May 22, 2005 · Lessig
My son has an imagination. At 20 months, he spent an hour playing a game in which his stuffed boxer (as in the dog) played with his plastic spider. The spider would ride the dog. The dog would sniff the spider. And all the time my son was split with laughter. (more in the extended entry below)
I don’t know whether he was supposed to have this sort of imagination before 20 months, or after. I don’t care. It’s the weird thing about watching a kid grow up that each new capacity is celebrated as if it had been in doubt. Of course, I had no doubt my kid would laugh at his dreams, as I had no doubt he would walk, or learn to say “daddy.” But the absence of doubt doesn’t make the experience any less extraordinary. Watching it happen is the amazing part. And hearing about it happening is pretty amazing as well.
Hearing about it, of course, is how I experienced it. My wife described it to me last week — me in Bulgaria, she about to go to bed in San Francisco, us talking as we increasingly do, on iChat. I didn’t see my kid enact his play with dog and spider because I’m on the road again, this time for just about a month — a month in which I will yearn for fast broadband in Australia, Germany, Bulgaria, Norway, and South Africa. A year ago I would have said I had no hobbies. Now my single hobby is making iSight movies — stringing together clips of images captured what iChatting, sometimes funny, sometimes beautiful just because of the pixilation.
I can’t adequately describe the depression of this sort of travel. I won’t pollute this blog by trying. Suffice it that I am away — as no doubt many are — way too much. In the last year and a half, I have spent 170 nights in a hotel; 300 thousand miles in the air. This year promises even more. Most of the travel is Creative Commons related, though a good deal is just me asked to speak to some conference, convention, or collection of souls.
This trip is fairly representative. I went to Australia to deliver an Alfred Deakin Lecture on Innovation. While there, I also spoke at a “Future Summit,” and met with some Creative Commons activists. In Berlin, I gave a public lecture at the German Bundeszentrale f�r politische Bildung. I was also able to meet with some young German academics, and academics wanna-bes, as well as with the iCommons staff (which lives in Berlin). Bulgaria was the launch of Creative Commons-Bulgaria — three lectures in one day, a day of meetings with the lawyers who had ported the licenses, and with the press that was trying to understand them. Norway is a lecture which I will comment on in another post, and then a few days in South Africa to launch CC-SA, at what promises to be an extraordinary conference (“Commons Sense” which is the title I wanted for the book that became “The Future of Ideas”). I was meant to go to India but the logistics of the trip became too difficult and expensive, so I’ll return on Memorial Day, after almost 29 days on the road straight.
I enjoy these lectures; I believe in the cause. If you’ve seen me talk, you know I’ve developed a particular style. I’m a teacher: it is a style designed to explain. I am just beginning to feel like it works; just beginning to feel that I’m explaining my ideas in a way any intelligent sort could understand. It has taken a very long time, and my mind is filled with memories of the worst examples of me trying to explain. They haunt me like broken promises. They push me to make myself understandable. Each speech builds on the last. Each is changed by what happened in the last.
I’m not great at this. My ideas are still too confused; my arguments are still incomplete; I recognize every time I speak where I’ve not been understood; there is literally one time in the last 5 years when I went to bed feeling that I had done really well.
Yet though I’m not great, as I get better , there are interesting, sometimes frustrating, effects. First, people can’t really believe I’ve prepared the lecture they hear just for them. This, for example, happened in Melbourne. I am wildly too thin-skinned, so I make it a rule never to Technorat what people say about my lectures. But someone who worried that I didn’t doubt myself enough sent me this link to a comment about my “rhetoric” and “stump speeches.” The writer, decently, and with balance and perspective, criticized my failure to prepare a special talk for the Deakin lectures.
It was in fact a liberating criticism. First, in fact, I always change my talks. I am obsessed with the fear of repeating a talk. I therefore spend an unbelievable amount of time reworking what I have done to make it make more sense, or more sense of an audience. That was true in Melbourne, as it has been true everywhere. Of course, there are chunks I remix — usually the parts that work best. But if you followed me around for months at a time, you’d be less bored than if you followed, say, John Edwards, and not because I’m a better speaker than John Edwards (I certainly am not).
