Lawrence Lessig Wraps Up ACRL 2015 in Portland

Making knowledge available

March 29, 2015

Lawrence Lessig
Author and Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig

Fifty sessions and kitchen table conversations filled the final morning of ACRL 2015 in Portland, Oregon, on March 28, capped by a keynote speech by author and Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig. Lessig is a founding member of Creative Commons as well as Rootstrikers, a network of activists leading the fight against government corruption.

Lessig spoke on three themes: the impact of a few big givers to political campaigns and how that corrupts the political process, net neutrality, and open access. He called all of these themes an “equality fight” that librarians should embrace as part of their profession.

Lessig compared the current political campaign fundraising and process to Boss William M. Tweed’s corrupt 1860s New York Democratic machine, when Tweed proclaimed, “I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating.” Lessig labeled this philosophy Tweedism, which allows a very small percentage of people to control elections because they control the nominations through political donations. As a result, regardless of the average voter’s preference on a issue, it appears to have a insignificant impact on public policy. “We no longer have the ability to steer the most basic functions of democracy,” Lessig said. “The way we fund campaigns in America violates the equality of its citizens.”

In regard to net neutrality, Lessig compared the internet to an electrical outlet. “It was designed to be simple, to be ‘dumb.’”

The internet was “created as the architecture of freedom, but could be flipped to become an architecture of control,” if net neutrality does not continue, he said.

Finally, he talked about open access, and his friendship with Aaron Swartz, internet activist and developer of Reddit, RSS, Creative Commons, and Rootstrikers, before he died in 2013. “What Aaron wanted was equal access to quality content,” Lessig said, recalling Swartz’s activism in giving away material from JSTOR. “If you’re a tenured professor at an elite university, then you have free access,” said Lessig. “These restrictions serve no copyright purpose.”

“It’s the moral obligation of scholars—of your profession—to make knowledge available the way the enlightenment promised: As openly, as broadly, as we can,” Lessig said.