Three things that occur to me today about Lessig’s talk Thursday night

I went to the “wireside chat” Lawrence Lessig gave Thursday night, a talk mostly (but not entirely, as I’ll mention in a moment) about issues of copyright and remix on the ‘net. You can watch it all yourself now by going to this site; I certainly think it’s a worthwhile viewing experience, especially if you haven’t ever seen Lessig speaking and thinking about copyright and remix.

Three somewhat related thoughts about it all:

  • This was an interesting viewing experience for me, one that was “live” and “present,” but also “not” and removed.  Lessig was live in a lecture hall at Harvard, and I watched it with about 25 people at EMU (including Derek and a couple of students from my 516 class who made it out) in a room in the library with a large projection screen and a very nice sound system.  While Lessig talked, I also watched Twitter stream by with the #wireside hashtag. So it was like being there– actually, in some ways cooler than being there since a similar experience was going on at 40 different sites all over the world at that moment.But it was also not at all like being there.  I saw Lessig talk live at the CCCCs in San Francisco back in 2005, and I think he is the undisputed king of delivering incredible conference presentations and slide shows.  He gave the best talk I’ve ever seen at a conference that time in San Francisco, that’s for sure.  His talk last night was good (though not unproblematic, as I’ll mention in a second), but it wasn’t quite the same as being “right there” in the meat space of that room in Cambridge. Much of it was some of the wonkiness of the technology, and the split between focusing in on Lessig and on his slides.  If I was directing the shoot, I’d say keep the camera on his slides, but of course you do want to actually see the guy too.But beyond that, it was both a live but disembodied and not quite as vivid viewing experience I had quite frankly never experienced before.  it wasn’t quite being there, but it was more interactive than just watching it on TV or watching a recording.  I’ve never gambled in the “sports book” section of a casino or at an off-track betting site, but I suspect that’s a similar kind of viewing and interaction experience.
  • It was a pretty darn good speech, but it wasn’t his greatest.  He started off with a discussion of cigarettes, cell phones, wifi, and cancer, particularly this GQ article, and the possibility that we may very well be in the place with cell phones and wifi right now that we were in back in the late 50s/early 60s with cigarettes, a place where people didn’t realize the dangers.  Compelling, but he just kind of drops it after he brings it up.  And really, as I think was clear in his speech where he basically interrupts it with a fairly long section about the importance of fixing the things wrong with Congress, I don’t think Lessig’s heart is completely there with the issue of copyright reform.  He said as much a few years ago, that he was more or less “done” with this copyright stuff and he was now moving on to institutional corruption generally and fixing Congress in particular.In a way, Lessig is a victim of his success, not unlike a whole bunch of writers and artists, notably musical acts like the Rolling Stones, Ringo and Paul McCartney, the Who, and Led Zeppelin.  The Rolling Stones and the Who (well, the two remaining ones) are still out there performing, but are they even bothering to write and record new albums?  Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney are still coming out with new material, but honestly, does anyone care about hearing them do anything other than the music that made them famous in their 20s?  This is apparently why Robert Plant has refused to reunite with John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page to restart Led Zeppelin:  no one would care about anything new they do, so what’s the point?So while Lessig did his copyright and remix spiel and he patiently and carefully answered questions asked from around the world for a good 45 minutes after he talked for almost 45 minutes, I don’t think his heart was really in it.  Until the last question, actually:  someone asked something along the lines of “what is blowing your mind right now.”  Lessig lit up and spoke enthusiastically about his concern about the recent Supreme Court case for Citizens United and also for his Fix Congress First work.
  • There are some conflicts and inconsistencies with Lessig’s call for open computing and remix culture that I guess I kind of knew about before but which I thought were really visible Thursday.  Remix culture is important and ought to be fostered in all kinds of ways– by the way, I stumbled across this cool book/project that’s available as a book and as a downloadable PDF, Remix:  Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy. But as Derek and one of my grad students talked about after this at The Corner, the examples of remix “art” and “culture” are always a little thin.  The example Lessig had in his talk was of a series of live “remixes” of sorts of someone’s effort to remix a Breakfast Club mashup. I was reminded of the remix after remix of the Hitler meme.  This is all interesting and such, but… well, how much of it is “art?”  Remixing is a valuable and useful creative activity, especially for amateurs and fans and academics (I am all three at times), but it’s not quite the same as “creativity” or “art” exactly, is it?And as for Apple:  on the one hand, I completely agree with all the critiques about their rigid controls over devices via the Apple Store, about their secrecy, their reluctance to “open it up” even a little, etc.  On the other hand, I think every person they showed in the crowd at Cambridge (including Lessig) had an Apple laptop of some flavor, and Lessig himself confessed his love of all devices Apple.  Me too, and at least two of the reasons why I am such an Apple devotee is the integrated “look and feel” of nearly every piece of software and hardware, and the fact that Apple stuff “just works.”  There might be better phones than the iPhone out there, but since I have an Apple computer and all I need to do to get the iPhone to work on it is plug it in, why would I possibly bother experimenting with anything else?But of course, this beautiful integration, simplicity, and reliability of the software and hardware is a result of a closed system.  Proprietary-based Windoze inconsistencies between software and hardware are bad enough; open source/”free” software for these systems are often a hit and miss proposition.  Sure, you can get it to work and you can feel virtuous and smug about running all open source software on the PC you cobbled together with parts you salvaged, but that’s a pain in the ass.  It’s a heck of a lot easier and more elegant (albeit more expensive) to embrace the warm and glowing Apple logo.
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