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Lessig: “Help us in the US to remember these ideals. Help us by living them yourselves.”

Professor Lawrence Lessig is stalking me. I realize this sounds a bit paranoid, but the facts support my case. As he checked into the hotel in Qatar, I noted he was carrying his bright orange suitcase, conference swag from TED, where I last encountered him. We see each other twice in a month, in Monterey and now in Doha. Coincidence? I think not. Over dinner – which he invited me to (classic stalker behavior) – he tells me that he’s taken only ten speaking engagements this year, a tiny fraction of last year’s load. What are the odds that I’d attend two of those ten appearances? Simple logic dictates that he’s following me around the world, conference after conference, possibly in the hope of converting me to his radical open-content agenda so I can plug his ideas to my vast army of obedient and easily swayed blog readers.

Actually, I worry that Larry thinks I’m following him. I’ve developed a bad habit of sharing his car to the airport, sneaking my way into his ride this morning as we both left Qatar and the Al Jazeera Forum. I’ve blogged at least two Lessig talks recently – his address last summer at Wikimania and his talk less than a month ago at TED. So I was expecting a rerun, and was planning on just linking to the TED talk. But he delivered a really fascinating address, covering a large chunk of intellectual territory I haven’t heard him speak directly on before: the relationships between open content and open democracy.

The talk – which he describes as a story, definition and argument about “how citizen journalism could matter” – starts with an extended quote from Frederick Douglass. In the quote, Douglass talks about the ability of slavery to harm both the slave and the master. He talks about a former master, a women who was led away from her Christian ideals: “Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness.” Her ideals, Douglass tells us, were changed by the power of the institution of slavery.

Lessig jumps directly from The Life of Frederick Douglas to web 2.0, an architecture which decentralizes power. The ability to build on top of other people’s content easily and cheaply, the ability to use the read/write web as a platform to build applications changes the power of people who use tis network. Control is weakened. Power is decentralized.

US history, from 1870 through web 1.0, is the history of centralized power. Bigger is better – companies and other institutions want to get bigger and more powerful so they can exert more control. But web 2.0 is different and demands different strategies for success.

America (which Lessig refers to throughout the speech as “my country”, conscious of the fact that he’s one of few Americans in the room) is defined by a set of ideals: free speech, democratic deliberation and, after a too-long struggle, equality of all citizens. But power has made our nation different. The 20th century has seen a great concentration of power and control. The people who currently have control are forced to choose whether or not they want to enable those original American ideals. Many in positions of power aspire to those ideals, but they’re afraid of losing control.

Web 2.0 represents a break from this concentration of power and control. The architecture of the Internet – the locus of media in this new world – enables the loss of centralized control and power. Lessig commends Thomas Rid’s paper in Policy Review, “War 2.0”, which argues that new technologies are changing the dynamics of war, limiting the capacity of the US to impose will in the Middle East. There’s a great deal of anxiety from loss of power, loss of control in general, not just from the Internet, but from a recognition of the limitations of American power in general. The new technologies we think of as Web 2.0 are making it possible for people to resist American power. And they raise a fundamental question: which model will be choose in the future, one that emphasizes fundamental American ideals, or one that emphasizes control?

He shows us the classic Apple computer 1984 ad, pointing out that the commercial aired only once, but has become an icon of American culture. Then he shows the remix that’s been circling the Internet, which shows Hillary Clinton on the giant video screen, droning about her desire to “have a conversation”, until her image is shattered by the thrown hammer. The ad makes its point perfectly: Clinton is the establishment candidate, while Obama is something radically different. 2.9 million people, Lessig tells us, have seen the remix, vastly more than have seen any other ad aired in this political campaign. Neither campaign – Clinton or Obama – wanted the ad to air, but it’s gotten shown nevertheless. “The loss of control provides a different kind of speech” in American politics.

(Sami ben Gharbia sends me a link a few moments after the talk ends – a Tunisian remix of the 1984 ad, where the face speaking on the screen is President Ben Ali, a distinctly more Orwellian figure than Hillary Clinton.)

Lessig shows a set of political clips, mashups of news and media footage. The first is a Jonathan McIntosh’s remix of Fox News footage into a fury of flag-draped jingoistic bloodlust. The second is Sim Sadler’s editing of a Bush speech, where he reminds us that his job is “hard work”, over and over again. And he shows Johan Söderberg’s now classic Bush/Blair duet to the tune of “Endless Love”.

