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The Commons, Corruption, and the Next Ten Years: An Interview with Lawrence Lessig

1. Currents in Electronic Literacy conducted an in-depth interview with Stanford University Professor Lawrence Lessig for this special issue focusing on "The Commons." In the following interview, Lessig discusses: how his past scholarship and research interests transition into his new long-term research project, the nature of the new challenges he faces, and the increasingly important role that electronic media and literacy will have in the coming years. You can read the interview below, or listen to a podcast of the interview.

2. Currents: The first question that I have for you today concerns what a lot of people have talked about as this kind of major recent shift in your research and writing: leaving behind the projects associated with your work in Free Culture, copyright, the creative commons, and moving on to your new project of tackling a certain kind of corruption in our government. In your 'alpha' version of your corruption lecture that you gave in September of last year, you said something along the lines of “every ten years you should throw away everything, and you have to start over,” and in January you gave what your termed your ‘final free culture talk’— both of these instances suggesting that you’re completely putting aside your past work, and moving on to an entirely separate, new direction, yet, on the other hand, I noticed when you were presenting on your new project that you incorporate some elements, stories, and concerns from your previous ten years’ work. I was wondering, Professor Lessig, if you could talk about how you see these two projects in relation to each other. Are they really completely different? And what overlaps exist between your new project and your old project, if any? 3. Lessig: What I came to see with the copyright stuff was that most of the real problems in copyright were a product of exactly the kind of corruption I want my new work to focus on. So, the problem wasn’t that policy makers were making stupid choices; the problem was that policy makers were making choices that made sense from the perspective of the money, to help them get reelected, or from the standpoint of who they listen to or who they even hear because they have money to give, rather than focusing on the really important and hard policy questions that copyright law really raises. So what became clear to me was that though a lot of the issues that we were talking about were actually not terribly difficult policy questions, like “should you be extending the term of existing copyright?” That’s a kind of, as Milton Friedman called it, “no-brainer” from a policy perspective. Congress was, and other governments around the world were getting it wrong. So if you begin to identify that the source of the problem is not that there’s a hard policy question to help people understand, but that there’s a corruption in the system, then that’s what made it important to start thinking about how do we deal with the corruption in the system. And as I begin to look at it like that, what I saw was it’s not just this area where you have these kind of screwy policy choices being made for these types of reasons. There are lots of really important areas—global warming is the most obvious—but there are lots of areas where screwy public policy decisions are being made for exactly this kind of reason, and so it seemed to me that this was a more fundamental problem to work on, to focus on. So just like, you know, if an alcoholic is losing his job and losing his wife and losing his liver, you want to say that each of those is really an important problem. None of them are going to be solved until you address the problem of alcoholism. And the same thing here, corruption is our own alcoholism. 4. Currents: And so it’s kind of a more fundamental, underlying problem. 5. Lessig: Exactly right. 6. Currents: And so it’s going to require this intense sort of, as it were, almost a redoubled effort. I’m intrigued that you articulate it in terms of this ten year time frame. The idea of working on a single project for a decade sounds rather daunting, and at the same time, that number seems, perhaps somewhat arbitrary. I was wondering why you chose to divide up your projects into these ten year blocks, this, as you say, 3500 day arc? 7. Lessig: Totally arbitrary. Two things happened. First, reading Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope. He sort of looked at the last ten years of what he had done, and he thought, “ok, it’s up or out,” and that’s what led him into running for president. So ten years seemed like a number, and then I looked at turning forty-five, and thought, “I’ve only got twenty more years really of real work ahead of me. So do I want to work on one problem for the next twenty years? Or two problems? Or I want to think that I’ve focused really on three fundamental problems?” And so I just took those two things together, and that’s where I came up with ten years each. 8. Currents: I see. My next question concerns the broad idea of “the commons.” “The Commons” is the title and theme of this issue of Currents in Electronic Literacy, and I wanted to ask you a couple questions pertaining to this idea of “the commons.” 9. In your previous books, particularly The Future of Ideas you explore and define this term in detail and in a variety of contexts. I was wondering how the idea of “The Commons” has any currency or features in this new corruption project that you’re undertaking? 