Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Broken Government

A friend and former colleague directed me to a video of a talk that Lawrence Lessig gave to the spring SNW (Storage Networking World) 2010 conference. Lessig never appears in the video, which is basically a reproduction of the projected images that accompanied his talk as we hear it on the soundtrack. The summary on the Web page for this video is clearly Lessig's own text:

Talk given at SNW 2010 about three areas of policy -- broadband, cybersecurity, and copyright, and about the corruption of the process of policy making affecting each. A mix of my old concerns with one section of the new concerns.

The operative word in this summary is "corruption;" and, while the talk is replete with examples to justify such a strong word, what is most interesting is Lessig's attempt at diagnosis and the reasoning behind his conclusion. The word he uses is "dependency;" and, while my own preference has been for the noun "addiction" (particularly after HBO ran their extended series on the topic), the rhetoric with which he makes his case is strong enough that his milder word choice still has the same shock value.

Any discussion of addiction must begin by identifying the addictive substance, and this may be one reasons why Lessig decided not to apply this particular noun. The object of the dependency that is the focus of his attention is status quo thinking by which decisions are made by those in power, who are concerned more with staying in power than in the consequences of their decisions. He illustrates this as a vicious circle in which established interests pay lobbyists to influence lawmakers to secure the establishment of those interests, and one of his strongest points is that large sums of money flow around this circle regardless of electoral results. Within the framework of the consciousness industry, voters no longer signify. Voter behavior can be manipulated by both the interests themselves and the elected officials they manipulate. Dissent can be tolerated, because the consciousness industry dampens its amplitude to a level that cannot possibly make a different. This leads to Lessig's conclusion that the consequences of this vicious circle affect not only the three areas in his summary but also just about any other major issue, such as health care or the deteriorating environment.

It goes without saying that this is not a particularly pleasant talk. However, it has the combined virtues of clear logic and compelling rhetoric. Whether or not it has any effect can only depend on how individual viewers react to it.

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