Tag Archives: Lessig

The Social Network and the real villains of the old/new economy

The other week I finally got around to watching The Social Network. It’s great fun and I recommend going out and watching it whether you’re a self-professed social media expert or don’t even have a Facebook account.

Here are some of my thoughts about the movie (don’t worry, no spoilers here).

1. Remember this is a Hollywood movie: Before (or after) you watch it, read Lawrence Lessig’s fantastic critique of the movie. This review is so soundly brilliant and devastating I’m basically willing to say, if you only have 5 minutes to read, leave my blog right now and go check it out. If you are a government employee working on innovation, copyright or the digital economy, I doubly urge you to read it. Treble that if you happen to be (or work for) the CIO of a major corporation or organization who (still) believes that social media is a passing phase and can’t see its disruptive implications.

2. It isn’t just the legal system that is broken: What struck me about the movie wasn’t just the problems with the legal system, it was how badly the venture capitalists come off even worse. Here is supposed to be a group of people who are supposed to help support and enable entrepreneurs and yet they’re directing lawyers to draft up contracts that screw some of the original founders. If the story is even remotely true it’s a damning and cautionary tale for anyone starting (or looking to expand) a company. Indeed, in the movie the whole success of Facebook and the ability of (some) of the owners to retain control over it rests on the fact that graduates of the first internet bubble who were screwed over by VCs are able to swoop in and protect this second generation of internet entrepreneurs. Of course they – played by Sean Parker (inventor of Napster) – are parodied as irresponsible and paranoid.

One thought I walked away with was: if, say as a result of the rise of cloud computing, the costs of setting up an online business continue to drop, at a certain point the benefits of VC capital will significantly erode or their value proposition will need to significantly change. More importantly, if you are looking to build a robust innovation cluster, having it built on the model that all the companies generated in it have the ultimate goal of being acquired by a large (American) multinational doesn’t seem like a route to economic development.

Interesting questions for policy makers, especially those outside Silicon Valley, who obsess about how to get venture capital money into their economies.

3. Beyond lawyers and VCs, the final thing that struck me about the movie was the lack of women doing anything interesting. I tweeted this right away and, of course, a quick Google search reveals I’m not the only one who noticed it. Indeed, Aaron Sorkin (the film’s screenwriter) wrote a response to questions regarding this issue on Emmy winner Ken Levine’s blog. What I noticed in The Social Network is there isn’t a single innovating or particularly positive female character. Indeed, in both the new and old economy worlds shown in the film, women are largely objects to be enjoyed, whether it is in the elite house parties of Harvard or the makeshift start-up home offices in Palo Alto. Yes, I’m sure the situation is more complicated, but essentially women aren’t thinkers – or drivers – in the movie. It’s a type of sexism that is real, and in case you think it isn’t just consider a TechCrunch article from the summer titled “Too Few Women In Tech? Stop Blaming The Men” in which the author, Michael Arrington, makes the gobsmacking statement:

The problem isn’t that Silicon Valley is keeping women down, or not doing enough to encourage female entrepreneurs. The opposite is true. No, the problem is that not enough women want to become entrepreneurs.

Really? This is a country (the United States) where women start businesses at twice the rate of men and where 42% of all businesses are women owned? To say that women don’t want to be entrepreneurs is so profoundly stupid and incorrect it perfectly reflects the roles women are shoveled into in The Social Network. And that is something the new economy needs to grapple with.

Digital Economy Strategy: Why we risk asking the wrong question

Far better an approximate answer to the right question, than the exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise….

John Tukey

I’ve always admired Paul Erdos, the wandering mathematician who I first learned about by reading his obituary in the Economist back in 1996 (and later learned was a friend and frequent house guest of my grandfather’s). What I remember best about that economist obituary was how one of his students talking about his genius not lying in his capacity to produce mathematical proofs, but in his ability to ask the right question, which set events in motion so that the proof could be found at all.

It is with that idea in mind that I turn to the Canada 3.0 conference here in Stratford Ontario where I’ve been invited to take part in a meeting with industry types and policy leaders to talk about what Canada must do to become a leading digital nation by 2017. The intent is to build on last year’s Stratford Declaration and develop an action plan.

