Jaron Lanier on Internet and middle class: "We have screwed things up"

Salon Q&A: Tech visionary Jaron Lanier on Thomas Piketty, Jeff Bezos and Amazon, how to save the creative class

Published June 1, 2014 6:00PM (EDT)

Jaron Lanier   (Simon & Schuster/Jonathan Sprague)
Jaron Lanier (Simon & Schuster/Jonathan Sprague)

Of all the skeptics of digital technology and the economic world it has made, the technologist, author and musician Jaron Lanier may have the most zealous following: His two books, “You Are Not a Gadget” and “Who Owns the Future?,” have galvanized opposition to the Web economy, in part because Lanier comes from the world he warns us about. An important pioneer of virtual reality who currently does research for Microsoft, he’s become a media sensation in spite of his understated, almost shy manner.

His latest book, published in the U.S. last May, covers an enormous amount of ground in what’s often a personal and eccentric style. “Who Owns the Future?” describes in especially stark terms the Internet’s false promise to artists – “trinkets tossed into the crowd spread illusions and false hopes” -- and the larger creative class. “The clamor for online attention only turns into money for a token minority of ordinary people, but there is another new, tiny class of people who always benefit,” he writes on the book’s opening page. “Those who keep the new ledgers, the giant computing services that model you, spy on you, and predict your actions, turn your life activities into the greatest fortunes in history.”

The book received mostly positive reviews, though some objected to his proposed solution – that citizens be reimbursed with micro-payments whenever their personal information led to the generation of revenue. Since people’s Facebook preferences help companies sell, for instance, and the work of human translators provide the basis for online translation programs, these people should be compensated: “A new kind of middle class, and a more genuine, growing information economy, could come about if we could break out of the ‘free information’ idea and into a universal micro-payment system.”

We spoke to the Berkeley-based Lanier about “Who Owns the Future?,” the explosion of surveillance, Amazon’s policies, Kickstarter and his role as a critic both inside and outside the beast.

Let’s start by talking about “Who Owns the Future.” The book got a lot of attention, became a sort of manifesto for some people; it also got mixed reviews. Some were very approving and others argued with your point of view. My sense is that the most criticism came from your argument that we needed a system of micro-payments, that we needed people to be reimbursed for data collection, and I wonder if that criticism made you rethink your suggestion at all?

Well, look, that’s exactly where the criticism should lie. In general, there’s a meta point I want to make: Criticism is easy and coming up with a better solution is hard. And if what I wanted to do was be well liked …

I mean, you can present any position and you can find people who are sympathetic with you. So you could do a Google-knows-best book and there will be people who like that -- or you can do this is all horrible and some people will like that. The much harder thing to say is here are some problems, and here is maybe a better way to do things. And of course it’s essential, if you’re going to propose solutions, critics have to be critical of those solutions.

So on the one hand, I absolutely would expect any alternative presented by anybody who’s concerned and thinks differently to be subject to rigorous criticism -- and that goes for anything, not just this stuff, but for global climate change, or population issues or fresh water, any of the big challenges we face. So I think it’s great, I think exactly the right thing happened. I appreciate the criticism. The only kind of criticism I don’t appreciate is the people who are convinced of a kind of inevitability to the way things are. That the way we think of technology is the only way we could think of technology. The way technology evolves is some kind of deterministic thing that couldn’t be any different than it was. Those people I have no patience for.

But if there are people who are critical, I want them to be critical, but I want them to take the same responsibility I did. And if they believe I pointed out a real problem, I want them to go to the trouble to think of a different approach.

Fair enough. Because you’re talking about criticism, I want to expand that idea a little bit. You say in the book that you don’t want to be “an academic or a remote observer.” What tradition do you see yourself in? Do you see yourself as a social critic, and if so what earlier figures or eras do you see yourself connected to?

