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TED2014

Lawrence Lessig: The unstoppable walk to political reform

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Seven years ago, Internet activist Aaron Swartz convinced Lawrence Lessig to take up the fight for political reform. A year after Swartz's tragic death, Lessig continues his campaign to free US politics from the stranglehold of corruption. In this fiery, deeply personal talk, he calls for all citizens to engage, and offers a heartfelt reminder to never give up hope.

- Legal activist
Lawrence Lessig has already transformed intellectual-property law with his Creative Commons innovation. Now he's focused on an even bigger problem: The US' broken political system. Full bio

So a chip, a poet and a boy.
00:13
It's just about 20 years ago,
00:18
June 1994, when Intel announced
00:20
that there was a flaw
00:23
at the core of their Pentium chip.
00:26
Deep in the code of the SRT algorithm
00:28
to calculate intermediate quotients necessary
00:31
for iterative floating points of divisions --
00:33
I don't know what that means, but
it's what it says on Wikipedia —
00:35
there was a flaw and an error
00:38
that meant that there was a certain probability
00:41
that the result of the calculation would be an error,
00:43
and the probability was one out of every
00:46
360 billion calculations.
00:49
So Intel said your average spreadsheet
00:52
would be flawed once every 27,000 years.
00:54
They didn't think it was significant,
00:59
but there was an outrage in the community.
01:00
The community, the techies, said, this flaw
01:03
has to be addressed.
01:05
They were not going to stand by quietly
01:07
as Intel gave them these chips.
01:09
So there was a revolution across the world.
01:11
People marched to demand --
01:13
okay, not really exactly like that —
01:16
but they rose up and they demanded
01:18
that Intel fix the flaw.
01:20
And Intel set aside 475 million dollars
01:23
to fund the replacement of millions of chips
01:29
to fix the flaw.
01:32
So billions of dollars in our society
01:33
was spent to address a problem
01:35
which would come once out of every 360 billion
01:37
calculations.
01:41
Number two, a poet.
01:43
This is Martin Niemöller.
01:46
You're familiar with his poetry.
01:48
Around the height of the Nazi period,
01:50
he started repeating the verse,
01:51
"First they came for the communists,
01:54
and I did nothing,
01:55
did not speak out because I was not a communist.
01:57
Then they came for the socialists.
01:59
Then they came for the trade unions.
02:00
Then they came for the Jews.
02:02
And then they came for me.
02:03
But there was no one left to speak for me."
02:06
Now, Niemöller is offering a certain kind of insight.
02:11
This is an insight at the core of intelligence.
02:14
We could call it cluefulness.
02:17
It's a certain kind of test:
02:20
Can you recognize
02:23
an underlying threat and respond?
02:25
Can you save yourself or save your kind?
02:27
Turns out ants are pretty good at this.
02:31
Cows, not so much.
02:32
So can you see the pattern?
02:34
Can you see a pattern and then recognize
02:37
and do something about it? Number two.
02:39
Number three, a boy.
02:43
This is my friend Aaron Swartz.
02:45
He's Tim's friend.
02:47
He's friends of many of you in this audience,
02:49
and seven years ago,
02:51
Aaron came to me with a question.
02:52
It was just before I was going
to give my first TED Talk.
02:55
I was so proud. I was telling him about my talk,
02:58
"Laws that choke creativity."
03:00
And Aaron looked at me
03:03
and was a little impatient, and he said,
03:04
"So how are you ever
03:06
going to solve the problems you're talking about?
03:10
Copyright policy, Internet policy,
03:12
how are you ever going to address those problems
03:14
so long as there's this fundamental corruption
03:17
in the way our government works?"
03:21
So I was a little put off by this.
03:24
He wasn't sharing in my celebration.
03:26
And I said to him, "You know, Aaron,
03:28
it's not my field, not my field."
03:29
He said, "You mean as an
academic, it's not your field?"
03:32
I said, "Yeah, as an academic, it's not my field."
03:35
He said, "What about as a citizen?
03:38
As a citizen."
03:41
Now, this is the way Aaron was.
03:44
He didn't tell. He asked questions.
03:46
But his questions spoke as clearly
03:51
as my four-year-old's hug.
03:53
He was saying to me,
03:55
"You've got to get a clue.
03:57
You have got to get a clue, because there is
03:59
a flaw at the core of the operating system
04:00
of this democracy,
04:04
and it's not a flaw every one out of 360 billion times
04:05
our democracy tries to make a decision.
04:09
It is every time,
04:11
every single important issue.
04:13
We've got to end the bovinity of this political society.
04:15
