A Sit-Down w. Lawrence Lessig

At Netroots Nation 2008, Dr. Lawrence Lessig spoke as a keynote and presented Change Congress, his new initiative to use connective tools to help steer the government body into a new direction. I asked Lessig why, after 10 years of tackling copyright and intellectual property issues, he had decided to move on Congress. He responded, “We had hit a level of success, the issues were no longer hard, and I felt like I was getting lazy so I said ‘I’m going to throw everything I am doing away and do something different.’”

Even more amazing, he explained, “And I in fact said, ‘I am going to do that every ten years. Every ten years I am going to throw away all of my intellectual capital and work on something new.’” And so here he is, trying to corral Internet grassroots activists on the left and right to act against what many consider to be a failed government body. Here, he discusses using the carrot model to change the government, how true change has to be “purple” and how he plans to attract the attention of the not-so-obvious audience.

Make Something Happen: Outside of a crowd like those at Netroots Nation, which is predisposed to being supportive of your work, how do you plan on bringing the attention of the public to Change Congress?

Lawrence Lessig: We’ve got a big push now to grow a list of people who want to participate in as many different ways as we can. Part of what the Trippi organization is doing is helping us think about how to parse, simplify, or extend the message so that it can reach a wider range of people than those who are otherwise coming to events like [Netroots Nation].

I spent an enormous part of my life speaking and not all of the speeches are ones that I give for 2000 person audiences, so I speak in every venue I possibly can to get people to think about that. Everything I produce, I make available for other people to use as well.

I think that’s as much as we can do right now. As this thing gets going and other people who are running campaigns begin to incorporate this message into what they’re doing, I think that will be another kind of leverage point that will be very important to us as well.

MSH: Is public dissatisfaction with Congress correlative to the public’s feeling of disengagement with the process?

Lessig: I think there’s a number of things that plays into it. Some people are skeptical that [9%, the number of constituents happy with Congress’s performance] is a meaningful number. The important thing to do is to see how it has changed over time. So if you don’t think it’s 9% and you think that it’s 15%, the one thing it’s not is 40%. Just after World War II, it was above 70% so part of it is that people have become disengaged. Part of it is that they just don’t have faith that there is any integrity in the system — that Congress is just particularly bad at drawing lines and fighting this particular president on certain issues, that they’re so quick to think that it’s worse to be seen as an obstructionists. But I think it’s better to be seen as an obstructionist of bad policy than I think it is to support this policy of the present administration. But even the best leadership is not going to restore the type of faith in this institution that we need — that’s fundamental to reform.

MSH: Are there any examples or success stories where you have seen people use connective technologies to spread awareness or illicit reaction? Stories where you realized that your mission is now possible?

Lessig: I think that some of the things Sunshine does with lobbyist [issues]. Bloggers like Matt Stoller, who put up the voting record and asked people to fill out information about the particular things [with regard to voting records]. Models like Wikipedia — What’s interesting about this is that they invite people to participate in their pajamas, meaning it is in a context where it is very easy to be connected and doesn’t require a huge demand, but then gives you a feeling like you’re making a contribution to something that is public and important as the inspiration. We’re seeing more and more of that.

But there’s been no organization that has really achieved the percentage of efficiency that I think is possible. We still have a lot of learn and to build from.

MSH: You noted in your presentation that Change Congress will have a panel of bloggers intended to be critical of the organization. Why do you find doing that important?

Lessig: It’s the ethic of the net. When you look at what happens on the net, [participants that] adopt an ethic of openness, [can help protect] from criticism. When you contrast that with a corporate ethic and a corporate website, where everything is closed and just great, I realize which side of the divide we’ve got to be on. So that wasn’t conceptually hard.

What’s hard is organizing it in a way so that it’s not self-destructive because it’s so easy for critics to take over space and to drive other contributors out. Figuring out how to architect that to the best advantage is not easy to do.

MSH: What concerns and criticisms about the model are you hearing back from this community?

Lessig: There is a concern about the substance of particular things, and this is likely because we haven’t made the message clear enough. My response to that is that we haven’t endorsed as much as we have made available. We might expand those and it might turn out that some are not relevant. If nobody cares about earmarks in the end, then maybe earmarks disappear. Making clear that what we’re doing is trying to facilitate a language with which we can understand, criticize, and change Congress. Not having a set of Ten Commandments is a hard thing to get people to be able to do.

MSH: How is Change Congress using the carrot model with regard to leveraging political activity?

Lessig: It will make it very easy for people to focus on the flavor of a forum that they care about, and then go out and support particular people who match that. Right now we’ve got a list of [supported] candidates, or you can go to an ActBlue,or a Slate Card page eventually, where you can support all of the candidates. What I want it to be is basically you make your representation that takes you to your ActBlue page and then you can make a choice to support all of them or pick which ones you’re going to support individually so that it’s just a simple 1, 2, 3 and then you support it so that candidates begin to say, “Wow. Where is this money coming from? Oh. I see there are people in my district who think this is important and they do something about it.”

MSH: Do you think that Congress knows what’s coming?

Lessig: No. And that’s our chance. They have a vague sense, but they don’t have a chance to focus on it because they’re still focused on getting funded in the old system. So I think we have eight years to build the alternative before it penetrates enough before they figure out how to co-opt this as well.

MSH: Does anyone in there get it?

Lessig: There are particular people who I am inspired by. Tennessee Democratic Congressman Jim Cooper is one; (Massachusetts Democratic Congressman) Ed Markie understands a lot of these issues. I wouldn’t say that my list of candidates is actually comprehensive enough.

MSH: You have said that you think that this change is purple (supportable by both the left and the right). You really believe that both sides are going to be able to work on this issue?

Lessig: I think that’s the only way we succeed. When RightOnline had that conference and wrote me and said, “You know, we’re having our conference at the exact same time [as NN08],” I wrote back and said, Why didn’t you invite me to talk?” They responded that they can’t invite everybody so I just said “OK.” [laughs]

We’ve got to learn how to speak about these issues in a way that includes the widest range. This is a matter of the constitution. We have to pledge support for reform of the constitution that makes it so the system functions.

[Lessig discusses Change Congress at Personal Democracy Forum 2008