But second, the criticism made me realize how absurd it is for me to feel this obligation to say something new or different at each event. My life has been filled with absurd rules I’ve imposed upon myself, which later I can’t begin to understand. This now strikes me as another example of such an absurd rule. It’s not as if I speak to crowds of 10,000 at a time. I don’t give lectures on national television. It’s not as if the message I’m trying to convey is the subject of national advertising campaigns, or political movements. And so I don’t know why my talks have to be more original each time than, say, a candidate for political office. I have a set of views I’m trying to persuade people of. Why must I do that in different words?
(The best example of this stupidity is the first talk I did that got translated to Flash!. This was a keynote I gave at OSCON in 2002. I had prepared it for OSCON. When Leonard Lin prepared this version of it, I told myself I could never give the talk again. And so I haven’t. Not because this presentation of this message was particularly good. Not because I couldn’t improve it. But just because I was haunted by this rule — don’t repeat a talk — the origin of which I can’t now fathom.)
Berlin also produced its own interesting criticism. One of the questioners — a friendly, and supportive questioner — criticized me for the “strength” of my rhetoric. While he appreciated how “understandable” I had made the arguments, and he regretted that professors in his own country seemed focused exclusively on making their points incomprehensible, he worried that I presented the argument too strongly. “Too persuasively.” It was “rhetoric” he suggested. A woman sitting next to a friend called it “propaganda.”
This is a fascinating criticism, because it wasn’t motivated by disagreement as much as by a difference in cultural style. Peter Baldwin, from UCLA, gave a talk responding to mine. His was perfect from the perspective of this style — advancing a point, but then insisting he didn’t necessarily believe the point he was advancing; never quite committing, yet conveying a great deal of truth on the way. I regretted not getting a chance directly to discuss this point in the question session that followed. No doubt the reaction was partly a function of me, and partly a function of the audience. I was extremely keen to understand the latter. One person I asked afterwards said, “We’ve been seduced by rhetoric once. We don’t trust it anymore.” That was an astonishing thought, but again, I can’t quite resolve whether it reflected well the reasons for the reaction. There is much more to learn here than I had time to reckon.
But my purpose in writing this particular missive is not to report on my travels. Nor is it to respond to critics. It is instead to resolve, here, in public, something important about commitments and value.
I want to do this less. I need to do it less. I want to know my boy through his hugs, and tears, not through the smiles he gives me on an iSight camera. I want to relieve my extraordinary wife from the burden of single-parent parenting. I want a week when I don’t remove my shoes for kindly folks called the TSA. I want more nights when I don’t struggle to decide whether to spend $5 to drink a bottle of water.
And so I am resolving to do this less. Less. Not never again, but less — if I just add up my commitments already made, my life will still be insanely busy. (In my OSCON speech, I said I was giving up giving lectures. That was a misstatement. What I meant was I was giving them up while I prepared for the argument in the Eldred case. I hadn’t at that point resolved to retire).
But now I have resolved that I need energy elsewhere. This movement is important and critical. And you can’t begin to imagine the reward in watching it flourish around the world — especially in places like Bulgaria. A wide range of extraordinary souls are succeeding in getting others to understand. That is something I never would have predicted five years ago, and it is reason for this to go on.
Yet it needs to go own with others. Or with less of me. Or at least, less of me in person. I’m happy to help that change occur. I am severely restricting the invitations I will accept, and I am in the process of wrapping every presentation I have made in a form that can be shared. I hope to put them all at the site, OurMedia, in a context in which anyone can do with it what he or she wants. Remix it. Replay it. Criticize it. Synchronize the slides with the audio (where I’ve been able to locate the audio.) Port it to Flash! Or to some free software equivalent. Copy the message; ridicule the message. Whatever. I’m quite sure people could do better with this than I have. I am asking that they do. Take it and make it better. Or take it and twist it to make it worse. Free culture needs both. And it needs me less.
This is exhaustion, no doubt. I responded to that at first by resolving to be stronger. Then it was homesickness, plain and simple. Something I’ve not known for 30 years. But whatever it is, or will become, we each must draw lines that respects those things most important. And I want more time to explore with my kid the many possible toys for a boxer.