I watched Lawrence Lessig’s recent TED talk, in which he makes the argument about the corruption in the United States. I enjoyed it, because I love the ideas in the book. I’m not quite finished, but close. But the TED talk I found a little odd. Specifically, his introduction of this analogous place called Lesterland. So I quickly tweeted my thoughts (intelligent and coherent like all tweets:
I’m really enjoying Republic, Lost by @lessig but I find his #Lesterland analogy in his TED talk distracting.
— darcy w. christ (@1000camels) April 9, 2013
Well, Lessig responded asking why I thought this and although I quickly tried to respond (tripping over my embarrassment, since I have been a tremendous fan and have read all his books), I don’t think I did it justice.
What I didn’t like about Lesterland is that it is was a very thin analogy. It used some Simpson characters to portrait the Lesters, but from the first slide, we were looking at a map of the United States. Clearly Lesterland is the United States. So, I didn’t know why he was going to the effort to use this thinly draped analogy. In the Republic, Lost, Lessig spends most of the book countering the responses that people will have to the idea that Congress is corrupt. He is set on using this word, which is obviously loaded. He knows people will object to it, because corruption implies corrupt people. So he emphasizes another type of corruption: systematic corruption. And this is, ultimately, want he wants us to focus on, because it is what is preventing all of us from having a functioning government. Great ideas. Yet, somehow this word, corruption, which is so loaded, forces Lessig in his TED talk to try to find a gentler way to introduce the idea that money is unduly influencing governance.
The Lesterland analogy doesn’t do what Lessig had hoped. No one is fooled, so it just distracts. The substance of his lecture is there, but the whole part about Lesterland doesn’t advance the idea. He would be better off finding or creating an analogy which doesn’t so easily map to the United States, so that people will understand it and then make the connection. This is the power of analogies. You agree to something and then once you make the connection, you find yourself agreeing to an idea you might not easily have agreed to, given certain internal biases.
I wish I had a suggestion for him. Not that he really needs my help. Lawrence Lessig is far smarter than I will ever be. Yet, somehow I was disappointed that he used a trite and simply not very effective analogy to introduce such an important idea. Money, itself, plays this kind of systematic influence the world over. Many of us know this and believe it, but have trouble seeing it in ourselves. Admitting it would paralyze us and prevent us from ever believing we could make a change. We like the traditional idea of corruption because it points to bad actors. This has always been our issue with Good and Evil. It’s difficult to see such things as black and white when it touches our own behaviour.