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Home » How The Net Destroyed Democracy: Lawrence Lessig (Transcript)

How The Net Destroyed Democracy: Lawrence Lessig (Transcript)

Full text of political activist Lawrence Lessig’s talk: How The Net Destroyed Democracy at TEDxBerlinSalon conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Lawrence Lessig – Attorney, and political activist

So, I’ve spent most of my career as an apologist for the Internet, and the last 10 years of my career as a critic of governments, in particular, of the United States government.

And in the background of that apology and the background of that criticism, there has been a glorious group called ‘The people’ — never criticized by me, never questioned — never questioned that at the core of democracy, there was a well-functioning idea called ‘we – the People, if only we could speak.’

So today, I don’t want to apologize for the net anymore; I want to criticize it. And I don’t want to talk about the corruption of government, I want to ignore it. And I don’t want to praise ‘We- the people,’ I want to show you just how pathetic we have become, or at least how pathetic we are understood, because unless we find a way to recover a reason for democracy, there is no fight for democracy to be had.

So, I want to start with two things; we could call them thing one and thing two. Thing one, I want you to think about common knowledge; knowledge held by all of us. And thing two, I want you to think about common will.

So, common knowledge, things known generally within a people; everyone knows there was a wall in Berlin; everyone knows this is our President; everyone knows that most Americans don’t like that President. These are common knowledge, among Americans at least.

And then there’s common will; what we want or we believe. So, Gallup tells us that Americans believe the freedom in their life has contracted over the last decade; tells us that the confidence in the economy has grown; and just to remind you, it tells us that most Americans don’t like Donald Trump as our President. These are the elements of common will.

So, thing one, thing two. Thing one; things we know. Thing two; things we want. It’s good to get that order right. If you want things before you know, you get into trouble. So, we know before we want. Thing one versus thing two.

Now, what I want you to do is to think about thing one and thing two, and three different periods over the last 200 years.

So first the period of the 19th century, as I cleverly took iconic images from Berlin; but I’m not talking about Berlin, I want to talk about America, but iconic images from the 19th century in Berlin, 20th century in Berlin and the 21st century in Berlin. These images, to trigger recognition of different periods.

So, let’s start with the 19th century, and question thing one asks, ‘How did we know in the 19th century?’ Well, in the 19th century, people knew, or those who knew, knew through technologies like this… printed journals, newspapers, many many sources which would filter out to produce knowledge in a public, fragmented and diverse.

There’s no broadcasting in the 19th century; no real syndication, at least in the United States, in the 19th century, to the extent there is common knowledge — ‘common knowledge’ it is little and thin. There are certain facts everyone knows that there was a war called the Civil War, who the president is. But facts like, ‘whether the tariff should go up and down?’ those are not things that ordinary people knew.

But if you would ask the question, ‘What did ordinary people know? Or what did they want?’ the proper answer in the 19th century was, ‘Who the frac knows’ because there was no technology to know what people wanted; there was no polling; there were no surveys. People like James Bryce had mystical theories about how politicians came to know what the people wanted.

But in fact, it was more like a Catholic priest, or this is a Methodist priest but anyway, a priest telling us what God wants, never really believing we know what God actually wants, just the priests’ interpretation. That’s all we have.

And the consequence was that the will of the people was actually pretty irrelevant to most of what government does. If somebody had stood up and very earnestly said, ‘what does the public want?’ to a government official, the reaction would have been sort of minion like ‘ha-ha! Yes sure’ as if that could possibly matter.

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Policymaking, in the 19th century, was by policy making elites. So, we have a 19th century, knowledge, fragmented, what the people cared about basically unknown.

Then the 20th century. How do we know in the 20th century? Well, the 20th century has two extraordinary technologies we need to reckon and to think about.

First, a technology of broadcasting. For the first time, we have the capacity to speak to everybody at the same time. And broadcasting dramatically affects news, as leaders go to the radio to speak to the people for the first time. And it affects culture, generally, far beyond issues of policy. And this troubled many people in the history of culture.

1906, this man John Philip Sousa went to the United States Capitol to testify against the evil technology called ‘the talking machines.’ Sousa was not a fan of the talking machines. As he testified, these talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country.

When I was a boy, in front of every house, in the summer evenings, you would find young people together, singing the songs of the day, of the old songs. Today, you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left, Sousa threatens. The vocal cords will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tale of man when he came from the apes.

What Sousa feared here was that a certain technology; technology of broadcasting or the technology of music in record players would make a certain kind of culture, kind of couch potato culture, a passive receptive culture that would not engage in creation on its own but consume creation produced elsewhere; and that was the fear in politics too.