So what do I think we need to do? First, I think we need to ask the right question.

I think we need to stop talking about a digital as the future.

This whole conversation isn’t about being a digital country. It isn’t about a future where everything is going to be digitized. That isn’t the challenge. It is already happening. It’s done. It’s over. Canada is already well on its way to becoming digital. Anyone who uses MS Word to write a document is digital. I’ve been submitting papers using a word processor since high school (this comes from a place of privilege, something I’ll loop back to). Worse, talking about digital means talking about technology like servers or standards or business models like Bell, or Google or Music Producers and all the other things that don’t matter.

The dirty truth is that Canada’s digital future isn’t about digital. What is special isn’t that everything is being digitized. It’s that everything is being connected. The web isn’t interesting because you can read it on a computer screen. It is special because of hyperlinks – that information is connected to other information (again, something the newspaper have yet to figure out). So this is a conversation about connectivity. It is about the policy and legal structure needed when me, you, information, and places, when everything, everywhere is connected to everything else, everywhere persistently. That’s the big change.

So if a digital economy strategy is really about a networked economy strategy, and what makes a networked economy work better is stronger and more effective connectivity, then the challenge isn’t about what happens when something shifts from physical to digital. It is about how we promote the connectivity of everything to everything in a fair manner. How do we make ourselves the most networked country, in the physical, legally and policy terms. This is the challenge.

Viewed in this frame. We do indeed have some serious challenges and are already far behind many others when it comes to connectivity if we want to be a global leader by 2017. So what are the key issues limiting or preventing connectivity and what are the consequences of a networked economy we need to be worried about? How about:

  • Expensive and poor broadband and mobile access in (in both remote and urban communities)
  • Throttling and threats to Net Neutrality
  • Using copyright as a vehicle to limit the connectivity of information (ACTA) or threaten peoples right to connect
  • Using copyright as a vehicle to protect business models built on limiting peoples capacity to connect to innovations and ideas
  • Government’s that don’t connect their employees to one another and the public
  • It’s also about connective rights. Individual rights to limit connectivity to privacy, and right to freely associate and disassociate

So what are the three things we need to start thinking about immediately?

If connectivity is the source of innovation, wealth and prosperity then how do we ensure that Canadians are the most connected citizens in the world?

1)    a net neutral broadband and mobile market place where the costs of access are the lowest in the world.

That is would be a source of enormous competitive advantage and a critical stepping stone to ensuring access to education and an innovation fueled economy. Sadly, we have work to do. Take for example, the fact that we have the worst cell phone penetration rates in the developed world. This at a time when cellphone internet access is overtaking desktop internet access.

But more importantly, I was lucky to be able to use a word processor 20 years ago. Today, not having access to the internet is tantamount to preventing a child from being able to go to the library, or worse, preventing them from learning to read. Affordable access is not a rural or urban issue. It’s a rights and basic education issue.

Equally important is that the network remain a neutral platform upon which anyone can innovate. The country that allows its networks to grant (or sell) certain companies or individuals special privileges is one that one that will quickly fall behind the innovation curve. New companies and business models inevitable displace established players. If those established players are allowed to snuff out new ideas before they mature, then there will be no new players. No innovation. No new jobs. No competitive advantage.

2)    A copyright regime that enables the distribution of ideas and the creation of new culture.

Here I am in Stratford, Ontario, home of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, one of the biggest open source festivals in the country. Every year the city celebrates plays that, because they are in the public domain, can be remixed, re-interpreted, and used without anyone’s permission to create new derivative cultural works (as well as bring joy and economic prosperity to untold people). A copyright regime that overly impedes the connectivity of works to one another (no fair use!) or the connectivity of people to ideas is one that will limit innovation in Canada.

A networked economy is not just one that connects people to a network. That is a broadcast economy. A networked economy is one that allows people to connect works together to create new works. Copyright should protect creators of content, but it should do so to benefit the creators, not support vast industries that market, sell, and repackage these works long after the original creator is dead. As Lawrence Lessig so eloquently put it:

  • Creativity and innovation always builds on the past.
  • The past always tries to control the creativity that builds upon it.
  • Free societies enable the future by limiting this power of the past.
  • Ours is less and less a free society.

