Jaron Lanier is a computer science pioneer who has grown gradually disenchanted with the online world since his early days popularizing the idea of virtual reality. “Lanier is often described as ‘visionary,’ ” Jennifer Kahn wrote in a 2011 New Yorker profile, “a word that manages to convey both a capacity for mercurial insight and a lack of practical job skills.”
Raised mostly in Texas and New Mexico by bohemian parents who’d escaped anti-Semitic violence in Europe, he’s been a young disciple of Richard Feynman, an employee at Atari, a scholar at Columbia, a visiting artist at New York University, and a columnist for Discover magazine. He’s also a longtime composer and musician, and a collector of antique and archaic instruments, many of them Asian.
His book continues his war on digital utopianism and his assertion of humanist and individualistic values in a hive-mind world. But Lanier still sees potential in digital technology: He just wants it reoriented away from its main role so far, which involves “spying” on citizens, creating a winner-take-all society, eroding professions and, in exchange, throwing bonbons to the crowd.
This week sees the publication of “Who Owns the Future?,” which digs into technology, economics and culture in unconventional ways. (How is a pirated music file like a 21st century mortgage?) Lanier argues that there is little essential difference between Facebook and a digital trading company, or Amazon and an enormous bank. (“Stanford sometimes seems like one of the Silicon Valley companies.”)
Much of the book looks at the way Internet technology threatens to destroy the middle class by first eroding employment and job security, along with various “levees” that give the economic middle stability.
“Here’s a current example of the challenge we face,” he writes in the book’s prelude: “At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only 13 people. Where did all those jobs disappear? And what happened to the wealth that all those middle-class jobs created?”
“Future” also looks at the way the creative class – especially musicians, journalists and photographers — has borne the brunt of disruptive technology.
The new book – which has drawn a rave in the New York Times — has already received a serious challenge from Evgeny Morozov in the Washington Post. The Internet-skeptic author of “To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism” challenges Lanier’s proposed solution that regular people be rewarded in micropayments when their data enriches a digital network.
But more important than Lanier’s hopes for a cure is his diagnosis of the digital disease. Eccentric as it is, “Future” is one of the best skeptical books about the online world, alongside Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows,” Robert Levine’s “Free Ride” and Lanier’s own “You Are Not a Gadget.”
We spoke to the dreadlocked, Berkeley-based author from the road, where he’s on a massive book tour.
You talk early in “Who Owns the Future?” about Kodak — about thousand of jobs being destroyed, and Instagram picking up the slack — but with almost no jobs produced. So give us a sense of how that happens and what the result is. It seems like the seed of your book in a way.
Right. Well, I think what’s been happening is a shift from the formal to the informal economy for most people. So that’s to say if you use Instagram to show pictures to your friends and relatives, or whatever service it is, there are a couple of things that are still the same as they were in the times of Kodak. One is that the number of people who are contributing to the system to make it viable is probably the same. Instagram wouldn’t work if there weren’t many millions of people using it. And furthermore, many people kind of have to use social networks for them to be functional besides being valuable. People have to, there’s a constant tending that’s done on a volunteer basis so that people can find each other and whatnot.
So there’s still a lot of human effort, but the difference is that whereas before when people made contributions to the system that they used, they received formal benefits, which means not only salary but pensions and certain kinds of social safety nets. Now, instead, they receive benefits on an informal basis. And what an informal economy is like is the economy in a developing country slum. It’s reputation, it’s barter, it’s that kind of stuff.
So instead of somebody paying money to get their photo developed, and somebody getting a part of a job, a little fragment of a job, at least, and retirement and all the other things that we’re accustomed to, it works informally now, and intangibly.
Yeah, and I remember there was this fascination with the idea of the informal economy about 10 years ago. Stewart Brand was talking about how brilliant it is that people get by in slums on an informal economy. He’s a friend so I don’t want to rag on him too much. But he was talking about how wonderful it is to live in an informal economy and how beautiful trust is and all that.
And you know, that’s all kind of true when you’re young and if you’re not sick, but if you look at the infant mortality rate and the life expectancy and the education of the people who live in those slums, you really see what the benefit of the formal economy is if you’re a person in the West, in the developed world. And then meanwhile this loss, or this shift in the line from what’s formal to what’s informal, doesn’t mean that we’re abandoning what’s formal. I mean, if it was uniform, and we were all entering a socialist utopia or something, that would be one thing, but the formal benefits are accruing at this fantastic rate, at this global record rate to the people who own the biggest computer that’s connecting all the people.
