Up close with computer programmer Robert 'r0ml' Lefkowitz

RL: (much laughter) Then from Aristotle, Plato, on, you have few readers but it's a societal thing, and few writers. A smaller number of people read, a smaller number of people write. This holds true roughly until Gutenberg - the printing press.

They call that manuscript culture. In manuscript culture you don't have the notions of copyright, originality, plagiarism, because there's so few readers that it doesn't matter. The idea is that you couldn't possibly come up with a text all on your own anyway, because that's such a complicated thing, and you're pretty much pulling together from other texts and recombining stuff that's already there and you don't have to do attributions - none of that stuff, none of it exists.

LXF: These texts would be amended as they were copied?

RL: Either on purpose, or accidentally, yes, both. Sometimes there would be transcription errors - and there's some fascinating stuff when you read up about it. Sometimes it was anthologising, you'd be saying 'this is a good thing', and this one and you'd put them together. Sometimes you'd bother to mention the original source was and sometimes you wouldn't - what difference did it make?

LXF: When no one could Google the source…

RL: Right. So you have this notion of intertextuality. That means texts come from other texts. You can't really create a text from scratch. So you have that manuscript ethos and since there are really no readers, there's no commercial interest in writing or reading.

Then you have the printing press and now you have a mass readership. This is what turns writing in 'a good' and reading into 'for good'. You still have a small number of writers because you have machinery in order to do the distribution, access and expense.

But there is also now commercial gain. If you write something you can make money, and if somebody else 'steals it', that's where you have the notions of copyright, plagiarism, authorship - even the idea of authorship. Like who's the author of this scroll, you wouldn't even write your name down, because why would anybody else care? You didn't care, they didn't care, nobody cares.

LXF: The writer isn't even thinking about it.

RL: …So now what I'm suggesting is that there's a fourth age. The fourth age is Dave Winer, right, blogging happens, texting happens, Twitter happens. We're all writing more. Most people today write more than Dickens did in his lifetime. Not as good as Dickens, but more than Dickens! It's the volume.

People say you can't make the comparison, because people write mostly lolcats and crap stuff and Dickens was awesome. But if the volume increases one thousand fold. If the average quality drops 50%. You've still got way more high quality than you used to. The level rises. We had this big ratio of readers to writers and now it's reverting back to its [dramatic pause for effect] medieval ratio.

It was few and few but now it's many and many. When that ratio goes back, what should happen? And this is where I haven't thought this through, but in some ways it's going to revert to the medieval sensibility, and maybe that's why you see the weakening of the ideas of copyright, and it's not just happening with software, it's happening with music and journalism. You have this sort of disruption, not just in the business, but in whole societal/ethical framework around what's right and what's wrong. And that's being challenged.

But the second thing that happened, and this is the one that's specific to code, which I think changes it so that's it's not just a reprise of the medieval era with the bar moved up, and that is - and I got that from Project Euler.