We've got to adopt, it turns out,
04:20
the word is fourmi-formatic attitude --
04:21
that's what the Internet tells me the word is --
04:24
the ant's appreciative attitude
04:26
that gets us to recognize this flaw,
04:28
save our kind and save our demos.
04:31
Now if you know Aaron Swartz,
04:37
you know that we lost him
04:38
just over a year ago.
04:42
It was about six weeks
04:44
before I gave my TED Talk,
04:46
and I was so grateful to Chris
04:47
that he asked me to give this TED Talk,
04:49
not because I had the chance to talk to you,
04:51
although that was great,
04:53
but because it pulled me out
of an extraordinary depression.
04:55
I couldn't begin to describe the sadness.
04:59
Because I had to focus.
05:03
I had to focus on, what was I going to say to you?
05:04
It saved me.
05:09
But after the buzz, the excitement,
05:11
the power that comes from this community,
05:13
I began to yearn for a less sterile,
05:17
less academic way to address these issues,
05:20
the issues that I was talking about.
05:22
We'd begun to focus on New Hampshire
05:26
as a target for this political movement,
05:28
because the primary in New Hampshire
05:31
is so incredibly important.
05:33
It was a group called the New Hampshire Rebellion
05:35
that was beginning to talk about, how would we make
05:38
this issue of this corruption central in 2016?
05:40
But it was another soul that caught my imagination,
05:43
a woman named Doris Haddock, aka Granny D.
05:47
On January 1, 1999, 15 years ago,
05:52
at the age of 88, Granny D started a walk.
05:55
She started in Los Angeles
06:00
and began to walk to Washington, D.C.
06:04
with a single sign on her chest that said,
06:06
"campaign finance reform."
06:09
Eighteen months later,
06:12
at the age of 90,
06:15
she arrived in Washington
with hundreds following her,
06:16
including many congressmen
who had gotten in a car
06:19
and driven out about a mile outside of the city
06:21
to walk in with her.
06:24
(Laughter)
06:26
Now, I don't have 13 months
06:28
to walk across the country.
06:31
I've got three kids who hate to walk,
06:33
and a wife who, it turns out,
06:36
still hates when I'm not there
06:37
for mysterious reasons,
06:39
so this was not an option,
06:40
but the question I asked,
06:41
could we remix Granny D a bit?
06:43
What about a walk not of 3,200 miles
06:45
but of 185 miles across New Hampshire
06:47
in January?
06:51
So on January 11,
06:55
the anniversary of Aaron's death,
06:57
we began a walk that ended on January 24th,
07:00
the day that Granny D was born.
07:04
A total of 200 people joined us across this walk,
07:08
as we went from the very top to the
very bottom of New Hampshire
07:13
talking about this issue.
07:16
And what was astonishing to me,
07:19
something I completely did not expect to find,
07:20
was the passion and anger
07:23
that there was among everyone
that we talked to about this issue.
07:26
We had found in a poll that 96 percent of Americans
07:31
believe it important to reduce the influence
07:36
of money in politics.
07:38
Now politicians and pundits tell you,
07:40
there's nothing we can do about this issue,
07:42
Americans don't care about it,
07:44
but the reason for that is
07:45
that 91 percent of Americans
07:48
think there's nothing that can
be done about this issue.
07:50
And it's this gap between 96 and 91
07:54
that explains our politics of resignation.
07:57
I mean, after all, at least 96 percent of us
07:59
wish we could fly like Superman,
08:01
but because at least 91 percent
of us believe we can't,
08:03
we don't leap off of tall buildings every time
08:06
we have that urge.
08:09
That's because we accept our limits,
08:10
and so too with this reform.
08:12
But when you give people the sense of hope,
08:15
you begin to thaw that
absolute sense of impossibility.
08:19
As Harvey Milk said, if you give 'em hope,
08:26
you give 'em a chance, a way to think
08:30
about how this change is possible.
08:33
Hope.
08:35
And hope is the one thing that we, Aaron's friends,
08:37
failed him with, because we let him
08:41
lose that sense of hope.
08:44
I loved that boy like I love my son.
08:50
But we failed him.
08:58
And I love my country,
09:02
and I'm not going to fail that.
09:05
I'm not going to fail that.
09:08
That sense of hope, we're going to hold,
09:09
and we're going to fight for,
09:13
however impossible this battle looks.
09:14
What's next?
09:19
Well, we started with this march with 200 people,
09:20
and next year, there will be 1,000
09:23
on different routes
09:27
that march in the month of January
09:28
and meet in Concord to celebrate this cause,
09:31
and then in 2016, before the primary,
09:35
there will be 10,000 who march across that state,
09:37
meeting in Concord to celebrate this cause.
09:40
And as we have marched, people around the country
09:43