So Kodak has 140,000 really good middle-class employees, and Instagram has 13 employees, period. You have this intense concentration of the formal benefits, and that winner-take-all feeling is not just for the people who are on the computers but also from the people who are using them. So there’s this tiny token number of people who will get by from using YouTube or Kickstarter, and everybody else lives on hope. There’s not a middle-class hump. It’s an all-or-nothing society.
Right, and also I think part of what you’re saying too is that it’s still in most ways a formal economy in that the person who lost his job at Kodak still has to pay rent with old-fashioned money he or she is no longer earning. He can’t pay his rent with cultural capital that’s replaced it.
Yeah, well, people will say you can find a place to crash. People who tour right now will find a couch to crash on. But, you know, this is the difference … I’m not saying that there aren’t ever benefits, like yeah, sometimes you can find a couch. But as I put it in the book, you have to sing for your supper for every meal. The informal way of getting by doesn’t tide you over when you’re sick and it doesn’t let you raise kids and it doesn’t let you grow old. It’s not biologically real.
Actually, can we stick with photography for a second? If we go back to the 19th century, photography was kind of born as a labor-saving device, although we don’t think of it that way. One of my favorite stories, which might be apocryphal — I can’t tell you for sure that this is so, although photographers traded this story for many years. But the way the piece of folklore goes is that during the Civil War era, and a little after, the very earliest photographers would go around with a collection of photographs of people who matched a certain archetype. So they would find the photograph that most closely matched your loved one and you’d buy that because at least there would be representation a little like the person, even if it was the wrong person. And that sounds just incredibly weird to us.
And then, you know, along a similar vein at that time early audio recordings, which today would sound horrible to us, were indistinguishable between real music to people who did double blind tests and whatnot. So the thing is, why not just paint the real person, because painting was really a lot of work. It takes a long time to paint a portrait. And you have to carry around all the paints and all that, and you could just create a stack of photos and sell them. So in the beginning photography was kind of a labor saving device. And whenever you have a technological advance that’s less hassle than the previous thing, there’s still a choice to make. And the choice is, do you still get paid for doing the thing that’s easier?
People often say, well, in Rochester, N.Y. — which is a town that kind of lived on the photography business — they had a buggy whip factory that closed down with the advent of the automobile. The thing is, it’s a lot easier to deal with a car than to deal with horses. I love horses, but you know, you have to feed them, and they poop a lot, and you have to deal with their hooves. It’s a whole thing. And so you could make the argument that a transition to cars should create a world where drivers don’t get paid, because, after all, it’s fun to drive. And it is. And they’re magical.
And so there could really easily be, somebody could easily have asserted that photography is so much easier than painting and driving cars is so much easier than horses that the people who do those things — or support it –shouldn’t be paid. Working in a nice environment — if you go to Sweden and you visit the Saab factory, it’s really nice. Why should you even be paid to do anything?
We kind of made a bargain, a social contract, in the 20th century that even if jobs were pleasant people could still get paid for them. Because otherwise we would have had a massive unemployment. And so to my mind, the right question to ask is, why are we abandoning that bargain that worked so well?
Right. Well, until about the year 2000 or so, some jobs had been destroyed by new technology. This goes back to the industrial revolution and earlier. But more jobs were created than those destroyed. So what changed?
Of course jobs become obsolete. But the only reason that new jobs were created was because there was a social contract in which a more pleasant, less boring job was still considered a job that you could be paid for. That’s the only reason it worked. If we decided that driving was such an easy thing [compared to] dealing with horses that no one should be paid for it, then there wouldn’t be all of those people being paid to be Teamsters or to drive cabs. It was a decision that it was OK to have jobs that weren’t terrible.
So it wasn’t inherent in the technology. In other words, there’s nothing inherently different about digital technology or the Internet than there is with factory technology or the assembly line or these other technological shifts that have developed?
Yeah. I mean, the whole idea of a job is entirely social construct. The United States was built on slave labor. Those people didn’t have jobs, they were just slaves. The idea of a job is that you can participate in a formal economy even if you’re not a baron. That there can be, that everybody can participate in the formal economy and the benefit of having everybody participate in the formal economy, there are annoyances with the formal economy because capitalism is really annoying sometimes.