In read/write politics, the key thing is not this technique (video editing) but the fact that the technique has been democratized. With a $1500 computer, you can remix video to deliver your message instead of the message of the original authors. “It’s changing the freedom to speak, expanding the power to speak.” This is not an elite, “New York Times democracy, but a bottom-up blog democracy.” The change in communications, from a centralized, broadcast communication to peer to peer communications holds the potential for read/write democracy. These mashups are the beginning “of the revival of read/write culture.”

The talk briefly touches on familiar ground to Lessig fans – John Philip Sousa. Sousa went to speak to the US Congress in 1906 about the danger of “talking machines” – the phonograph. He feared that the phonograph would be the end of people gathering on front porches, “the young people singing the songs of the day or the old songs.” Sousa feared that we would “lose our vocal chords”. And in a sense, he was right – the professionalization and centralization of culture that arose from the phonograph ushered in a century of read-only culture, where people lost the ability to participate in the remaking and reshaping of their culture.

This parallels a movement in politics – a move from the disorder of 19th-century politics to “the silent control of cadre politics” that’s dominanted 20th-century political life. We’ve allowed a read-only political process to emerge. But “web 2.0 has blown that up” – we’re moving back towards a read/write culture in politics and culture.

But not many Americans are certain yet about the appropriateness and the value of these new forms of speech. As a result, they face threats, at least three that Lessig details:

– Are these new forms of speech any good? Do they help the political process? Is it really “speaking truth to power”? Cass Sunstein raises these questions in the revised edition of Republic.com, Republic 2.0, where he argues that some forms of deliberation can increase the polarization of an electorate, rather than bringing diverse viewpoints together. (Sunstein makes some of the same argument in Infotopia, which I’ve reviewed here.)

“The isolation that this form of media produces increases concerns about whether this new freedom improves democracy.” It requires re-examination of questions about ethics in media as the ethics of this model diverge sharply from broadcast media ethics. “Fairness is not at all a component of this new form” of discourse.

– Will this new form of speech survive collateral damage from the IP and copyright wars? Lessig points out that Jack Valenti has declared the war of copyright holders on new technology to be “his own terrorist war”, where “the terrorists are our children.” New efforts to fight “piracy” – identifying all content on YouTube where a copyright holder has an ownership claim – are intended to find cases where full shows are used without authorial consent. But the effect is far more reaching, wiping away fair use as well as piracy.

When Robert Greenwald wanted to update his film, “Uncovered”, with a clip of President Bush explaining his rationale for the war on terror, NBC refused to allow him to license a one-minute clip from “Meet the Press”. The reason they wouldn’t release it? “It’s not very flattering to the President,” and if the network released the clip, it was unlikely that they’d ever get the President back in front of their cameras again. His later film “Outfoxed” attempted to refute Fox News’s claims of being “fair and balanced.” Fox responded to the film by claiming the film was “filled with piracy.” The network argued that “these people don’t have the right to take our product” because “it puts journalism at risk”. It’s hard to believe “the idea that you could quote and refer to journalism puts journalism at risk.” But this reaction is a desire to keep control over how this content is used and reused.

– Will governments exert control over the networks that make this revolution possible? Lessig points out that it’s reasonable to point out that there’s been limited government control over the Internet thus far. He summarizes his book “Code” and the book “Who Controls the Internet?” as both arguing that the architecture of the ‘net will be gradually pushed by commercial and government interests to make it more regulable. This hasn’t really happened – instead, we’ve got “anarchy-a-plenty”. (Lessig’s talks include hundreds of slides, usually with a single word or phrase on them. I’m happy to say that there was an “anarchy-a-plenty” slide. I just regret I didn’t get a snapshot of it.)

He turns to Jonathan Zittrain’s theory of generativity – which Lessig refers to as “Z-theory” – to explain how we’re going to get towards a government willingness to regulate the net, plugging the hole in his argument in code. “Terror effects the law, ” and can do so dramatically, causing leglslation to pass that otherwise would be unacceptable. He points out that 9/11 made the Patriot Act possible, making changes fundamentally inconsistent with American law possible in the wake of a terrorist attack. “Terror will drive the same changes in the net” – not terror from terrorists, but terror in the sense of “things that really scare people”.

Leaning on Zittrain, Lessig describes “the happy network”: control of the network is at the edges, not at the center, and the edges contain general purpose computers capable of running arbitrary code. An end to end network plus general purpose computers equals a generative internet. He lists some legendary internet innovators – Vint Cerf (who shares credit with Bob Khan and Al Gore for inventing the internet), Tim Berners-Lee (who invented with web from CERN), ICQ (invented by an Israeli teen and marketed by his wonderfully insane father), Hotmail (invented by an Indian immigrant), and Yahoo and Google (invented by international groups of college kids.) The common theme – these innovators were kids, frequently non-American kids. They were outsiders, but they made the Internet as we know it. That’s not an accident – that’s a consequence of the design of the Internet, which gets shaped by demand, not by central control.