That’s a really interesting question and it’s one I’ve asked myself a lot, and the truth is I have trouble finding an answer. It’s actually kind of tricky. I think there are some ways in which our situation is similar to the past and I’ve spent a lot of time describing how I think our world today is similar to the world at the end of the 19th century.

After industrialization and before unionization came along, with child labor and endless workdays and pollution and everything?

To a degree. I don’t want to overstate it. But there are some structural similarities, some pattern similarities. But I have a little trouble really coming up with precedents. I mean, I’m interested, for instance, in physicists who became alarmed about the spread of nuclear weapons and attempted to become politically active because they felt they had an obligation to.

That’s an interesting lineage; who are you thinking of specifically?

Well, I just think it would be ridiculous and pretentious of me to compare myself to any specific person but a variety of central physicists in our time, some of whom I’ve had the privilege of knowing, became active in trying to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation. And some didn’t, some viewed it as an inevitability.

On the side of the ones who didn’t see, who saw it as an inevitability, I knew Edward Teller a bit, and spoke with him a number of times about it. And he was an amazing visualizer, he was actually a really interesting creative guy, but I disagreed with his take on the politics of it. He was a little too lost in a sense of inevitability that might have been a bit colored by the benefits he received from his position and so forth … so that definitely had an impact on me.

At the same time, so I have a friend named Bill Joy who is another sort of technology figure. He created a lot of the basic foundations of UNIX that are in everything; part of what he did is in your phone and all that. And he also helped start the Sun Microsystems Co., which was one of the giants for a while.

Anyway, he wrote an essay called “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” where he was talking about how our technological deterministic past is leaving people behind, and he ended up just kind of getting depressed and disabled himself from a sense of gloom about it. And I really think if you allow yourself to get lost in looking at the dangers without getting involved in potential solutions, you make yourself vulnerable to a disabling depression. And if you are a sort of remote intellectual who just observes things, you can feel a little superior in that way when you have that feeling, but when you’re a technologist who tries to fix things, it’s terribly depressing to be in that position, so I think you really have to struggle.

I’m thinking a little bit of the criticisms that have come from people like Evgeny Morozov who doesn’t like “solutionism,” as he calls it. And the problem with that is it leaves you with this like …  if you reject that, if you think solutionism in itself is a problem … It sort of defines you as either incompetent, where you’re saying, well, I could never be a technologist. Or you have to become a Rousseauian fundamentalist or something where everything is going backwards and everything forward and future-looking must be worse than anything past oriented …?

You end up in a sort of depressing cul-de-sac. So I’ve been trying to chart a middle course where I still love technology. I’m still basically a technologist, I still want to make the world better -- and yet I also want to be a realist about how we can screw things up and how we have screwed things up. I want to try to synthesize all of that in one package, and that is really hard to do. I’m not sure I’m doing it effectively but I’m certainly trying. It is actually hard to know exactly what precedent that follows on.

Another thing that makes up the foundation of your argument is the middle class: You argue throughout this book that the middle class is not a natural, inevitable class. It’s something that was built by various kinds of interventions -- unions, tax codes, copyright, tenure, things like that. It goes against some kinds of economic theory. I wonder what the roots of your thinking are -- could you explain that a little bit, it’s a very important, and in some ways counterintuitive, notion.

Well, I mean, the position I take is not that middle classes can never arise naturally but that they often have not, and arguably don’t. And this actually, it’s a question that’s unresolved in economics. There’s tremendous passion about this question. But if we look at, say ,the controversy over Piketty’s book --

We’re talking about Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century”…

Yeah, I looked at that book and my first reaction was, I’m too lazy to have done this but I’m so glad he did all this work of gathering all this data. And there was a sense of like, duh, of course, I mean everybody kind of knows this. And yet for those who hold a different belief, they’re gonna henpeck his data and try to find holes in it, and I suggest that’s what’s going on right now to try to create doubt about it.

