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"Why the Hell Did We Do That to Ourselves?"
Scott Lucas | Photo: Jonathan Sprague | May 3, 2013
Computer scientist and writer Jaron Lanier on why he thinks our digital economy is screwed—and how he proposes to fix it.
Jaron Lanier, the father of virtual reality, has become Silicon Valley's ranking internal affairs cop. In a series of writings—including his 2006 essay "Digital Maoism" and his 2010 book You Are Not A Gadget—he has delved deeply into what he believes has gone wrong with the technology that underpins the modern economy, and how to fix it. His latest book, Who Owns The Future?, released May 7th, is about how the information economy has decimated the middle class—and how to re-engineer it. He will be talking about the book at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center on May 16th, and City Lights Books on May 21st. He recently spoke to Scott Lucas about the financial collapse, two-way links, a new middle class, and the specter of revolution.
It seems like between this book and Evgeny Morozov's To Save Everything Click Here, there's been an explosion in these kinds of book that try to critique the way technology affects our society. Do you consider yourself part of that counteroffensive?
When I started writing about digital culture and economics it was well over a decade ago, maybe longer. It was pretty lonely. I wrote One Half of A Manifesto and Digital Maoism at a time when there wasn’t a literature of criticism yet. Now there’s a whole genre—one that I don’t feel like I’m part of. I’m a practitioner first and foremost. I only criticize to figure out how to improve. A lot of people, who only want to read about negativity, can feel betrayed. They think I’m becoming one of those techie idealists again. But I’ve always been one. That’s the whole point.
The central villain in your story is not really any person or corporation. It's a piece of technology you call a Siren Server. What is that?
A siren server is the biggest and best computer on a network. Whoever has the most powerful computer would be the most powerful person, whether they plan to be or not. That’s the weird thing. I’ll give you a great San Francisco example—Craigslist. Craig is a genuinely sweet guy. He could easily have been bigger than ebay, but instead decided to go this modest route. But even so, they’re still destroying newspaper revenues and harming local journalism. I called it a siren server because there’s no plan to be evil. A siren server seduces you. The most damaging ones are the ones to do with money. So when you cross the siren server with finance, you get the meltdown of the market, too big to fail, austerity, and the jobless recoveries. These things are really not sustainable if you are going to have capitalism as your organizing principle. They give all wealth and influence to whoever has the biggest computer on the financial network.
It seems natural to extend these concerns to something like Facebook.
There’s some very good things about Facebook. I’m not down on everything. People are exposed to diversity. If monetized, that diversity could turn into an online middle class, which is why I think it’s such a crime it goes un-monetized. If you de-monetize information you’re destroying the middle class, and democracy with it. So that’s the big argument. Right now, Facebook knows more about you than you know about it or other people. It’s an out of balance system.
In the book, you say that, “spying on you is the official primary business of the information economy.” I thought that was a good way to summarize the problem.
This problem to me is a long-term bad thing for the Bay Area in particular. I really want my compatriots in Silicon Valley to succeed. But [companies like] Google and Facebook have this stupid idea that the only thing we can do online is spy on people. Ten years down the road, we are going to ask ourselves, why the hell did we do that to ourselves?
Alright, so if spying is the problem, what is to be done about it—short of detonating the existing business models of Facebook and Google?
I’m building on the very first idea for a network. The original idea was that whenever you do something online, you’re probably going to be referencing something that other people have done. Instead of the old copyright system, which so many people online hate, or the current model of anonymity, there would be direct link attribution. There’d always be two-way links. If you use somebody else’s data, there’d always be a link back, so you could know if your data was being used. Then that would mean that micro-payments could easily be computed. So you could go around to people who had contributed value to the network. As things get more and more automated—as robots drive the cars, mine the minerals, manufacture the goods, or print them out or whatever—the information economy would become more and more central to the economy as a whole, and people could contribute to the information economy and be recognized, and the middle class could still exist. That was the original idea. I’m not inventing something whole cloth.
I think we're used to hearing about the decimation of the music industry. How would this proposed system work in that domain?
Whenever somebody used your music, like in a video, you’d get some pennies. You’d be also able to set your own price. You’d be a full participant in the marketplace, you wouldn’t be a pawn. Each artist would have to figure out their own pricing strategy. That would be real, instead of fake, capitalism. I think it would serve the music business much better. People who are young and didn’t experience it don’t realize how good it used to be. I was on a major label at one point.
I heard you opened for Dylan?
One time, one time. It was at the Montreux Jazz Festival in the 90s. Yeah. One time.
Yeah, yeah. It wasn’t like I was on tour with him or anything. I don’t know why people care about it, actually.
One issue in which your work is well known is online anonymity. What’s so bad about it?
There’s nothing wrong with anonymity per se. The problem is forced costs of non-anonymity. If you have an environment where everyone is anonymous, youtube comments or 4chan, what happens is that there’s a race to the bottom where anyone who chooses to make themselves not anonymous is vulnerable. That environment brings out the inner troll. One the other hand, a place like Facebook forces people to be too literally themselves. If Bob Dylan had been on Facebook he would have always been known as Zimmerman. So the extremes are both wrong in their own ways. What I’m trying to do is find a middle course. To me, the way to do that is economic—make it cost money to find out who somebody is. Prohibitions don’t work.
In many ways, this book sums up both the perils and potentials of the Bay Area's information economy.
Can I just say something about the Bay Area? In a way, the Gold Rush symbolizes what we are doing now with the Internet. We have a lot of people living on hope. It’s not sustainable. But the interesting thing, historically, is that after the Gold Rush, the Bay Area became a center of the left, up through to the present day. We have the most purified examples of libertarianism in the Bay Area, and of the left. I think that the path to sustainability is more moderate than either of those, and that’s what I’m trying to find. The future is found at the midway point between Palo Alto and Berkeley. It’s somewhere in the Bay.