A networked economy limits the past to enable the future.

3)    A government that uses a networked approach to creating a strategy for a connected economy.

An agrarian economy was managed using papyrus, an industrial economy was managed via printing press, typewriters and carbon copy paper. A digital economy strategy and managing policies were created on Microsoft Word and with email. A Network Economy can and only will be successfully managed and regulated when those trying to regulate it stop using siloed, industrial modes of production, and instead start thinking and organizing like a network. Not to ring an old bell, but today, that means drafting the policy, from beginning to end, on GCPEDIA, the only platform where federal public servants can actually organize in a network.

Managing an industrial economy would have been impossible using hand written papyrus, not just because the tools could not have handled the volume and complexity of the work but because the underlying forms of thinking and organizing that are shaped by that tool are so different from how an industrial economy works.

I’m going to predict it right now. Until a digital economy strategy is drafted using online but internally-connected tools like wikis, it will fail. I say this not because the people working on it will not be intelligent, but because they won’t be thinking in a connected way. It will be like horse and buggy users trying to devise what a policy framework for cars should look like. It will suck and terrible, terrible decisions will be made.

In summary, these are the three things I think the federal government needs to be focused on if we are going to create a digital economy strategy that positions us to be leaders by 2017. This is the infrastructure that needs to be in place to ensure that we maximize our capacity to connect each other and our work and reap the benefits of that network.

Neo-Progressive update: Fighting Corruption

Those who read my blog know that I’ve always been an enormous fan of Lawrence Lessig. On numerous occasions I’ve pointed people to his most amazing talk on copyright. Indeed when Beltzner finally got me to watch Lessig’s talk a few years ago (after months of trying) it caused me to go into a 6 month self-directed reading and listening binge on all things copyright, internet rights and open source. Indeed, it is what propelled me into trying to find ways to contribute to the thinking around copyright and open source generally and the success of Mozilla specifically.

So I remember quite clearly the day Lessig said he was backing away from copyright to address the issue of lobbying, fund-raising and problematic incentive structures in the US political system – what he broadly termed as fighting “corruption.” At the time I was not only a little disappointed that he was moving away from such an important issue (copyright), I confess to thinking he was a little crazy. “Fighting political corruption in the United States? That’s an unwinnable battle and a waste of Lessig’s talent” I thought.

The problem was, I was still thinking like it was 1999. I believed that changing congress started and ended with structural change – altering the laws and processes. That battle felt insurmountable – particular given the recent passage of McCain-Feingold bill in 2002. Lessig – while still believing in the need for structural reforms – knew that better and more meaningful change was still possible if one leveraged new technologies to achieve greater participation and transparency.

One of his most recent updates demonstrates how devastatingly successful his small and nascent efforts have been. Don’t think that other congresspeople aren’t taking note.

This week, Change Congress scored a major victory against U.S. Senator Ben Nelson (D-NE) after he fell victim to what I call “Good Souls Corruption” — good people trapped in a broken campaign-finance system they refuse to fix.

Ben Nelson probably hates us right now — or at least me. But that’s OK, it was worth it. Here’s what happened.

Nelson has received over $2 million from health and insurance interests who oppose President Obama’s public health insurance option. Those companies fear competition. 71% of rural voters support it.

Who did Nelson side with? You guessed it — in May, he sided with the insurance interests against the citizens of Nebraska, calling the public option a “deal breaker.”

So Change Congress launched $10,000 of online ads, letting Nebraska voters know about Nelson’s special-interest money. We also sent 3,000 direct-mail pieces to Democratic donors throughout the state. This generated state and national news stories for over a week (and apparently freaked Nelson out).

After an intense 11-day battle with Nelson, he’s now publicly “open” to the public option — and yesterday, he made more news by saying he won’t join a filibuster of Obama’s plan. One of our local supporters even got a personal phone call from the Senator yesterday, during which Nelson tried to explain away his special-interest contributions!

