posted Oct 11, 2003
in Communication Ethics

Communication Ethics book part for Degrees Of Freedom. (This is an automatically generated summary to avoid having huge posts on this page. Click through to read this post.)

So there you have it; a whirlwind tour of nearly every major intellectual property and communication issue of the day, based on a coherent communication model. I've shown you all of these details so you can see how each issue, with the explicit exception of software patents, can all be expressed in the terms of the same basic communication model, with the complete context model as described in the previous chapter. Now, for the final major point of this essay: To show how these issues are all deeply inter-related, and why for consistency's sake, we are limited in what solutions to the problems we can truly choose.

The best way to do this is to determine what degrees of freedom we have in determining our ethics consistently. Degrees of freedom is a term I find myself borrowing from mathematics because there is no true pure-English equivalent.

Put (very) loosely, the degrees of freedom describe how many fully independent directions something may move in, for a very abstract definition of "direction". For instance, while we live in a three-dimensional world, for many practical purposes we only have two degrees of freedom: We can move North/South, or East/West, or a little of both at the same time, but we are not free to move Up/Down. (We do have a little freedom that way, but compared to N/S and E/W, it's quite small; you can go ten miles north far more easily then ten miles straight down or up.)

The key word in that definition, as I've bolded, is independent. We can move North without moving East. We can also if we choose move in both directions at the same time ("northeast"); that's OK too. Generally, we can not and do not move up or down without also moving north, south, east, or west to some degree, so it is not an independent direction.

Similarly, the "Dow Jones Industrial Average", over the course of a single day, may either move Up or Down (or not at all), but there is no "sideways". The Dow Jones Industrial Average only has one degree of freedom. The "Entire Stock Market", on the other hand, is a complicated beast, with all kinds of stock prices independently moving around. Thus, the "Entire Stock Market" actually has one degree of freedom per stock or other trackable entity.

(This is simplified from a full discussion of "degrees of freedom", of course.)

To refresh your memory, one of the earliest parts of this essay observed:

Rather then taking the time to truly map the domain of discourse and look at all of the issues in a coherent way, laws (most especially judicial decisions...) exploited the independence of the media types, and each individual segment got its own laws. ... The Internet in a period of just a few years has taken each of the bubbles that we saw in the previous section and rapidly expanded each of them until they all touch, overlap, and envelop each other. ... the fundamental problem with the current legal system is that the foundational assumption that the legal domains are independent is no longer valid.

To phrase this another way, the old legal system had many degrees of freedom. A law concerning book copying would not affect the laws concerning audio tape copying. The practical realization by the computer industry that all of these things are just various sets of numbers, and they can all be expressed simply as data significantly reduces the degrees of freedom we have in creating our ethical system, because suddenly, laws affecting how audio content is copied does affect how books are copied. Consider how laws like the DMCA, which it is probably fair to say was only intended to protect video, audio, and software by the authors of the bill, has also been found to affect things like printer ink refills, or protecting prices charged for retail goods by Wal-Mart (retracted, but voluntarily by Wal-Mart after public scrutiny, not in court). It is no longer plausible to try to create significantly different systems for different types of communication, unless you can define a particular type carefully enough that it is not easy to ride the boundary condition and cheat the system. Again, there's nothing theoretical about any of this, it's happening all around us. The point of all of this theory is to give us words to communicate with and models to think with; what the theory describes is already here.

Degrees of Freedom in our model

Thus, the foundational question we must answer about ethics is how many degrees of freedom are there, and what are they? I submit to you that there are only three.

  1. Internal Issues
  2. Message Integrity
  3. Sender Control

We can draw these issues on our communication model, as seen in the previous figure. Message Integrity is represented by the two lines above and below the message. Sender control is represented by the line on the right of the receiver, controlling what the receiver can do with the message. The line immediately to the right of the sender represents the constraints laid on them by the senders of the messages they are using to assemble the message for the receiver. That means the restraints are recursive on all of the concrete parts that go into the diagrammed message. Internal issues are represented by the entirity of the communication, and is everything inside the box formed by the four lines.

Let's examine those lines in more detail:


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