“I want to thank our panelists for teeing up what will be a great day of debate,” said Emily Bell, the director of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Thursday morning as she concluded the opening session of the Guardian's Activate New York conference at the Paley Center for Media.
Bell may have been a little too positive. Despite an impressive roster of panelists—including MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, Frog Design’s Robert Fabricant, and Internet activist and Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig—the opening addresses and panel debate (“How do we create a better world through the networked world?”) yielded little more than extended elevator pitches and abstract celebrations of philanthropy.
In a series of rapid-fire Power Point slides (“so many transitions and animations my head is spinning,” one audience member said on Twitter), Lessig made the boldest—and most hackneyed—elevator pitch of the day so far. Pivoting between Henry Thoreau and Benjamin Franklin, Lessig called for U.S. citizens to “wage a war against fat cats” and reclaim democracy. “We have lost a democracy dependent on the people alone,” he said. “The question is whether technology can activate the people to get it back.”
But beyond pitching his website, Rootstrikers.com, as a place to crowdsource the fight against corruption in government, Lessig didn’t draw upon his celebrated career as writer and academic to actually explain how technology could help make that happen. Like the presenters who came before him—all of whom seemed to watch his Power Point prowess with envy—Lessig presented information largely familiar to those who could afford entry to the Guardian’s day-long summit. Or, in his case, largely familiar to anyone who has taken an American history course.