on the unexpected end(?) of my journey on the shoulders of a giant

on the shoulders of giants[Nutshell for those with less free time than me: Lawrence Lessig is the closest thing I have to a personal hero, and he’s leaving the IP/culture game to play for bigger stakes, against even tougher opponents. In this post I explore and explain my very personal relationship to his work, wish him luck, and fervently hope that our intellectual paths cross again.]

At some point during my senior year of college, I read Larry Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. It put into words something I’d felt but not been able to articulate: software mattered a great deal, not just for its own sake, but as the new architecture which constrained and helped define markets, politics, and speech- the dominant forces in most of our lives.

Code was very consciously in my mind when I chose to go into free software after graduation instead of what looked like sure money in hardware.1 After Code, I felt even more strongly that in order to have transparency in markets and communication (and eventually in speech and politics) we needed transparency and vigorous competition in our software. And so I chose to follow that dream for a while. (So far, so good.)

Later, seeing Lessig speak for the first time at the Duke Conference on the Public Domain, and then reading his Free Culture, reaffirmed that choice. While Free Culture talked very little about free software, it was hard for me to read without thinking that that a free culture would not – probably could not – grow in a software monoculture, nor could it grow without learning from the methods and the madness we’d pioneered in free software. And so I kept at it, trying to keep in mind the idea that this wasn’t just about writing better software- it could be and probably should be about something much bigger.2

It wasn’t coincidence that after being steeped in ‘marxist-lessigism‘ for years I ended up in law school. Just as Lessig made it clear that code impacted the real world, he also made it clear that the real world (and particularly politicians, governments, and lawyers) inevitably impacted code- and more importantly, inevitably impacted how people spoke with each other and sold things to each other using that code. It is my current career goal, in no small part because of Lessig, to be a lawyer who helps bridge those worlds, bringing the tools of the modern lawyer together with the tools of my friends to make the world a better, richer, more sharing, more human place.3

This isn’t to say I think Lessig is a saint, or that I always agree with him on matters of policy and tactics- see, for example, this post for some good criticisms. But it is no small sign that even those who disagree with him must often define themselves in his terms and on his grounds- it indicates that his choices to bring the discussion to the masses on largely morally neutral grounds achieved a broad and significant traction that hadn’t previously occurred. (Whether or not that is unambiguously good is another discussion for another day.)4

So to summarize- I’m usually in awe of Lessig. The last 6 years of my life have been many things, but whatever else they have been, in large part they were a ride on his shoulders.

Which brings us to today. I am even more in awe than usual, because he has announced he’ll no longer focus on IP, instead choosing to concentrate more on what he calls political ‘corruption’- corruption in the general sense that ‘the political system is broken, and has forgotten how to fix itself’, rather than the specific sense that ‘the political system is full of people who have been effectively bribed by lobbyists.’ (Though of course the one is part of the other.) The self-confidence (the self-sacrifice?) to leave a field where you are the acknowledged global leader, quasi-founder, and expert, and to start from scratch, is something I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do.5 And he’s doing it in a very high-profile way, into a field that the world pretty desperately needs right now, without (apparently) having much sense of what the answers are. I admit I’ve often in the past year thought ‘free software is small beans compared to Guantanamo, or global warming, or religious fundamentalism’, but I’ve stuck with free software in part because I feel certain I can make a difference here, and to try to solve those other problems means almost impossible odds. For him to leap into something where there is no certainty he can achieve anything, against fairly overwhelming odds and deeply entrenched interests… yeah, awe is a good word. Takes bravery (or perhaps craziness, or both) that I can only hope to find in myself some day.

In some sense, Lessig’s choice could be interpreted as a diminishment of what I and others have worked for alongside him and Stallman – a stark acknowledgment that if the background mechanisms of our national politics is broken, then the freedom of our software and our culture doesn’t make much of a difference. But my hope (perhaps my arrogance or my denial) is that this isn’t the case. Rather, I much prefer to think that social production, free culture6, and perhaps even free software7 are going to be central to retaking control of our government and our country from the sources of this corruption. So I’ll tell myself I’m helping out in Lessig’s larger and more important battle, even if the link is more tenuous than I’d like right now. Hopefully I’m right; possibly I’m wrong- either way, that rationale will help keep me motivated while Lessig is off finding and promoting his own solutions, whatever they may be.

More personally, good luck, Larry. You’ll need it, but we’ll be cheering for you, and we’ll all benefit, both in IP/culture and elsewhere, if somehow you can pull off even a fraction of your impossible dream. (And if anyone can do it, I think I speak for many others when I say that I have a deep faith that you can.)

  1. Of course, that company bombed and Ximian succeeded beyond my wildest dreams, but I had no way of knowing that at the time. []
  2. Not a coincidence I got started in mozilla, was passionate about GNOME, and am very excited about OLPC, Wikipedia, and Curriki– if we’re ghettoized on corporate servers, or just serving elitist software geeks, there isn’t much point to us being here. We must be on tens of millions of clients, and we must go beyond software, to really make a difference in the world. []
  3. Like Lessig, I think vigorous capitalism is a valuable part of that richer, better place, so I certainly won’t object if I can manage to make a buck by upending entrenched businesses along the way. []
  4. Also, I tend to think that even in matters where we disagree, the disagreement is a public formalism which he uses as a strategic and marketing tool, and that some day when he puts aside the mantle of public intellectual, and can become more honest about his motivations, he’ll be much closer to Mako and Stallman than they expect. Hopefully we’ll someday get to see that side of him- hard to know for sure. []
  5. It would be easier, I’m sure, if I had a full, tenured professorship at Stanford and an obsessive-compulsive global fanclub I wanted to escape from for a few years, but still… general point stands. :) []
  6. like his push to open the debates []
  7. voting software! []