This campaign is a model for our ongoing anti-corruption work. But to replicate this success, I need your help. Can you please consider chipping in to help us take our show on the road?

At the above link, you can give once or become a monthly Change Congress supporter, which is certainly appreciated.

Ben Nelson was actually the second in our “Good Souls Corruption” campaign. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) was the first — we successfully called him out for siding with special-interest contributors and made him react as well.

As Mother Jones nicely put it:

“Maybe the reason members of Congress are responding so defensively is that CC is striking a little too close to home. Apparently members of Congress are shocked by the nerve-the nerve!-of people who tell them that taking huge amounts of money from the industries they’re in charge of regulating reeks of corruption.”

Exactly right. And we can’t stop in Nebraska.

Change Congress has really hit its stride, but shaming politicians for participating in a corrupt system isn’t cheap. We’re thankful to those who trusted us with their hard-earned dollars in the beginning. But we really need your help now to continue this model around the country.

On the donate page, we ask you to include any suggestions you have for politicians we should consider targeting next. Please include any links to stories that may be relevant.

Below is a timeline of our recent campaign. I hope you enjoy — and please help us continue this work.

A democracy is a terrible thing to waste. Yet that is precisely what money in Washington is doing — wasting this democracy. Together, we can take democracy back.

Thanks for your support,
Lawrence Lessig

Indeed, Lessig’s work mirrors the efforts of ForestEthics Taylor and I chronicled in our piece on neo-progressivism. Better still Lessig’s work hits a lot of neo-progressive buttons. It:

1. Tackles an issue (reforming congress and dealing with influence peddling and lobbying) that is deadlocked and going nowhere

2. The conversation hasn”t been possible not because alternatives to the status quo are considered taboo, but because they are not seen as feasible, or politically possible.

3. It is an issue where there are real divisions within both the left or right. On the right large corporations are not keen on reform as their money buys them influence. This is less true on the left, but nonetheless certain interest groups – such as the unions – are adept at leveraging the current system to gain disproportionate influence, they might not all be in favour of Lessig’s reforms. However libertarian right wingers and progressive left wingers in the United States would both like the system to be reformed.

4. Debates which unite odd factions from within the left and right – see above.

5. This is also an area where individual freedom is curtailed – indeed, individuals and there influence are downplayed within the system and collective interests – corporate, labour and other interest groups, are favoured.

6. And finally, it is an issue where the impact on the public has always been significant.

Mostly however, what impresses me is that Lessige is

a) trying to find ways to inject into the behaviour of congress the values of traditional progressives of the late 19th and early 20th century – equality of opportunity, meritocracy, and transparency


b) is adopting the 21st century approach and philosophy those early progressive embraced but their mid-20th century successors ultimately abandoned – working outside of the state, self-organization through the internet, leveraging micro-donation, self-publishing and using sunlight to shame people into action.

I’m looking forward to seeing how far Lessig can go.

change congress

Creative commons founder and personal hero, Lawrence Lessig, has founded Change Congress, his first step in what he plans to make a 10 year mission to improve the state of American democracy.

It true Lessig fashion the goal is big and the plan is simple. He’s focusing on four changes:

  1. No money from lobbyists or PACs
  2. Vote to end earmarks
  3. Support publicly-financed campaigns
  4. Support reform to increase Congressional transparency

upon which there is more written about here.

Am I excited about the potential? Absolutely. Something is happening in the United States right now. A progressive backlash is brewing.

Change Congress

My only cause for concern is that, like previous reform efforts, we don’t succumb to the law of unintended consequences. I remember reading how making congress members committee votes public was intended to make congress more “transparent.”  It did. By by doing so it empowered lobbyists to ensure the members they gave money to actually voted the way they were paid to – in effect tightening this groups control on congress. While I believe transparency to be a good thing, this outcome could hardly be described as progressive in its impact.