But the benefits are really huge, which is you get a middle-class distribution of wealth and clout so the mass of people can outspend the top, and if you don’t have that you can’t really have democracy. Democracy is destabilized if there isn’t a broad distribution of wealth.
And then the other thing is that if you like market capitalism, if you’re an Ayn Rand person, you have to admit that markets can only function if there are customers and customers can only come if there’s a middle hump. So you have to have a broad distribution of wealth. So there’s no reason technically for any technology to ever create a job. In other words, we could have had motor vehicles, and we could have had film cameras, we could have had all these technologies without any formal jobs. We just had a social contract in which we decided that we’d allow formal jobs in factories and in drivers and in users of cameras and creators of cameras and film.
It was all a social construct to begin with, so what changed, to get to your question, is that at the turn of the [21st] century it was really Sergey Brin at Google who just had the thought of, well, if we give away all the information services, but we make money from advertising, we can make information free and still have capitalism. But the problem with that is it reneges on the social contract where people still participate in the formal economy. And it’s a kind of capitalism that’s totally self-defeating because it’s so narrow. It’s a winner-take-all capitalism that’s not sustaining.
Well, a lot of your book is about the survival of the middle class in the digital age, the importance of a broad middle class as we move forward. You argue that the middle class, unlike the rich and the poor, is not a natural class but was built and sustained through some kind of intervention. Has that changed in the last decade or two as the digital world has grown?
Well, there’s a lot of ways. I mean, one of the issues is that in a market society, a middle class has always required some little artificial help to keep going. There’s always academic tenure, or a taxi medallion, or a cosmetology license, or a pension. There’s often some kind of license or some kind of ratcheting scheme that allows people to keep their middle-class status.
In a raw kind of capitalism there tend to be unstable events that wipe away the middle and tend to separate people into rich and poor. So these mechanisms are undone by a particular kind of style that is called the digital open network.
Music is a great example where value is copied. And so once you have it, again it’s this winner-take-all thing where the people who really win are the people who run the biggest computers. And a few tokens, an incredibly tiny number of token people who will get very successful YouTube videos, and everybody else lives on hope or lives with their parents or something.
One of the things that really annoys me is the acceptance of lies that’s so common in the current orthodoxy. I guess all orthodoxies are built on lies. But there’s this idea that there must be tens of thousands of people who are making a great living as freelance musicians because you can market yourself on social media. And whenever I look for these people – I mean when I wrote “Gadget” I looked around and found a handful – and at this point three years later, I went around to everybody I could to get actual lists of people who are doing this and to verify them, and there are more now. But like in the hip-hop world I counted them all and I could find about 50. And I really talked to everybody I could. The reason I mention hip-hop is because that’s where it happens the most right now.
So when we’re talking about the whole of the business – and these are not 50 people who are doing great. Or here’s another example. Do you know who Jenna Marbles is? She’s a super-successful YouTube star. She’s the queen of self-help videos for young women. She’s kind of a cross between Snooki and Martha Stewart or something. And she’s cool. I mean, she kind of helps girls with how to do makeup, and she’s irreverent. She’s had a billion views.
The interesting thing about it is that people advertise, “Oh, what an incredible life. She’s this incredibly lucky person who’s worked really hard.” And that’s all true. She’s in her 20s, and it’s great that she’s found this success, but what this success is that she makes maybe $250,000 a year, and she rents a house that’s worth $1.1 million in L.A.. And this is all breathlessly reported as this great success. And that’s good for a 20-year-old, but she’s at the very top of, I mean, the people at the very top of the game now and doing as well as what used to be considered good for a middle-class life. And I don’t want to dismiss that. That’s great for a 20-year-old, although in truth, in my world of engineers that wouldn’t be much. But for someone who’s out there, a star with a billion views, that’s a crazy low expectation. She’s not even in the 1 percent. For the tiny token number of people who make it to the top of YouTube, they’re not even making it into the 1 percent.
The issue is if we’re going to have a middle class anymore, and if that’s our expectation, we won’t. And then we won’t have democracy.
You mentioned a minute ago that there’s about 50 in hip-hop. What kind of estimate did you come up with for music in general?
I think in the total of music in America, there are a low number of hundreds. It’s really small. I wish all of those people my deepest blessings, and I celebrate the success they find, but it’s just not a way you can build a society.
