On Disobedience

Photo by: Oli Scarff (licensed from Getty Images under a limited use license/do not copy)

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 and “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.

Originally published on Joi Ito’s Web

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