But an extraordinary technology that the birth of the 20th century nobody ever thought about, radically changed; that affected television. And as an extraordinary scholar from Princeton, Marcus Pryor has shown us through an incredible empirical analysis of political attitudes, as it relates to the technology of broadcasting, technology of television changed everything; not just because of the concentration, one or two channels that broadcast everything.

And indeed, there was an extraordinary concentration. Sir Agnew writes, “At least 40 million Americans every night watched the network news in 1969.” According to Harris Polls, in other studies, “For millions of Americans, the networks are the sole source of national and world news.” Even in 1977, news in this sense, ninety percent of people got their news from three television networks.

So, there’s an extraordinary concentration in the information people are exposed to. But more than the concentration, Pryor demonstrates, it’s also a certain kind of addiction. People can’t turn the television off. And not just in the 80s of the 90s, but in the 1950s, the television is turned on and just left on, in the United States, for those times of the day when the television is running always in the background and there’s a regular pattern to the day. And at part of the day, everybody is watching the news.

And what that does by putting the news through a channel that was inherently understandable to everybody was that we had a media that conveyed the news, so that ordinary as well as elite citizens understood it. For the first time, this wasn’t speaking just to an elite, in journals or newspapers that only the highbrow would consume, everybody consumed it.

And what that did was to produce an extraordinarily egalitarian exposure to politics, and in America, radically changed who voted, instead of just polarized extremes voting. What Pryor demonstrates is that ordinary Americans, who otherwise never were involved in politics, turned out and voted and shifted America fundamentally towards what you would not recognize as the left, but in America, we think of as the left.

More citizens were engaged, and in mainstream trusted sources, because of course the three news channels shot right down the middle and they created characters, like Walter Cronkite, who conveyed a sense of trust in the public that the public followed. It developed a common understanding. Common understanding, which was thick and great; a common set of facts, sensible judgments shared by millions of Americans.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to idolize what people believed at the time. There was an obliviousness about race, an obliviousness about poverty, an obliviousness about issues nobody even thought about, like sexual orientation; there was all sorts of ways the system was biased.

But my point is the architecture at least made it possible for a public to understand a common set of questions and issues, which they must themselves address politically. It made sense. A few sources concentrated everywhere. Okay, that’s the first big change in technology.

The second relates to thing two, because then you ask, ‘what is the public’s will?’ the other thing the 20th century did was to provide a huge change, as important as the change of broadcasting. And that change was really triggered by this extraordinary man, George Gallup.

Now Gallup, of course you know, is Gallup Polls, but Gallup began in 1936 as a figure in America. Because in 1936, there was an election. The second time, FDR was going to be elected. And when FDR ran for this his re-election, by this time, the elite in America was tired of this Democratic Socialist running the country.

So, the view of the elite was that he was going to be defeated. And what Literary Digest did every election, from Calvin Coolidge until FDR, was that they would send out millions of ballots to people, to ask them who they were going to vote for. And these millions of ballots would be sent back and they tallied them, and they would predict who was going to win.

In every election, until 1936, they were spot on within one or two points. So, they believed they had a system for polling down; it just was unfortunately very expensive because you had to send out millions and millions of ballots.

Well, George Gallup looked at this and he said, “Wait a minute. The views of people who owned automobiles or people who owned telephones, the views of the people who Literary Digest was reaching out to, don’t represent the country because they are rich people. and what I think we should do is, instead, randomly select people from the country and go out and talk to them; not millions, just a couple thousand.”

And so, whereas Literary Digest predicted Alf Landen would beat FDR at 57 percent to 42 percent, when Gallup was finished, he said, “Actually, I think it’s going to be FDR winning by 54 percent over Alf Landen.” And in fact, the results were FDR beat him by 61 percent.

But with that defeat, radical change in the technology of polling, and George Gallup was a star. And in a certain sense, he was the Martin Luther of democracy, right? Because he said, “We don’t have to talk to the priests; we can talk directly to the people. we can reach directly to the people, to know, in a practical way, what the people want.”

And indeed, James Bryce, who thought that there was a mystical way that we might be able to reach the people, envisioned in the 19th century, a final stage in the evolution of democracy would be reached if the will of the citizens were to become ascertainable at all times; and that’s precisely what George Gallup believed he was doing.

And he believed he was doing it in the name of supporting democracy. ‘For myself, I have no hesitation, Gallup wrote, in living in a country whose everyday citizens feel about major issues as the citizens of our country feel. If you say, “let the people rule,” you can count me on your side.’

Now, the technology was expensive, so there are relatively few polls early on. But through the course of the 20th centuries of rising importance, making, in a sense, a respectable public because the public, in a part because of what I described as thing one, was a public where we all knew we all had a common knowledge, upon which to base our judgments about public policy. we all judge in common.