have begun to say, "Can we do the same thing
09:46
in our state?"
09:48
So we've started a platform called G.D. Walkers,
09:49
that is, Granny D walkers,
09:51
and Granny D walkers across the country
09:53
will be marching for this reform. Number one.
09:55
Number two, on this march,
09:58
one of the founders of Thunderclap, David Cascino,
10:01
was with us,
10:04
and he said, "Well what can we do?"
10:05
And so they developed a platform,
10:07
which we are announcing today,
10:09
that allows us to pull together voters
10:11
who are committed to this idea of reform.
10:14
Regardless of where you are,
10:16
in New Hampshire or outside of New Hampshire,
10:18
you can sign up and directly be informed
10:20
where the candidates are on this issue
10:22
so you can decide who to vote for
10:25
as a function of which is going
10:27
to make this possibility real.
10:30
And then finally number three, the hardest.
10:34
We're in the age of the Super PAC.
10:38
Indeed yesterday, Merriam announced
10:40
that Merriam-Webster will have Super PAC as a word.
10:42
It is now an official word in the dictionary.
10:46
So on May 1, aka May Day,
10:50
we're going to try an experiment.
10:55
We're going to try a launching
10:58
of what we can think of as a Super PAC
11:00
to end all Super PACs.
11:02
And the basic way this works is this.
11:06
For the last year, we have been working
11:07
with analysts and political experts
11:09
to calculate, how much would it cost
11:13
to win enough votes in the United States Congress
11:16
to make fundamental reform possible?
11:19
What is that number? Half a billion? A billion?
11:20
What is that number?
11:23
And then whatever that number is,
11:25
we are going to kickstart, sort of,
11:28
because you can't use KickStarter for political work,
11:30
but anyway, kickstart, sort of,
11:32
first a bottom-up campaign
11:35
where people will make small dollar commitments
11:37
contingent on reaching very ambitious goals,
11:40
and when those goals have been reached,
11:43
we will turn to the large dollar contributors,
11:45
to get them to contribute to make it possible
11:49
for us to run the kind of Super PAC necessary
11:52
to win this issue,
11:56
to change the way money influences politics,
11:57
so that on November 8,
12:00
which I discovered yesterday is the day
12:04
that Aaron would have been 30 years old,
12:06
on November 8,
12:10
we will celebrate 218 representatives
12:13
in the House and 60 Senators
12:16
in the United States Senate
12:18
who have committed to this idea
12:20
of fundamental reform.
12:23
So last night, we heard about wishes.
12:25
Here's my wish.
12:28
May one.
12:30
May the ideals of one boy
12:34
unite one nation behind one critical idea
12:37
that we are one people,
12:41
we are the people who were promised a government,
12:44
a government that was promised to be
12:47
dependent upon the people alone, the people,
12:50
who, as Madison told us,
12:54
meant not the rich more than the poor.
12:57
May one.
13:01
And then may you, may you join this movement,
13:03
not because you're a politician,
13:07
not because you're an expert,
13:09
not because this is your field,
13:11
but because if you are,
13:14
you are a citizen.
13:16
Aaron asked me that.
13:19
Now I've asked you.
13:22
Thank you very much.
13:25
(Applause)
13:27

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About the Speaker:

Lawrence Lessig - Legal activist
Lawrence Lessig has already transformed intellectual-property law with his Creative Commons innovation. Now he's focused on an even bigger problem: The US' broken political system.

Why you should listen

Lawyer and activist Lawrence Lessig spent a decade arguing for sensible intellectual property law, updated for the digital age. He was a founding board member of Creative Commons, an organization that builds better copyright practices through principles established first by the open-source software community.

In 2007, just after his last TED Talk, Lessig announced he was leaving the field of IP and Internet policy, and moving on to a more fundamental problem that blocks all types of sensible policy -- the corrupting influence of money in American politics.

In 2011, Lessig founded Rootstrikers, an organization dedicated to changing the influence of money in Congress. In his latest book, Republic, Lost, he shows just how far the U.S. has spun off course -- and how citizens can regain control. As The New York Times wrote about him, “Mr. Lessig’s vision is at once profoundly pessimistic -- the integrity of the nation is collapsing under the best of intentions --and deeply optimistic. Simple legislative surgery, he says, can put the nation back on the path to greatness.”

Read an excerpt of Lessig's new book, Lesterland >>

More profile about the speaker
Lawrence Lessig | Speaker | TED.com