Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Larry Lessig drops out: was he misguided?

News that Larry Lessig has given up his bid for the US Presidency because the Democratic Party would not give him a place in televised debates is somewhat disappointing, yet predictable.

Lessig - who I first met in 1997 when we were invited speakers  at a Government conference about the Internet in Grand Cayman Islands - offered a tribute to the cause of a democracy worth fighting for in his video announcement. His campaign looked like getting to 1% of electors to qualify. Then the Democratic Party changed the rules.

Citing his friend Aaron Schwartz - who suicided in January 2013, after an intense criminal proceeding was launched against him by the office of the Boston-based Federal Prosecutor, Carmen Ortiz - Lessig moved away from Internet research and activism towards Federal Government funding reform. Schwartz encouraged Lessig to make the move.

Lessig, in typically fine rhetorical form, offered this explanation in the video announcing his departure from his Presidential campaign. (This is not to implicitly denigrate the value of rhetoric - the art of persuasion - it is to draw attention to Lessig's capacity as a speaker).

We must find a way to get all of America to see now that we  can't solve any of the problems that this nation must address until we fix the crippled and corrupted institution of Congress first.

The question for me as an Internet researcher and media/communication scholar is: Could Lessig have achieved more by staying with Internet research and activism?

My answer is yes!

Moving established institutions like Congress is a massive task, too much to expect even from a Harvard Law Professor. At the risk of being considered unkind, "Harvard Law Professor people" unfortunately believe that they can bring undue individual influence to power.

For example, Barak Obama (a Harvard Law graduate) believed, as did his many of his followers, that he could influence Congress, the American public and others to improve US democracy. The institutions of state did not and will not move for him or anyone.

Communication moves people! The Internet is the key contemporary communication mechanism that offers a more effective mouse trap with which to catch the rats! (Sorry about the metaphor).

Larry knew this as did Aaron Schwartz. And yet they believed that a direct intervention to change campaign financing in the US Congress, would be possible through the ballot box. Sad to say, this was misguided. It reflects the narrowness of the Harvard world view. It also embodies technology geekiness, in the sense that technology geeks operate within a limited algorithmic world view.

A critical assessment of Aaron Schwartz's perspective would suggest a geekiness removed from an understanding of the institutional processes of power relations. Conversely, he believed in the power of the Internet, yet wrongly believed that encouraging Lessig to attack campaign finance funding would be the solution to the larger questions about US democracy. Meanwhile right in front of him were the tools to mobilize the change. Both men experienced a knowledge deficit, due to the geekiness quotient that blinded them to the centrality of media-communication.

And yet Lessig is on track to continue his important work in the name of his dear friend and in the name of the progressive cause that can define the Internet's communicative capacity. That gesture, that love from Larry to Aaron cannot be denied.  Indeed, it should be welcomed into the comity of discourse, as perhaps the most important aspect of this saga - the loyalty and affection of one person for another.

Progressive politics needs the Lessigs. Not because they are Harvard Law Professors, but because they are true to the dreamed objectives of progressive democracy in the US. As Lessig added in his announcement:

Like the Progressive Movement a century ago, it will be millions working together from every political stripe, who will win this democracy back.

Maybe, or maybe not. In the current conjuncture, it is unlikely that "every political stripe" will turn up in the Progressive camp. They will turn up, in, on and around the Internet, where new theories of political engagement are playing out.

For example, social movements are connecting with political movements, through Social Media of many types. The implications for what can happen will be influenced by a greater understanding of the political forces at work. Lessig has made a significant contribution to that understanding. What remains is to comprehend the complexity of the Internet-politics-funding nexus.

Thank you Larry!