July 16, 2024

Lawrence Lessig, Unmasked

We’re watching this week’s episode of West Wing. On the TV screen, Professor Lawrence Lessig starts talking. “I know that voice,” exclaims my wife. “It’s The Hacker!”

On West Wing, Lessig was played not by Himself but by the actor Christopher Lloyd. One of Lloyd’s other roles is on Cyberchase, an animated PBS Kids show, as the voice of an arch-villain known only as The Hacker. Here’s a picture and description of The Hacker, from the Cyberchase website:

The cosmology of Cyberchase cries out for cultural analysis. The Hacker is locked in an endless struggle for supremacy against Motherboard, the benign Mother-Goddess of cyberspace, who appears to ordinary humans only by teleconference. In each episode, The Hacker, with help from his henchrobots, unleashes a dastardly plot (e.g., releasing a virus, letting bugs invade the database library, or draining Motherboard’s life-giving liquid coolant) to overthrow Motherboard and unleash chaos on all of cyberspace. A group of multicultural kids must solve some kind of mathematical puzzle to foil the Hacker’s otherwise-foolproof plan.

Come to think of it, there are those who see Lessig in much the same way, as the evil genius who will destroy cyberspace with his Free Culture plot, replacing the benign content-rich cyberworld of Mother MPAA with a content-free dystopia of uncontrolled filesharing. It’s up to those feisty kids at the DRM companies to figure out some fancy cryptographic math that will foil his evil plan.

Look carefully at the picture above – the Hacker appears to be wearing Lessig’s trademark black jeans. Coincidence? I think not.

I guess that makes most of us henchrobots.


  1. I watch Cyberchase more than a little, I must admit. It isn’t as good as Arthur, but when I first saw “Hacker” I immediately thought he looked similar to many caricatures I’ve seen of FDR.

    Readers should also note that “Digit”, companion bird to the Cybersquad, is voiced by esteemed mathematician Gilbert Gottfried.

    I dare say there is a dissertation waiting to be written on the semiotics of Cyberchase, as they pertain to issues of property rights, the representation of “reality” via mathematics, and the applicability of human ethics in virtual worlds or to robotic agents of varying degrees of sentience.