And what that produced was sensible judgments that people like George Gallup could celebrate of a general public that understood and made sense. So, it’s 20th century, is a century of concentrated information, where the public’s view is known and increasingly respected.

Okay, what about the twenty-first century? Well, first, how do we know what’s… how do people come to know things in 21st century? It’s back to the future, because of course, broadcasting is finished. In the United States, the way we know things is through a billion sources, not three anymore, and the most important of those sources are social media sources, increasingly, completely uncontrolled by any form of editor.

Donald Trump did me the favor yesterday, of tweeting a relevant tweet. He wrote, ‘The fake and fraudulent news media is working hard to convince Republicans and others I should not use social media – but remember, I won using social media.’ Now, Mr. Trump, you didn’t win because of Twitter, you won because you got more votes than Europe. I’m sorry, forget that. Just forget the whole point.

But the point is, this form of expression is many sources hugely fragmented public, a diverse public, which of course is a great thing for cultural issues, Game of Thrones is something imaginable only in our time, not in the time of the 60s or 70s, when it would have to appeal to a much more mainstream audience.

And our friend, Sousa, would have loved the technology that enables this kind of diversity. But though it’s great for culture, it’s terrible for democracy because what this fragmentation means is that there’s no common story, no common facts, radical polarization in what we know and radical polarization in what we should do; and there’s no better proof of this than this man. you probably live in circles like I do, where people cannot understand how he’s not being called out by the umpires of our democracy; just pulled off the field for whatever reason.

How is it possible the man is still president? We wonder. Doesn’t everyone see how ridiculous this is? Yet, a poll last month found that of people who voted for Donald Trump, only 2% would not vote for him again. And in fact, more people who voted for Hillary Clinton would not vote for her again, if the election were held a month ago. That is because we’ve separated ourselves and we live in totally different worlds, and the reality we know is completely affected by the niche markets of those worlds.

So, you might say, ‘okay, so we, in a sense, have gone back to the 19th century, fragmented media once again.’ You might say, what’s so bad about that. But it’s not quite the 19th century because yes, of course we’re fragmented again, but in the 19th century, the will of the people was silenced; they didn’t even know what it was.

But for us today, because of the 20th century, there’s a normative will of the people; a public that remains. And if we think of this question of thing two, what is for us the public’s will, we still know what the public’s will is today. All the time, thousands of polls asking us what do we think, and these answers get used; they get used against us because they have a presumptively normative role, they’re relevant. But this will, that gets identified what we the people believe, is not informed by common facts. This will is ignorant. I don’t mean stupid; I mean ignorant.

A white guy, my age, from America, is likely to be able to tell you all sorts of things about this activity, I think it’s football, right? Likely to be able to tell you all sorts of things about who’s winning, what the stats are, blah-blah-blah. I don’t know any of this stuff.

I don’t know the first thing about that game. My dad used to make me watch it. I like to pretend ‘I liked it’ because I like to be with my dad, but I hate the game. But that’s not because I’m stupid, I’m just ignorant. I don’t know anything. I could learn a lot about this game. I could learn, I think, everything there is to know about telling you about this game but I don’t, because I don’t want to. I’m ignorant; I’m not stupid.

And so to with ‘us’ because for us, for most of us in a democracy, life is not politics; there are other things to life. And for most of us in liberal democracy, what we do is live with our tribe, people like us; we live with our friends. And those two facts mean, we don’t know a clue about most important issues, most of the time.

And if we do, we’re likely to be biased because we’re doing what our tribe says. We don’t know but we could know.

Now that’s bad enough but it gets even worse, because in this business model of media, in a fragmented media environment, which the United States is, the business model makes this problem even worse because the aim of the business is to polarize; the aim is to find a way to make people even hate each other more because that drives loyalty to the brand.

So, think of the problem of science, Dan Kahan from Yale and others have developed where they call ‘cultural cognition theory.’ And what this theory demonstrates massive empirical work is that how people view facts, not arguments about what’s good and bad, not values questions but facts, is a function of your tribe, who you are.

The same facts told to different tribes produce radically different understandings. Now that’s depressing. Yeah, what’s interesting about that is that’s only true with issues that have become polarized; issues on the right like climate change, where nobody on the right will admit that climate change is caused by humans; issues on the left, like GMO, where no person at the left will admit the GMOs could be safe to consume.

So, for example, climate change. At first, everybody agreed with climate change. In 2008, both McCain and Obama endorsed radical changes to deal with climate change. Then this extraordinary movie ‘An inconvenient truth’ came out and tied the issue to a very polarizing figure, a hero of mine but still a polarizing figure, Al Gore.

