Julie Cohen has written a great book, perhaps the most important Cyberlaw book since Code. I say this even though I recognize the many virtues of Cyberlaw books written by Jonathan Zittrain, Tim Wu, Yochai Benkler, and Barbara van Schewick, privacy books written by Dan Solove, Lior Strahilevitz, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, and many other books published recently. But not since Code has one book challenged the way we conceptualize and try to solve technology problems as much or as well as this book does.
In this post, I want to focus on “semantic discontinuity,” the label Cohen gives to the most novel and interesting construct in the book. Semantic discontinuity is one of three “principles that should inform the design of legal and technical architectures,“ along with “access to knowledge” and “operational transparency.” In her words, “semantic discontinuity is the opposite of seamlessness. . . . It is a function of interstitial complexity within . . . institutional and technical frameworks.” It serves a “vital” function, “creat[ing] space for the semantic indeterminacy that is a vital and indispensable enabler of the play of everyday practice.” (Kindle location 4288)
In other words, semantic discontinuity valorizes noise, inefficiency, constraints, and imperfections. As this list illustrates, the most striking thing about this book is the size of the herd of sacred cows it leads to the slaughter.