In contrast, the “unhappy internet” is the internet of spam, viruses, phishing and terrorism. It’s also build on top of the generative internet, but it’s generating evil, not good. He shows a set of slides outlining the rise of the unhappy net – the speed with which open proxies are used by spammers, the logarithmic curve of security incidents recorded by CERN until 2004 when they stopped counting because attacks were so “commonplace and widespread as to be indistinguishable.”

Lessig asks a question that Zittrain is obsessed with: “Whyy hasn’t malware been truly malicious yet? Why aren’t people deleting the root?” Because there’s no good explanation why, Lessig argues, someday it will happen and it will produce the political will neccesary to control the net. That new infrastructure of control could quickly become an infrastructure of censorship.

(I part with Lessig and Zittrain on this point. Or at least I think I do. So far, the war on malware has been a contest between whitehat and blackhat geeks and the whitehats seem to have the upper hand. In the past few months, people have attempted to post 270,000 spam comments on this blog. Akismet caught all but a few dozen. GMail catches 99.5% of my spam. Lawyers talk about legislating their way out of these problems, but the geeks have managed to staunch the bleeding so that most people don’t seem to be chased of the net by malware. I’m not sure I see a quantum leap for the evildoers that will leave net users willing to tolerate a major loss of generativity. That said, attacks like the hacked blog/obfuscated javascript/rootkit trojan I wrote about the other day are damned scary and, if they became widespread, could be the sort of catastrophe that would send people away from a generative architecture.)

Our job is to make these networks better, fairer and truer so we can answer Sunstein’s skepticism. We need to fight the IP wars so that we can insist on balance in IP and reject extremes. And we need to resist the shift away from generativity that Zittrain predicts.

There’s a particular value to these efforts in the Middle East, Lessig argues. “The ultimate test of my country’s founding ideals is whether your perspective is allowed in my country.” To win that battle to be heard in America, “you need to be better at embacing our ideals than we are.” He advises Al Jazeera to “make every bit of your content available freely”, so it can be remixed commercially and non-commercially. It would be freely available while Viacom is sueing Google over YouTube, and would “spread your message and your ideals more effectively” than most US companies are currently spreading American ideals.

Drawing on the film “Awakenings”, Lessig talks about the American encephalitis epidemic in the 1920s, where some patients were reduced to a catatonic state – they were alive and awake, but couldn’t interact. Doctors discovered they could give the patients l-dopa and they would “unlock”, coming back to life. Unfortunately, a few months later, the drug would wear off and they’d lock up again. We should be concerned that the awakening we’re currently going through – a return to read/write culture and politics – will need to fight through attempts to relock it as forces currently in control want to resist these ideals.

He closes with a plea: “Help us in the US to remember these ideals. Help us by living them yourselves. You can do it better than we can anymore, or maybe just better than we can do it right now.”

I thought this was the best talk I’ve heard Lessig give. It was certainly the most provocative and revolutionary, and I hope that he’ll consider bringing this message into his talks delivered in the US as well. I occasionally get frustrated by Larry’s focus on media and the importance of fair use – connecting open culture more clearly to open politics helps remind me why I care about these issues.

I worried that might have missed much of the audience, as some parts relied on knowledge of US culture and politics and other aspects were quite technical. But the geeks in the audience clearly dug it, and it sparked some excellent discussion about whether Al Jazeera could successfully embrace principles of open content without destroying business models or enabling abusive speech. And the video Sami sent me was a powerful reminder that there are activists and citizens around the world who are ready to use these new tools to try to open politics in societies that are far more repressive and read-only than our country has become.

13 thoughts on “Lessig: “Help us in the US to remember these ideals. Help us by living them yourselves.””

  1. Wow. Just wow. Thanks for sharing that talk. Sometimes the people pointing the way forward make it so clear, it becomes impossible to understand why everybody isn’t seeing it and acting accordingly!

  2. It must have been tough to cover in details the 3rd Al Jazeera forum admist so much happening around.

    Why not provide a quick flavor to the fans?
    favourite quote?
    fascinating aspect?
    frustating aspect?
    Fun Bit?
    Flop bit?

  3. Hi Ethan, have been following your blog with interest for a while now – consistently really interesting pieces about global projects, technology, open acess etc. Especially Africa usually does not get the coverage it deserves.

    Anyway, this conference sounds really interesting. Do you know if they’ll post the audio from the presentations anywhere?

    (If you answer, could you CC me? I usually read you through Newshutch)

    Stian in Jakarta

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