in society becomes increasingly central, most people still assume that the virtual world that opens up before them when they switch on the computer, and the choices they are offered onscreen, is how things are and ought to be — not a consequence of the way in which the underlying software has been coded.
Most of us now realise that there are bad guys in cyberspace — people who will try to steal your identity, or harass you in some way — but we too often fail to understand that the computer-generated world we enter, and what it does and does not allow us to do, has been specifically constructed to behave in that way. It is not the way things inevitably have to be, but the way someone has decided to code the underlying software. Importantly, how software is written also has a direct impact on our lives, and the world we inhabit off-screen.
For that reason the software choices that individuals, companies, organisations and governments make have important political, economic and social consequences for us all.
Yet when we attend a basic computer course we are instructed how to point and click, how to send and receive email and, perhaps, how to create a simple database — but we are not told why our choice of software is important, why it is imperative to insist that our governments and political administrators use open data formats, and why software raises important ethical issues.
Importantly, it is not made clear to us that we can challenge the way in which software is written and used.
Frustrated by the limits and inadequacies of most computer courses Marco Fioretti, a former telecom engineer based in Rome who teaches about digital rights issues, has added to his repertoire a basic online course on digital citizenship.
The course, which is open to everybody, will not teach students how to code, or send email, says Fioretti, but how computers impact on and determine what happens in the real world and how, by means of active citizenship, we can help shape and influence that process, and create a more democratic world as a result. As he puts it, “Understanding digital issues is no longer optional for citizens. It's necessary whether one likes computer or not.”
Below Fioretti explains the background to his course, and the thinking that lies behind it. Unsurprisingly, we learn that Fioretti has been influenced by Richard Stallman and the Free Software Movement, although he is not an uncritical fan.