Steven Johnson moderated a conversation between Larry Lessig and Shepard Fairey last night at the New York Public Library. The topic was remix culture. The most interesting exchange was when Steven pointed out that remix art seemed poppy and ironic but inherently limited, and Larry replied by arguing that any art that has as big a social impact as Shepard Fairey’s Obama poster, or as the Daily Show, is not limited. Shepard piped in that throwing paint at a jet engine and seeing what lands on a canvas 30 yards away isn’t all that profound either. I think Steven and Larry may be right that broad and “shallow” may be every bit as profound as narrow and deep, and that Shepard may be right that, these days, narrow and deep is in pretty short supply anyway.
But the conversation that got me thinking was about Larry’s recent career change. He has been fighting the enclosure of the digital commons for 15 years. He told the audience that he is now focused on the corrupting influence of money in politics. He cited the example of a bill just re-introduced by Rep. Conyers of Detroit (HR 801) that would require that the results of research funded by the American taxpayer not be freely distributed. This bill is designed to protect the interests of (ironically) mostly foreign publishers. Larry went on to say that the sponsors of this bill recieved twice as much campaign funding from publishers than other congressmen.
Ok - I agree money corrupts and I can see how campaign finance reform could cleanse the debate in Washington, but I hope Larry is wrong about his career choice.
Larry left the fight for free culture at a moment that he described as the most “hopeful” ever to tilt at a new windmill. Is it possible that the old windmill, the acceleration of transparency and the furtherance of the democratizing qualities of the web are not just the key to a revitalized, engaging popular culture - they are also the key to managing the corrupting influence of money in Washington.
The fundamental problem is that the issues that are decided in Washington tend to have a diffuse impact on a large number of relatively unorganized consumers and a very direct impact on well organized commercial interests. For example, consumers are harmed by the lack of innovation in licensed spectrum but wireless carriers greatly benefit from the goverment granted monoply that protects them from competition. It is not hard to figure out why carriers are winning that fight. Consumers don’t even know what’s at stake. Carriers know not only exactly what’s at stake, but how key decisions are going to be made, by who, and what the re-election prospects (and campaign funding needs) are for the key decision makers.
I hope that the web will become the vehicle for education and engaging consumers about the key issues and that once they are engaged, it will provide a vehicle for making sure that their voices are heard. I believe that process will reduce the infuence of special interests, and increase the infuence of voters.
The web may also change the fundraising equation in Washington. If we assume that Chris Hughe’s My Obama web site is the new model for engaging activists and attracting campaign dollars, and that there is no reason that every politician at every level will not be using these techniques in the next election cycle, then the influence of special interests will be diminished.
So I hope Larry’s new focus on the corrupting influence of campaign finance reform is uneccessary, and I hope that once he gets into it, he will use his remarkable talents continue to accelerate the transparency of politics and the democratization of campaign finance that the web has enabled.