e-G8 – Lawrence Lessig: ‘Outsider Innovation Threatens the Incumbent’

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School, was the featured speaker at “Plenary V: Fostering Innovation: How to Build the Future.” The video below was uploaded to YouTube by eg8 on May 25, 2011. The focus of this panel was entrepreneurship, but Lessig’s talk has tremendous implications for educators if we substitute “schools” for “modern democratic government.” In this altered scenario, the counterparts for “incumbents,” or “special interests,” the movers and shakers in the private sector, are the tradition-bound schools. In both cases, the environment is unfriendly to “outsider innovation.”

Lessig’s presentation begins at the 2:05 mark and ends at 12:30.

Lessig points to Netscape, Hotmail, ICQ, Google, Napster, Youtube, Skype, Facebook, and Twitter and asks, “What unites all of these innovations?” His answer is a wake-up call: “They were all done by kids, dropouts, and non-Americans. Outsiders.” Lessig explains that “the internet is … a platform… an architecture with consequences.” One of the consequences is that it invites outsider innovations. The problem is that outsider innovations threaten the incumbent, e.g., “Skype threatens telephone companies. Youtube threatens television companies.”

Lawrence Lessig at e-G8

In response to this threat, special interests lean on their governments to set policies that protect incumbents from outsider innovations. And the consequences are disastrous when governments accede. Lessig cites U.S. broadband policy as an example. From first in the world in terms of distribution, it’s now 18th to 28th, depending on the reports that you read.

Lessig reminds us that the incumbent’s objective is profit and that the government’s is the public good. For the sake of innovation for the public good, he says that minimalism is the best policy for government intervention. Key terms in this minimalist doctrine are “open and free access” and “neutral networks.”

2 Responses

  1. Well, Lessig pushes the facts just a bit. Facebook was done by a student who ended up dropping out. Microsoft was too and is not an Internet business.

    Nevertheless, he has a point. The mentality of those who do innovations tends to be the “outsider” mentality, the person who distrusts authority and resists regimentation.

    The Internet has opened up the opportunity for such people on a more worldwide basis and so we see more non-Americans. Kids, at least those in reasonably well-off households, have more time to experiment with ideas and have not the demands of making a “living” or raising a family. Younger people are more likely to challenge our preconceptions as well.

    You won’t find many innovations from high school dropouts, and most, if not all, innovators who drop out of college do so after getting the innovative idea and beginning to pursue it. Suddenly, they discover that pursuing a dream is more fun than taking classes and may be more rewarding in other ways. So, I don’t buy the dropout theory.

    The second part of the discussion makes an excellent point as well. The biggest and most powerful organizations can spend enough to influence our government. Even delaying action can help them immensely. The biggest companies have a structure that rewards stasis and discourages innovation. So, innovation comes from outside of them and threatens them. But, change is accelerating and raising the threat level further than ever before. Someone like Steve Jobs understands (at least in recent years) how to ride this wave of change, but most corporate CEOs view it as a tsunami to build walls against.

    While the government’s policy should be the public good, it’s never that simple. Also, minimalism tends to benefit the status quo as it allows the powerful to control things. Would you prefer that we not inspect food preparation facilities and so have more e. coli out\breaks? A government that allows “free and open” Internet would be allowing those who have the power to control the Internet free reign to control it for their own profit. We the people lose.

    I contend that the government must intervene to ensure free and open access and neutral networks. Without government action, the Internet becomes a soft of “wild West” where those with the most power take as much as they can from the rest of us. Of course, government can be manipulated to help the powerful suppress the weak. That’s where we have to hold them accountable and not be fooled by propaganda coming from companies or politicians. It’s our duty as citizens to THINK.

    That important bottom line is why I was so surprised by Rupert Murdoch’s comment that our education system must teach our students to think. Too many people believe that big corporations simply wish that our schools would produce robot graduates for them to exploit and some may. But, they have to have thinkers to hire to keep them competitive in the world. I believe that Murdoch recognizes that fact and seeks to make hay at the same time.

    I think that Lessig misses the critical issue on both points. Innovations are made by thinkers, many of whom happen to be those turned off by traditional schooling. The transistor was not created by a dropout, non-American, or kid but by some real thinkers. BTW, thinkers do not necessarily think correct thoughts.

    Government intervention is required to avoid chaos, but it must intervene properly to avoid oppression. Government minimalism fails to promote the public good by abdicating responsibility to do so.

  2. @ Jim: Lessig uploaded a better version of his address (with his slides + his audio) in youtube.com/watch?v=C1Pz5bTHy7k and http://vimeo.com/24239427. This version was in turn subtitled (and hence transcribed) in English, Czech, Italian, Ukrainian (Portuguese on the way) in universalsubtitles.org/en/videos/C6wmjKWrZwlP.

    @Harry: Lessig provocatively advocates minimalism in government intervention only because most governments – and the US and French governments in particular – have so far given in to the pressures of the industry.
    But it’s an ironic provocation: of course he’d be in favor of governments taking measures to “ensure free and open access and neutral networks”: see his “Ecologies of creativity” keynote at WIPO, .universalsubtitles.org/fr/videos/jK6BvOBKMiuR (with English and French ST and transcripts), where he pleads for WIPO – a governmental agency of the UN – to institute a “Blue Skies” commission that would completeley overhaul the Bern Convention on Copyright to adapt it to a digital world where every viewing produces a copy.

    I also think that Lessig is well aware that innovations are made by thinkers. Again, his list of creative drop-outs is a provocation, this time against pow-wows like the e-g8, which only gathers “arrived people” and don’t give a pew to people who are presently innovating. This frustration seems to have been shared by people who tweeted about the e-g8, from the tweets gathered by Roberta Ranzani in The future was not invited in Paris.

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