Media Law Through Science Fiction: Do Androids Dream of Electric Free Speech?

Chip Stewart
4 min readSep 30, 2019

Several years ago, I was invited to submit to a research paper competition about the next 20 years of communication law. But I thought, why stop at 20? Why not think about the law 50 years from now, or 100, or 1,000? How might the law that has developed in the past few centuries about communication and privacy and intellectual property advance as future technologies arrive?

So, I wrote that paper. And then, after a lot of encouragement from colleagues and a supportive publisher, I spent several more years turning it into a book called “Media Law Through Science Fiction: Do Androids Dream of Electric Free Speech?”

Now that I have copies in hand, and I’m thrilled with the way they came out, I’m glad to announce officially that the book is available for sale! You can find it at Routledge here, or at Amazon here. There’s a preview of the book on Google Books here.

I wanted to take a second to talk a little about the project. I’ve long been a science fiction fan, but I hadn’t thought of directly tying it to my usual research activities as a media law professor here at Texas Christian University. A couple of passages in “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline spurred me into this. For those unfamiliar with the book, Cline builds a virtual reality world, the OASIS, in which most of humanity dwells in the not-too-distant future of about 25 years from now. And in that VR world, copyright law has somehow, against all odds, become functional — rather than imposing crippling liabilities and restricting the spread of late 20th century pop culture (central to the plot of the book), as copyright law does now, it actually made it almost entirely freely available for streaming and easy access for users.

I thought, when I read that passage, how could we get there from here, where copyright law seems constantly headed away from easy access into more restrictive, expensive, and even punitive limitations on use? So I started thinking about that. And, using science fiction as a guide, I went down a number of other paths, even darker ones in which copyright law indeed continues on its current trajectory, in stories by authors such as Cory Doctorow, Spider Robinson, and Paul Ford.

Science fiction gives us a window into possible futures — ways of thinking, ways of communicating, ways of relating to one another. Each new technology, and each new response to a new technology, leaves ripples that help us, perhaps, to be a bit more forward-thinking as our ways of communicating shift.

The exercise is not just thinking, “What if science fiction became reality?”, but rather using the tools and worlds and laws developed by science fiction authors to help us think about what the law is now, what it should be, and how we might get from here to there as the world changes around us.

This book is the result of me spending basically five years focusing my research energy on fun stuff — reading science fiction books, watching science fiction shows and films, and even talking to science fiction authors about why and how they do what they do. As I worked on this, new and interesting science fiction kept coming out — it seems we nerds are having a moment — to the extent that a lot of the things I ended up writing about didn’t even exist when I agreed to write the book.

I was very fortunate to have so many authors and scholars offer their time to talk to me and help with this project. Annalee Newitz (Autonomous), Cory Doctorow (Little Brother, Pirate Cinema, Walkaway), Katie Williams (Tell the Machine Goodnight), Louisa Hall (Speak), Robin Sloan (Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore), and Daniel Wilson (Robopocalypse) each allowed me to interview them about the craft of thinking about the future and writing science fiction that touches on aspects of communication I wanted to look at. And Malka Older (Infomocracy) not only talked with me — she also agreed to write a very interesting Foreword about how science fiction thinking can help us think about the future of the law.

From there, I was able to look at some specific topics important to the future of communication law — copyright, privacy and surveillance, robotics and artificial intelligence, vanishing or destroying works, and free speech and journalism.

Overall, it’s a blend of a couple of things — I wanted to look at plausible future communication technologies (such as advanced AI, robust virtual worlds, and humans enhanced through implants and machinery) and work through how the law may have to adjust to deal with them. But I also looked at how authors portrayed the future of the law in communication areas (such as intellectual property and privacy) as it reacts to the advancement of technology and society.

It’s what I think of as an exercise in “speculative legal research” — that is, thinking about the law of the future by using science fiction as a laboratory, helping us perhaps get ahead of the problems we are very likely to face. I spend almost an entire chapter gaming out a Fahrenheit 451-like scenario where government or private actors destroy all copies of one’s works — what would be the legal issues presented? Whom could you sue, and on what grounds? Why isn’t there an easy tort for that? It may sound silly until a platform deletes years of your online creative work on grounds that they can because the terms say they can.

This book is the biggest and craziest academic work I’ve ever done. I hope you enjoy it, and if you get a chance to read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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Chip Stewart

Lawyer. Journalist. TCU professor. Viewer discretion is advised.