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The Year That Made Larry Lessig an Optimist

     For the famously gloomy prophet Larry Lessig, two blessed events in 2003 have forced a smiling reappraisal: the birth of his child and the growth of the blogosphere.  In conversation it seemed he could not speak of one procreation without alluding to the other.  In politics and in culture, in the Lessig view, after a more than a century of mass media and 50 years of television, we have stumbled on a technology that prompts more, not less, citizen engagement.  In the 2004 campaign underway, he observed, “there will be a change that comes from the fact that people are participating in the construction of the political story around them.  That in my view will be the most important political event in the last hundred years.”

    We met in San Francisco to mark yet another birthday–the first full year of the copyright alternative, Creative Commons.  Under Lessig’s wing at the Stanford Law School, Creative Commons now has more than a million pages of music and literature under a license that encourages adaptive reuses, instead of punishing them.  Lessig, remember, was the lead counsel in the “Free the Mouse” case before the Supreme Court, the close-but-no-cigar campaign to undo the Sonny Bono extension of the Disney copyright on Mickey Mouse.  Creative Commons is another of Lessig’s maneuvers to stop the copyright juggernaut and, in general, to reenable the old dynamism of artistic creation, which is to say: the freedom to make new masterpieces, as Shakespeare and Charlie Parker and Picasso did, by imitation, adaptation, inspired borrowing and often stealing.  “We’re just at that moment when people realize that culture is not something that has to be fed to them.”  Lessig’s “free culture movement,” modeled on Richard Stallman‘s “free software movement,” aims at guaranteeing people “the freedom… to participate in the act of making and sharing their culture.”

    But mostly we talked about the blog surge which, strange to tell, could yet make an Internet optimist of Larry Lessig.  He credits Dave Winer of Scripting News and the Berkman Center with years of work that signaled “the values of this movement” in citizenship and a new spirit of collective journalism and truth-seeking.  Unlike Dave, Lessig exults in the Howard Dean campaign as a monumental triumph.  “The point is: a year ago nobody would have predicted that this was possible–that an organization built from the grassroots up would be in sight of the nomination.  Every single major Democratic leader was betting on exactly the opposite as the future.  They were wrong about what makes the future possible… It is the Internet’s power to engage political action that will be the most important moving part of this election.”

    The central issue of the 2004 campaign ought to be “the extraordinary corruption of our political system: the idea that money gets to decide who becomes president of the United States.  It’s outrageous to our idea of democracy, but it’s what the system has become,” he said. 

     “Our pathology is that we’ve become such passive political creatures that we respond to these broadcast manipulations in a way that’s totally predictable.”  The new burst of blogging energy “is the first unpredictable development on the political horizon in the last 50 years, and I think that’s a hopeful sign.”

    More diplomatically but no less passionately than Dave Winer,  Lessig is pushing Joe Trippi of the Dean campaign to take the next step with Blog for America and give every citizen of Iowa and New Hampshire a blog of his and her own.  The first thing the new bloggers will learn is that “their contribution is a function of links–of people they link to and people who link to them.  “So automatically there’s a logic in the process which requires building a community.  Building a community is the logic of democracy, where your objective is not to register your personal preferences, about whatever.  Your objective is to build a consensus about the right answer to a particular question.”

    So blog space hasn’t yet approached the ideal, yet, said our suddenly sunny Professor Lessig.  “But at least it’s ten thousand times better than the kind of couch-potato politics that defines where we’ve been till 2004.”

    Listen up. It’s all here.

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