The other problem is they would have to self-fund. This is getting back to the informal economy where you’re living in the slum or something, so you’re desperate to get out so you impress the boss man with your music skills or your basketball skills. And the idea of doing that for the whole of society is not progress. It should be the reverse. What we should be doing is bringing all the people who are in that into the formal economy. That’s what’s called development. But this is the opposite of that. It’s taking all the people from the developed world and putting them into a cycle of the developing world of the informal economy.
You say early in the book, “As much as it pains me to say so, we can survive only if we destroy the middle classes of musicians, journalists, photographers.” I guess what you seem to be saying here is the creative class is sort of the canary in the digital coal mine.
Yes. That’s precisely my point. So when people say, “Why are musicians so special? Everybody has to struggle.” And the thing is, I do think we are looking at a [sustainable] model.
We don’t realize that our society and our democracy ultimately rest on the stability of middle-class jobs. When I talk to libertarians and socialists, they have this weird belief that everybody’s this abstract robot that won’t ever get sick or have kids or get old. It’s like everybody’s this eternal freelancer who can afford downtime and can self-fund until they find their magic moment or something.
The way society actually works is there’s some mechanism of basic stability so that the majority of people can outspend the elite so we can have a democracy. That’s the thing we’re destroying, and that’s really the thing I’m hoping to preserve. So we can look at musicians and artists and journalists as the canaries in the coal mine, and is this the precedent that we want to follow for our doctors and lawyers and nurses and everybody else? Because technology will get to everybody eventually.
It wasn’t too long ago that it was unskilled people on assembly lines who answered phones or bank tellers and it’s just crept up in the decades since. You’ve mentioned a few times this sort of digital utopianism that still emanates from Silicon Valley. Where does that kind of thinking come from and why does it exist despite all the evidence to the contrary?
Well, it’s an orthodoxy now. I have 14-year-old kids who come to my talks who say, “But isn’t open source software the best thing in life? Isn’t it the future?” It’s a perfect thought system. It reminds me of communists I knew when growing up or Ayn Rand libertarians. It’s one of these things where you have a simplistic model that suggests this perfect society so you just believe in it totally. These perfect societies don’t work. We’ve already seen hyper-communism come to tears. And hyper-capitalism come to tears. And I just don’t want to have to see that for cyber-hacker culture. We should have learned that these perfect simple systems are illusions.
Speaking of politics, your concerns are often those of the political left. You’re concerned with equality and a shrinking middle class. And yet you don’t seem to consider yourself a progressive or a man of the left — why not?
I am culturally a man on the left. I get a lot of people on the left. I live in Berkeley and everything. I want to live in a world where outcomes for people are not predetermined in advance with outcomes.
The problem I have with socialist utopias is there’s some kind of committees trying to soften outcomes for people. I think that imposes models of outcomes for other people’s lives. So in a spiritual sense there’s some bit of libertarian in me. But the critical thing for me is moderation. And if you let that go too far you do end up with a winner-take-all society that ultimately crushes everybody even worse. So it has to be moderated.
I think seeking perfection in human affairs is a perfect way to destroy them. It just doesn’t work. So my own take on it is, actually another way I’ve been thinking about it lately is a balance of magisteria. “Magisteria” was the term that Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion. And I’ve been thinking that way about money and politics, or computers and politics, or computers and ethics. All of these things are magisterial, where the people who become involved in them tend to wish they could be the only ones.
Libertarians tend to think the economy can totally close its own loops, that you can get rid of government. And I ridicule that in the book. There are other people who believe that if you could get everybody to talk over social networks, if we could just cooperate, we wouldn’t need money anymore. And I recommend they try living in a group house and then they’ll see it’s not true.
My cyber-friends think if you can just come up with a perfect scheme, that some perfect digital scheme will solve all the problems. My belief is that if we deal with all of these things, they can balance out each other to prevent the worst dysfunctions of each one from happening. And at minimum if we can just have enough distribution of clout in society so it isn’t run by a tiny minority, then at the very least it gives us some room to breathe. And that’s the minimum requirement. Maybe not the ideal.
So what we have to demand of digital technology is that it not try to be a perfect system that takes over everything. That it balances the excess of the other magisteria. And that is doesn’t concentrate power too much, and if we can just get to that point, then we’ll really be fine. I’m actually modest. People have been accusing me of being super-ambitious lately, but I feel like in a way I’m the most modest person in the conversation. I’m just trying to avoid total dysfunction.