And after that was done, people on the right can’t hear arguments about climate changes anymore because it’s to identify them with Al Gore.

Now what’s interesting is, not all science is partisan like this. You can’t read this but basically what this shows is those graphs where the lines are diagonal are partisan aired questions, so climate change is the first.

But those graphs where the black lines are flat are not partisan, which means that whether you’re on the right of the left, you are basically going to believe the same thing for those questions of science. And here’s why this is really terrifying.

Because if the media’s business model is to polarize, what they’re doing is looking at those non-partisan scientific questions and finding ways to make them partisan. They have an interest, in a sense, in making us stupid, and that interest manifests itself most violently in this highly fragmented media environment. This is a problem. It is a problem for democracy.

As we get rendered ignorance, the push against democracy grows around the world. It’s a great book; terrible title but great book ‘Technocracy in America’ which asks, ‘what can we learn from these amazing countries, Singapore and Switzerland, which have highly functional governments?’

And the answer, as this author puts it, is that we should focus less on democracy and more on governance. Less in trying to get democracy writers work on making government work; that, of course, is the precursor to the authoritarianism we see spreading everywhere in the world.

My view is, the answer is not to reject democracy; the answer is to find a way for democracy to represent us better, to give up the idea that when we talk about ‘we’ as in ‘we – the people’ we’re talking about what we all happen to think now, and replace that idea with a conception of ‘we’ where what ‘we’ mean is what we think when we are informed and deliberated. I think, about talking to audiences that are not English-speaking audiences natively, as you can make up words like ‘The Liberator’ doesn’t completely made up word but you get the sense, right? The fact of having deliberated. Okay?

So, the public is deliberated, meaning they’ve had a chance to talk. Now, I’ve seen such publics; I’ve seen such a week; I’ve met them. They are extraordinary people. Here’s a picture of the one I saw most recently.

So, that picture comes from this place that’s Mongolia. The Mongolian Parliament, for mystical reasons, passed a law that said, ‘Whenever there’s a change to the Constitution, the government has to pick a random selection of 800 Mongolians from across Mongolia.’ Mongolia is the size of Western Europe, with the population of 3 million.

So, here is 800 randomly selected Mongolians representative, who traveled to the capital to sit in the parliament for two ten-hour days, to deliberate the proposed changes to the Constitution.

Now, I’m a law professor at Harvard. I am elitist, therefore, and I’m a pretty snobby law professor. Meaning, I pretty regularly condemn people when they start talking about constitutional laws; people who don’t know anything.

But I sat there through a translator, listening to what these ordinary people said and argued about for two days, as they deliberated these really important changes in the Constitution. And I was humbled by recognition that if you give people the information and you give them a sense that they are important and you give them a chance to talk, they are actually worth listening to; and that the conception of ‘We – the People’ that we get through the stupid press is not a conception that reflects who we can be if we structure who we are in our democratic process properly.

Now what they did is something called ‘a deliberative poll.’ And there have been scores of these done across the world. But what a deliberative pole is, represents ‘we’ as representative and informed and deliberated people, making judgments that are smart and balanced. It is a ‘we’ we can all be proud of. It is a ‘we’ to represent us.

The challenge here is, how do you scale such a project? And the truth is, the depressing truth is, the reason I don’t have a witty happy ending to my story is I have no idea; not even sure if it’s possible.

What I know is, we have to resist a media that works hard to make us seem stupid; a media that represents us as stupid. Yes, we don’t know everything always. Why would we? That’s not embarrassing. We live a life. We are humans. But we can, if a democracy learns how to listen to us, speak in a way that ought to be respected. And we have to find a way to recover that truth about us.

Because the alternative, the alternative that imagines us as a people who responds the way democracy engages us today. For example, again, thanks to my friend, Donald Trump, I have a great example here. He tweeted yesterday, ‘My use of social media is not Presidential – it’s Modern Day Presidential. Make America Great Again.’

If this is the way our democracy engages with us, this is not, just not great about America. It is hopeless about the future of democracy. We have to find a way to elevate the people again, because we are an extraordinary resource that makes democracy work.

Thank you very much.

Resources for Further Reading:

We Need to Reset Democracy: Max Rashbrooke (Full Transcript)

Facebook’s Role in Brexit & The Threat to Democracy: Carole Cadwalladr (Transcript)

Larry Lessig: Our Democracy No Longer Represents The People. Here’s How We Fix It at TEDxMidAtlantic (Transcript)

Plato, Democracy and Me: Ken Taylor at TEDxStanford (Full Transcript)


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