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'The Free Use of Our Faculties': Jefferson, Cyberspace, and the Language of Social Life


David G. Post


Temple University School of Law


Drake Law Review, Vol. 49, p. 407, 2001

Abstract:     
The Internet is a language, a language that allows individuals to write texts (in a wide variety of other languages) and to communicate the meaning of those texts to others. Cyberspace is, in that very real sense, an entirely imagined world - a consensual hallucination, as one particularly perceptive observer nicely put it, a collection of stories. How is law to be made and enforced here?

Life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backwards. My premise is that looking backward to try to understand how others looked forward will help us to make sense of the choices we face in cyberspace. Looking backward, we find Thomas Jefferson, who spent a lot of time looking forward, and who had a particular vision when he did so. If we're thinking about how, going forward, law should be made in this new language-place, this-place-that-is-noplace, we could do worse than to try to understand what Jefferson thought about how, going forward, law should be made in his new world, a new world that looked as bizarre to him and his contemporaries as cyberspace does to us.

But if we're thinking about how, going forward, law should be made in this new language-place, this-place-that-is-noplace, we could do worse than to try to understand what Jefferson thought about how, going forward, law should be made in his new world, a new world that looked as bizarre to him and his contemporaries as cyberspace does to us.

Recapturing Jefferson's vision requires recapturing the shape of the intellectual battles in which he was engaged. Jefferson had a great deal to say about language and its control. He was engaged in one of the major intellectual battles of the 18th century: who controls English, or French, or the other languages of the world? How can they be controlled? What happens if they're not?

Jefferson (and others, of course) prevailed in that battle, creating a kind of self-evident truth about the nature of freedom and the nature of language. But apparently we have to fight the battle all over again when confronting the languages of cyberspace. We again hear that they are too important, too indispensable as vehicles for commerce and of learning, to leave their growth and future development entirely to the uncoordinated chaos of the mob, away from the experts and outside the State's apparatus control. If it seems self-evidently wrong in retrospect, why does it not seem self-evidently wrong in prospect?

Number of Pages in PDF File: 20

Keywords: cyberspace, language evolution, Jefferson, regulation, Exceptionalism

JEL Classification: K10, K20

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Date posted: April 21, 2001  

Suggested Citation

Post, David G., 'The Free Use of Our Faculties': Jefferson, Cyberspace, and the Language of Social Life. Drake Law Review, Vol. 49, p. 407, 2001. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=264201 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.264201

Contact Information

David G. Post (Contact Author)
Temple University School of Law ( email )
1719 N. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122
United States
215-204-4539 or (202)364-5010 (Phone)
215-204-1185 (Fax)
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