Lessig Re-Focused

I had missed Lawrence Lessig’s announcement of his re-focused effort earlier in the year. However, I’m not terribly surprised to hear that Lessig has shifted his focus, from IP and the Creative Commons to ‘fighting corruption’. Even before the iCommons Summit, one could see that the Creative Commons effort had reached a plateau, neither advancing or retreating in any appreciable amount. In today’s world, Creative Commons is old–time for something new.

This isn’t being critical of Lessig. It’s just facing the fact that there isn’t much that he can do related to IP that he hasn’t already done. For a man with his energy level, it would be like spinning in place.

It’s a little difficult to figure out what Lessig is doing in the next phase of his activist life. He writes that he is combating ‘corruption’, and that he sees the reason that the IP battle hasn’t advanced significantly is because of big-money interests:

The answer is a kind of corruption of the political process. Or better, a “corruption” of the political process. I don’t mean corruption in the simple sense of bribery. I mean “corruption” in the sense that the system is so queered by the influence of money that it can’t even get an issue as simple and clear as term extension right. Politicians are starved for the resources concentrated interests can provide. In the US, listening to money is the only way to secure reelection. And so an economy of influence bends public policy away from sense, always to dollars.

I don’t disagree with Lessig at all in this regard. In fact, I stated that one of the problems associated with the Fair Arbitration Act is the fact that there are a lot is a lot of money being expended to fight this act–by banks, the housing industry, HMOs, computer and telco companies–in fact, any company wanting to bypass the legal system in order to ‘buy’ justice.

The biggest problem I have is that Lessig sees that the evil inherent in our society is based on money: the money corporations want, the money paid to CEOs for maximizing profits regardless of impact, the money given to buy political influence. It’s a simple view; a view that’s already been touted by Alan Greenspan, of all people, who stated recently that if the dividing line between the haves and have nots continues at the pace it is, the country is facing a potential revolt (which, according to Greenspan, would be bad for business).

Corruption in our society, however, goes beyond the moneyed interests, and the acts of buying and being bought. It goes directly to our inability to focus on any event for any length of time; to the new push button activism that brings us Green companies, Pink products, and Panties for Peace; to the Outrage of the Week, with News at 9.

Halliburton and Disney are corrupters? Well, so is Techmeme, Technorati, and outside of weblogging, the Washington Post and the New York Times. Attention is just as much a corrupter as money. How many of us have been frustrated trying to drive ‘attention’ to something we think is important, only to meet with dead silence, until and unless we can get one of the big attention owners to deign drop a word or two about the issue? Will Mr. Lessig, then, begin his battle at home–among the attention brokers that surround him? Whom he calls friends, and compatriots?

I find it unlikely. According to the interview with Lessig that Norm Jenson just linked, Lessig believes the solution is to use the Internet to expose such ‘corruptions’ in the government. This is also highlighted in Lessig’s first lecture on the topic, which Aaron Swartz summarized as follows:

We need to free people from dependency. But this
is too hard. We should fight for it, but politicians will never
endorse a system of public funding of campaigns when they have so much
invested in the current system. Instead, we need norms of
independence. People need to start saying that independence is
important to them and that they won’t support respected figures who
act as dependents. And we can use the Internet to figure out who’s
acting as dependents. Projects funded by the Sunlight Foundation can
be used to identify politicians who decide in response to campaign
contributions and the Internet can work together to identify these
people and shame them.

Succinctly: Attract attention, in order to use the attention to punish those who seek attention, in order to hold a position that generates even more attention.

One commenter, Chris, wrote in part:

Money is just a way of keeping score. Corruption as a f($) is an oversimplifcation.

Race, ethnicity, religion, educational background, family/friend relationships, socio-economic class, etc. are all factors that determine the amount of access to politicians, leaders of industry, etc. Money just happens to be a simplifying currency.

Instead of money, Professor Lessig, you had educational prestige and press notoriety that got you access to politicians to discuss copyright issues. Those are much more nobler assets than a suitase of money, but they can also be bought through money, time and sweat.

About his plans, Lessig wrote:

And so as I said at the top (in my “bottom line”), I have decided to shift my academic work, and soon, my activism, away from the issues that have consumed me for the last 10 years, towards a new set of issues: Namely, these. “Corruption” as I’ve defined it elsewhere will be the focus of my work. For at least the next 10 years, it is the problem I will try to help solve.

I do this with no illusions. I am 99.9% confident that the problem I turn to will continue exist when this 10 year term is over. But the certainty of failure is sometimes a reason to try. That’s true in this case.

Nor do I believe I have any magic bullet. Indeed, I am beginner. A significant chunk of the next ten years will be spent reading and studying the work of others. My hope is to build upon their work; I don’t pretend to come with a revolution pre-baked.

Instead, what I come with is a desire to devote as much energy to these issues of “corruption” as I’ve devoted to the issues of network and IP sanity. This is a shift not to an easier project, but a different project. It is a decision to give up my work in a place some consider me an expert to begin work in a place where I am nothing more than a beginner.

A noble sentiment, and here I am, doing the equivalent of telling the retiree at her retirement party, “Congratulations! I hope you don’t drop dead next week.” This is a little late, but I sincerely wish Mr. Lessig luck in his new avocation. I’m sure that he’ll bring much attention to the issue of corruption.

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4 Responses to Lessig Re-Focused

  1. You may enjoy my _Guardian_ column on Lessig’s new studies:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2007/oct/25/comment.intellectualproperty

    “A modern version of snake-oil hucksterism is invoking ‘the internet’
    as a cheap simplistic remedy for political malaise.”

  2. Pierre says:

    “I don’t pretend to come with a revolution pre-baked.”

    Use. More. Internet.

  3. Shelley says:

    Good point, Pierre.

    Seth, thanks for the link to your article. And sorry you had problems with comments.

  4. Campaign contribution blind trusts could help somewhat.