10. Lessig: I think that the commons is going to be an essential part of solving the problem of corruption in the sense of common data that people can draw upon to develop an understanding or analysis or show systems of transparency. So some of the most interesting work being done here is work being done by organizations like Sunlight Foundation or the MAPLight Organization which are taking data and turning into a forum that actually makes it easy to see relationships between influence and outcome. That creates new pressure on the system to become better at what they’re trying to do. So that depends on being able to get access to that data without required the permission of the government. And so that is the definition of a commons, and so I think we’re going to see a lot of that here too. 11. Currents: Along these same line of inquiry, I’m a graduate student here at the University of Texas, and even in my short five year tenure here at UT, I’ve noticed a kind of shift taking place a kind of “corporatization” of the university, going from what has historically been a rather free commons model, where students and teachers had a relative freedom to this more corporatized model . I was wondering generally if this general trend of the universities becoming more corporatized features in your new project? Granted you’re looking at more governmental, Washington systems, but is it still relevant, or is that a hallmark of your past scholarship? 12. Lessig: Well, I’m not an opponent to the corporation, or an opponent to money making. I’m an opponent to it being in the wrong place and having the wrong influence. So it’s important that we have institutions that focus their energy in ways that are not driven directly by commercial interest. Not because commercial interest is bad; it’s just because commercial interest is not great in every sphere of life. Even conservatives believe that. They block prostitution because there’s a place where commercial interests should not be effective choices about sexuality, and I think there are a lot more spaces than just that one space where commercial interests are destructive of something that’s important and valuable. 13. Now the university is a very important contested space about this right now because universities, on the one hand, are struggling mightily to raise money to fund themselves, and it’s very tempting to do that by turning over very important decisions about how they do their work to corporations who are happy to give money as long as they get to control something about the direction of the work. Now I’m not sure that’s always bad, but I am sure that there are lots of places where it certainly is bad. And I think what we have to recognize is how it can actually be corrupting of the values of the university and protect against it where in fact it is corrupting. 14. Currents: In terms of the currency of your project, you’re still very much in the fledgling stage of this very long ten-year project, but how do you view your ongoing project in the face of the very current and very pressing, present concerns of this year’s presidential election. 15. Lessig: This year’s election has, more than any recently, really focused the issue of corruption and influence. Edwards, very clearly, and, I think, Obama, both have attacked the basic structure of the system. Obama and Edwards both declined to take lobbyists' money. And there’s a real debate about this because Hilary Clinton defended her taking lobbyists’ money, and argued, “lobbyists represent real Americans,” so therefore there’s no problem with it. So the issue’s really been primed and teed-up. I think the really difficult question is whether we can actually translate it into something valuable or effective. Because if we’re going to actually succeed in changing the way government works, we’ve got to do something more than elect a new president. We’ve got to elect a congress committed to these values and a president committed to these values, and that’s going to take a long time. That’s not going to happen in one election. 16. So, I’ve been really keen to think about, how do we build a real grassroots movement. Not in the sense of, you know, five-hundred thousand people giving money to Barack Obama to become president—that’s great—but in the sense of three-hundred members of congress who say that changing the way that congress functions is something they’re committed to. And that process of changing congress is something I’m really kind of optimistic we can launch in this cycle. 17. Currents: And along the lines of this election and this currency, you’ve come out as a strong supporter of Senator Obama for president, and one of the reasons you cited for your support was that he was alone among all the candidates in terms of having a strong technology policy, or, indeed, perhaps unique in terms of having any technology policy. I was wondering what about his technology policy you found compelling, and what you think or hope the most significant changes in the landscape of America’s technological practices would be if his policies were implemented. 18. Lessig: First of all, in the kind of substantive technology issues that people have been pushing, he’s actually got a very balanced set of policies. They seem to me much subtler and better framed than some of the other Democrats. So, first of all, he’s very strongly committed to network neutrality. On paper, Hilary Clinton also has a commitment to network neutrality, but he actually makes it part of what he talks about and what he’s pushing on. And she, as she’s trying to not alienate money from telecoms, has been less aggressive in pushing that issue. But, secondly, on the substance of the issue, his vision of network neutrality is actually nicely balanced, not banning any discrimination or any “tiering,” but banning the kind of tiering that would actually lead to a kind of competition that is destructive of innovation of the Internet. So substantively it’s very smart. But what really distinguishes him I think is not just this commitment to making government more transparent, but a commitment to making the data accessible in a machine-readable form, so lots of different entities can take it and use it to try to make government more transparent. So it’s a commitment to a web 2.0 vision of government as opposed to a commitment to, you know, fancy websites. That reflects, in my view, a deeper understanding of how technology could really matter and how it could really do good. And that, I think, distinguishes him clearly from Hilary Clinton. 