I’m no expert on the machinations of congress, but we should always ask ourselves what will happen to the money once we close off one tap. For example, of the 4 priorities above, the end of earmarks raises some possible concerns. It will probably mean that the US public service will have more control over the specific allocation of monies. This could be good thing. But then perhaps not. The US public service is not as independent as it is say, here in Canada, and so this may simply enable the administration to assert more control on who ends up receiving money. Rather than an end to pork barreling, it will simply shift who controls the pork from congress to presidential appointees…

My “top 10″ 2007 blogging moments: #1

This is, quite possibly, my best moment of 2007. I’ve been promising some friends that I’d blog about it for quite some time – so here we go.


Khale v GonzalesBack in January, Lawrence Lessig – a man whose speeches and books: changed the way I see the world; got me excited about and engaged in open source; inspired me to start fighting for the internet; helped instigate my blog; pulls me (at times) towards law school; and regularly makes me want to move to San Francisco a be part of what is one of the most exciting community in the world – wrote this post.

The post essentially discusses two things. The first half reviews and assesses the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (or the Ninth Circuit for those who know their courts) decision on a copyright case called Kahle vs. Gonzales (broadly themed around the issue of Free Culture that Lessig has championed). The court ruled against Lessig and his team so he dissects their response. In the post’s second part Lessig diagnoses that his argument might have been better expressed visually. He then outlines a model, and a graph, he developed to do just this. Most importantly, he posts the basic spreadsheet on his blog and states:

Again, this is a beta model. I’d be very grateful for any errors identified, or for a better specification of the same. After a review by a couple friends, I will post any corrections to this. At that time, I’ll also include any corrections noted in the comments.

I would do virtually anything to help Lessig and the important work he, and others like him, are doing. Sadly, lacking a legal background I’m not sure how much help I would be in drafting an improved Supreme Court petition (I would probably just waste his time and actually do the cause more damage than good). Designing a better graph however, that is something I can do.

Consequently, I posted a comment on Lessig’s blog where I re-graphed his results but displayed them in a visual manner that I thought made it easier to convey his argument. You can see my comment, along with the reasoning and the new model, here. I of course also shared the model so that others could improve on it.

The best part was Lessig wrote me an email me and thanked me for the help. Words can’t convey how much I’ve wanted to help with this movement/cause. So getting a thank you email meant the world to me. In this space (and virtually every space) I’m a nobody – some guy on the other end of a wire – but I love living in a world where even I can spend a few hours (a lot of hours actually) working on something and do well enough that I can help an expert and leader of a movement I feel so much passion for. I still feel ill-equipped to help out, but that thank you email made me feel like that my small contribution was genuinely helpful. For both those who know me, and those who don’t, it may sound pathetic, but I really couldn’t stop smiling for days.

And then it got better.

Part 2:

One of the nicest people in the world – Virginia Law School professor Chris Sprigman emailed me out of the blue with a note that said:

Hello David.  Larry sent me the message you sent to him, and I’ve been puzzling through your graph.  I’m drafting a petition for rehearing in Kahle, and I’d like to speak with you and understand your methodology, in the hope that we might use your graph in the brief.  Do you have any time to speak later today?

We chatted and I went through a couple of iterations of my graph. And then at some point he asked: Would you be willing to do all the graphs for our Supreme Court petition?

Obviously, I agreed.

So you can see the petition here. Sadly, my original graph that got me involved didn’t make the cut. I don’t make any claims that my work was at all intellectual – I was making graphs. But I’m not sure I’ve ever been happier then the hours I spent tweaking things here and there to see if there was something – anything – I could do to help make this small part of a Supreme Court petition better.

So there it is, number one – for the simple reason that blogs and the internet can allow anyone, anywhere, to contribute to something they believe in. I’ve never met Chris or Larry and they didn’t know me from anyone, but the internet’s meritocratic culture meant that if they thought I could contribute – it didn’t matter – they’d bring me on. And for that I’m eternally gratefully, and will also be eternally willing to work my butt off for them and for the cause of free culture.

Tools of Creation vs. Tools of Destruction

Larry Lessig put this cartoon in Free Culture to illustrate how Americans are (and Canadians are contemplating) regulating these two tools differently.

I love the image because of the clarity it brings to the debate… in ths US. What I’d love though is to find an image that might reasonate with us Canadians – if you have any suggestions please pass it along!


[tags]opensource, lessig, copyright[/tags]