Let’s stick with politics for one more. Is there something dissonant about the fact that the greatest fortunes in human history have been created with a system developed largely by taxpayers dollars? Military research and labs at public universities. And many of the people whom the Internet has enriched have become libertarians who earnestly tell you that they are “socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” and resist progressive taxation because of it.
Yeah, no kidding. I was there. I gotta say, every little step of this thing was really funded by either the military or public research agencies. If you look at something like Facebook, Facebook is adding the tiniest little rind of value over the basic structure that’s there anyway. In fact, it’s even worse than that. The original designs for networking, going back to Ted Nelson, kept track of everything everybody was pointing at so that you would know who was pointing at your website. In a way Facebook is just recovering information that was deliberately lost because of the fetish for being anonymous. That’s also true of Google.
Near the end of the book you talk about the changes in the book business. It doesn’t sound pretty. What’s going on there and what have you learned as someone who has now written several books?
I don’t hate anything about e-books or e-book readers or tablets. There’s a lot of discussion about that, and I think it’s misplaced. The problem I have is whether we believe in the book itself.
To me a book is not just a particular file. It’s connected with personhood. Books are really, really hard to write. They represent a kind of a summit of grappling with what one really has to say. And what I’m concerned with is when Silicon Valley looks at books, they often think of them as really differently as just data points that you can mush together. They’re divorcing books from their role in personhood.
I’m quite concerned that in the future someone might not know what author they’re reading. You see that with music. You would think in the information age it would be the easiest thing to know what you’re listening to. That you could look up instantly the music upon hearing it so you know what you’re listening to, but in truth it’s hard to get to those services.
I was in a cafe this morning where I heard some stuff I was interested in, and nobody could figure out. It was Spotify or one of these … so they knew what stream they were getting, but they didn’t know what music it was. Then it changed to other music, and they didn’t know what that was. And I tried to use one of the services that determines what music you’re listening to, but it was a noisy place and that didn’t work. So what’s supposed to be an open information system serves to obscure the source of the musician. It serves as a closed information system. It actually loses the information.
So in practice you don’t know who the musician is. And I think that’s what could happen with writers. And this is what we celebrate in Wikipedia is pretending that there’s some absolute truth that can be spoken that people can approximate and that the speaker doesn’t matter. And if we start to see that with books in general – and I say if – if you look at the approach that Google has taken to the Google library project, they do have the tendency to want to move things together. You see the thing decontextualized.
I have sort of resisted putting my music out lately because I know it just turns into these mushes. Without context, what does my music mean? I make very novel sounds, but I don’t see any value in me sharing novel sounds that are decontextualized. Why would I write if people are just going to get weird snippets that are just mushed together and they don’t know the overall position or the history of the writer or anything? What would be the point in that. The day books become mush is the day I stop writing.
Let’s close with music then. You’re a longtime musician and composer. You’re a collector of obscure and archaic instruments. How does your interest in music and especially pre-modern acoustic music shape your thinking and your life as well?
Well, the original way I got into it is very personal. It’s just that my mother died when I was young, and she was a musician. My connection to her. I got involved in more and more unusual music because I didn’t want that connection to become something that was too static. It had to be constantly changing or it would become a cliché. So that’s how I got into it.
But as far as the connection to computers, the thing to me is that I’ve always been intrigued with music interface. Musical interfaces are such profoundly better user interfaces than anything we’ve done with a digital computer. They have better acuity. They create more opportunities for virtuosity. They work with the human body more profoundly, the nervous system. I mean good musical instruments. And I’ve just been intrigued by them. It made me realize that just because something is the latest, newest thing that seems like the cleverest thing we can do at the moment doesn’t make it better.
So to realize how much better musical instruments were to use as human interfaces, it helped me to be skeptical about the whole digital enterprise. Which I think helped me be a better computer scientist, actually.
Did your life as a musician show you some of the things that you ended up excavating in “Gadget” and the new book?
Sure. If you go way back I was one of the people who started the whole music-should-be-free thing. You can find the fire-breathing essays where I was trying to articulate the thing that’s now the orthodoxy. Oh, we should free ourselves from the labels and the middleman and this will be better.
I believed it at the time because it sounds better, it really does. I know a lot of these musicians, and I could see that it wasn’t actually working. I think fundamentally you have to be an empiricist. I just saw that in the real lives I know — both older and younger people coming up — I just saw that it was not as good as what it had once been. So that there must be something wrong with our theory, as good as it sounded. It was really that simple.