considering Lessig

So Lessig isn’t saying no to Congress quite yet. This really should excite me; to call Lessig one of my heroes is not a stretch at all.

Lawrence Lessig 1

Lawrence Lessig 1 by Mario Carvajal. License:

My initial response was, I think, pretty solid: Lessig would make a very good Congressman. He’s proven in his Creative Commons work that he can build coalitions, work multiple sides of an issue, and (perhaps most importantly) build a winning staff. He’d have a better grasp than almost anyone in Congress on the critical issues of technology and the Constitution. And he’s right that imbalanced influence is one of the core problems in American political life, and that this is clearly a change election where issues like this can be discussed in ways they normally can’t.

But watching the video, I can’t help but think that this is not yet the right time for Lessig’s version of this message. He spent years refining the framing around free culture and Creative Commons, and it paid off. With his finely tuned message he was able to persuade not just tech geeks in the US but creators, lawyers, and policymakers around the world. In contrast, by the time of these elections, he’ll have spent only about a year working publicly on the ‘corruption’ issue. And this lack of time shows- the message is too unpolished, and the substance isn’t there yet. I badly want his latest video to inspire me- but it doesn’t.

First, the message. If you’ve got one key word you’ve chosen to discuss the issue at hand (corruption), it doesn’t bode well when you have to redefine it almost immediately when you use it. To paraphrase, the video says basically ‘well, there is corruption, but I don’t mean corruption like that.’ The maddening ineffectiveness of this tactic will be familar to anyone who has had to explain the difference between free and free over the years. It may be that I’m just too sensitive, but to me this and similar linguistic/framing/messaging problems make the quasi announcement possibly the least persuasive Lessig video I’ve ever watched- there may some day be a polished message there, but it isn’t here yet.

I’m not incredibly inspired by the substance either. The solutions (no PAC/lobbyist money, no earmarks, public financing) are good as far as they go, but they are not terribly new, and they are very top down- focusing on what should be prevented rather than what should be enabled. Part of the genius of Creative Commons was the bottom-up approach- using the motivations of large numbers of individals to counter systemic problems. Similarly, Obama refuses PAC/lobbyist money, but his campaign puts even bigger emphasis on bringing nearly a million people into the system. I’d love to see Lessig (and/or ChangeCongress.org) put emphasis on bottom-up factors like transparency, so that people outside of DC can analyze, diagnose, and mobilize to highlight and resolve problems, or perhaps on issues like broadband access, so that a greater number of people can become not just speakers but also publishers. These aren’t necessarily great suggestions, but Lessig’s don’t seem to be either right now- I’d like to see him apply his talent to improving them before he puts them so forcefully to the public. Even the great ones need time to solve difficult problems like this.

So what’s the bottom line? I’d support Lessig if he decides to run, and if he’s elected, I’ll be thrilled that he’ll be my representative when I arrive in California in ’09.1  But I really hope that he reconsiders and instead spends more time refining and strengthening his critically important message. It would be great to see, in two or four years, dozens or hundreds of candidates powerfully wielding the sharpened, focused message I know he can produce, instead of having him rush out alone this year, wielding the more blunt tool he’s created to date.

  1. Ed. later: I though the district covered all of southern San Francisco, but it actually covers only southwest San Francisco, and because of the location of the train station I’ll probably be in southeast San Fran when I move there. So he won’t be my rep. Oh well. []