19. Currents: Shifting gears somewhat, but picking up on your answer of technology doing good and putting it to certain uses, here at the CWRL one of our principal objectives is to employ and adapt the latest multimedia technologies in our scholarship and more particularly in our teaching. And along these lines our instructors teach in computer-assisted classrooms, and we employ the latest technological tools—everything from podcasts to social networking sites, youtube, wikis, blogs, etc.—and try to adapt these multiple tools to for pedagogical purposes. I wanted to ask you about your very captivating and effective multimedia presentation style that your draw upon, what some have termed, “the Lessig method” of presentation. 20. I recently listened to another interview with your where the interviewer queried you on this subject and he wanted to know if this stemmed from your teaching, and you responded that actually, “no it didn’t come out of the classroom,” because you teach in this law school setting with the Socratic method of question-and-answer. It’s a different forum. But it seems to me that your particular mode of presentation could be very effective in the classroom, and I was wondering if you envision ever adopting for classroom use. If perhaps you had the opportunity to teach a different kind of course, something other than the very formalized Socratic lecture? 21. Lessig: Not in the context of law school, because law school is about learning a language, and you don’t learn a language by listening to a language. You learn a language by speaking it. So, I teach two first year classes. One is Contracts and one is Constitutional Law, and in Contracts it's all Socratic. From the very beginning everybody in the class speaks; practically every day everybody speaks, but Constitutional Law is closer to a kind of lecture, and my style might fit a little bit more there. But what drove my style was a recognition that in the culture that we live in right now, people are so used to multi-tasking, and focusing in tiny little attention span bites on issues that the only way to keep them drawn in is to find, really tricks, to sort of get them to focus on what you’re saying constantly. And that’s what the style’s driven by. It’s like as people are really focused to try to figure out what the word is that’s coming on, or what’s next, or what the word is saying, and listening to what I’m saying, I find that they understand it better. And that’s exactly the objective. Style is only about function, and my form is driven toward a function of educating people in a world where people can’t sit down and listen to an hour lecture, you know, just listening to a guy talk. That just won’t work. 22. Currents: You’ve encouraged others to actually adopt, and adapt, and even improve upon this method, and you say that some others even do it better than you do. Do you think is this world where, unfortunately that is the case, decreased attention spans and people needing more, do you think this is a worthwhile skill to be taught and learned, teaching students to actually try out and learn this method and create a multimedia sort of composition? 23. Lessig: Yes, I think the essence of literacy in the 21st century is going to be the capacity to draw together these different forms of speech and make them compelling to people. So I absolutely want to encourage people to experiment with it. Now I don’t think my style is going to have any lasting power, but what I hope my style represents is not so much the particulars of the font and the word structure, but the commitment to experimenting and experimenting with a single question: how do I make complicated ideas understandable to a wide range of people? Complicated ideas are not ideas which ordinary people can’t understand; they just are ideas that it’s challenging to frame in a way that ordinary people can understand, people not trained in a certain discipline. And if you’re not understandable, you’re failing. It’s not the audience that’s failing. And so I hope that’s ongoing commitment that people have to how they try to present and communicate. 24. Currents: I wanted to go back to another aspect of what you termed the 'alpha' version of your corruption lecture. This was something I found most compelling and in certain ways most troubling. It’s something that came toward the end of the lecture where you noted that the most outrageous part of this daunting corruption problem is that, to quote you, “this corruption is primed by the most privileged in our society.” It seems to me that you were talking about a certain class of academics at this point in the lecture, and I was wondering if you could parse out this compelling observation a bit. Who in particular are these “most privileged in our society,” and in what ways are they priming this corruption? 25. Lessig: I wouldn’t just say it’s the academics, although I do think it’s the academics. You think about, for example, the kind of scandals that led to companies not funding pensions for their employees, or you think about the scandals around electricity pricing. Or you think about drug companies that fund interpretations of data in a way that changes the understanding and leads to drugs being released that shouldn’t be released, or leads to research being skewed in a way that harmful. You know all of the people in the story who are doing something bad are people who, on average, are extraordinarily well off in our society. We have an amazing array of legal tools directed against the poor person who wants to steal fifty bucks from the next poor person. And, I obviously think that stealing is wrong, and it ought to be punished. But sometimes I wonder about the proportionality. 26. You’ve got three strikes in California, you know where you steal a video, you commit any number of sort of two other acts that could suggest a felony or violence, and you can be locked up for your whole life. But you do something like Enron which leads to thousands of people losing their pension, and what happens? Well, you know, you go to jail for five years? Ten years? And so it seems to me that there’s this kind of weird mismatch between responsibility and culpability. And in my view, people who are well-off, who don’t have any need to cheat, who then cheat, ought to be punished radically more severely than people who are in a bad situation, who can’t feed their kids or can’t make it in this society, and cheat. Now those people need to be punished too, because we don’t want cheaters. But my point is that we have somehow skewed the system where the most important problem we think is the petty problem, and the problem that we just kind of live with is the problem of rich people, or powerful people, or influential, or well-off people cheating the system, and I think that’s a bad mismatch. 27. Currents: You say it’s not just the academics, it’s widespread among the privileged in our society. But I want to get back to your view of the academics in this regard. In your lecture you sort of keyed in on scholars in the scientific field and in the legal field where this corruption takes place in startling ways. Do you see this troublesome connection between money and scholarship in academia as particular to these two disciplines? Or is it a more general and pervasive problem in academia across multiple fields? 28. Lessig: You know I think it’s more general, although it’s certainly going to be limited. I mean I don’t think we have to worry about archeology all of a sudden being corrupted or, you know, English Literature being corrupted in this way. But social sciences certainly, and especially because social scientists are relatively, compared to law professors, paid much less, and so the temptation of some company coming in—I just read an article about some social scientist who was studying the effect of punitive damages in response to a company that’s clearly wanting to limit punitive damages, and the amount of money that they were able to pay this guy was very significant to him. And he was struggling through how this might effect how he thinks about his work. And my view is we ought understand humans well enough to understand that it will have that skewing effect, and it’s not to call the guy that does this corrupt; it’s to say that the system that allows this to happen is corrupt, and we ought to have systems that don’t lead people into this kind of choice so that we can rely upon academic work as being flawed for a thousand reasons, but not flawed for the one core reason that corruption focuses on which is a focus on money. 29. Currents: So I’ll just end with one final question. This hearkens back to something you mentioned in terms of electronic literacy, the sort of primacy of that in our 21st century, emerging culture and in regard to this present election. I’m been sort of lukewarm to the whole process so far, but one of the few things that actually got me energized and engaged was an Obama music video that someone had posted on youtube, a collaborative project with and all of the different celebrities, Scarlett Johansson, and so on and so forth, and also the hilarious parody that soon resulted with McCain. I was wondering how big of an effect you though youtube videos and this remix culture—is it actually going to be a significant element of defining who wins this election? 30. Lessig: I think it could. I mean we don’t know enough yet without doing real studies about what’s affecting people. We just haven’t been able to measure. But it’s certainly consistent with the data that the video correlates with a kind of consolidation of a certain view about the romance and excitement around Barack Obama. And as I said on my blog, it’s really significant that you could not imagine that being done for any other candidate. I mean it just wouldn’t sound real; it would seem weird. 31. Currents: Right 32. Lessig: Imagine, you know, some rapper doing a Hilary Clinton playoff, and of course that’s exactly why the John McCain one is so funny. So it does demonstrate something and it solidifies that view. Last I saw it was at least 3 million people who saw it, and it excites a certain image around who Barack Obama is. Now one should be skeptical about that stuff. I actually happen to know Barack Obama so I fully believe that the image accords with the reality, but in general, one should be skeptical that this is just media hype and be worried about it. But what’s interesting about this kind of bottom-up media is it works precisely because it rings true. You worry about skewing and hype if someone’s coming in and spending 100 million dollars to sell you a brand, because then, in a sense, no one’s opting in to the message; they’re having it broadcast to them. So if you have the Coke message hitting your over the head, 100 million dollars spent on giving you a clear image of how great the Coca-Cola brand is, at the end of it, the fact that people like the Coca-Cola brand doesn’t really tell you much. But when you’ve got this kind of media where the reason people are watching this video is because people are linking to it, and saying, “go watch this,” and “wow, isn’t this amazing?” Then it gets its credibility because it reflects the kind of germs of truth that people already believe exist out there. So I think it’s that dimension which is actually more significant because it’s a more authentic form of political speech in the sense that it’s actually authentically representing what in some sense people believe and solidifying that, and that’s what’s most exciting.

Lawrence Lessig is the C. Wendell and Edith M. Carlsmith Professor of Law at Stanford University and founder of Stanford's Center for Internet and Society. This interview was conducted on February 13th, 2008 with Currents in Electonic Literacy Assistant Editor Justin Tremel.

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