Anyway, there’s not a consensus about whether middle classes arise naturally, there’s not even a consensus over whether they’re desirable, which is more shocking to me. Whether they do arise naturally under some circumstances or not, I think we can all agree that they don’t always arise naturally, at the very least. And at that point, we can ask the question of whether they’re desirable.

I view them as not only desirable but necessary for any kind of stable, sustainable economy or for viable democracy. And if we get that far then we should recognize that creating a strong middle class is a necessary moral, ethical and practical, pragmatic project that it fires on all cylinders. That whatever your belief system -- whether you like markets better than government, or government better than markets, or some sort of societal vision better than either of those. Whatever the hell you believe in, whatever you like, middle classes are your friend and I believe that we can get to that point and become interested in how to promote them even if we might not agree entirely on every step to get there. I think all the roads converge at that point.

The left and the right have had different takes on the middle class. Marxism and related strains obviously champion the proletariat or the workers over the burghers. And some kinds of right/ Adam Smith-inspired or Joseph Schumpeter-driven economic and political thought championed what we now call the “job creators.” It seems to me that the two political extremes have overlooked the middle class, which as you say is the basis for virtually everything. It’s almost like we need to rethink what the middle class means, what its role is in the whole thing.

Yeah. And I also have to say one of the themes of the book for me is that for centuries, without exaggeration, we’ve been bouncing back and forth between two ideas, which you could call the left and the right, which is vaguely the laissez-faire economy or a kind of benevolently governed economy or some kind of fusion of the two.

And people are still stuck on this axis where the third way, as somebody like Bill Clinton would talk about, is really just a different way of blending the two. And what I think is interesting is about … well Ted Nelson was the first to see this over 50 years ago, about 55 years ago, but this idea that if you extended micro-payments universally for sharing information, you extend capitalism so far that it turns into something different and you might have an entirely new solution that’s neither left nor right but something quite different. That’s the bigger picture I’m trying to explore. And it’s very new, we don’t fully understand it yet.

I had a graduate student who’s been trying to build models of it and that sort of thing. We’re just at the point of starting to really get it, but I think we can see a lot of signs of hope in it, that we might be able to finally get out from under this stupid dichotomy that has never been satisfying.

Soon after your book came out, the NSA surveillance scandal broke and caused almost immediate outrage. I’m wondering how this fits into your argument and also if we should be as concerned about surveillance by tech corporations as we are by government agencies.

I wrote a new introduction and conclusion chapter for the paperback edition, which came out in February or March of this year, and it starts with the NSA stuff.

But the point I made is that, the two biggest political struggles in the U.S. of recent years are the NSA revelations due to Edward Snowden and the advent of Obamacare, and they’re mirror images of each other. In each case, you’re looking at what happens when somebody tries to use giant computers to centralize power and how dysfunctional it is. And I view them as essentially the same phenomenon just seen in slightly different situations from different perspectives.

I’m always amazed by what seems to me to be incredible naiveté of people who think it’s perfectly fine to concentrate incredible power and influence in some tech company. And you say which tech company would win at that, whether it’s a Comcast or Facebook or Google or a credit rating agency or a bank … but the point is, people who are libertarians sort of feel like some company would always be motivated to treat people well and it’s really the government you have to worry about. And what I observe in history is that it’s often the case that the people who initially change the world end up concentrating power around themselves. And often they’re pretty good people, because the people who change the world are pretty creative and thinking afresh.

A nice example for me are the first generation of Bolsheviks. And I’m not saying they were all angels and I’m not saying they were right, however, a lot of them were quite interesting, a lot of them were well-meaning, and a lot of them were not sadistic criminals or they weren’t horrible at all. But the thing is, as soon as somebody concentrates power, it will be inherited by somebody, and that second and third generation typically gets worse and worse. And so that’s when you end up with the Stalins and all that. That’s not the only way that people come to power but it happens a lot.

So if we look at what’s happening with private-sector concentration of power, we’re seeing astonishing things we’ve never seen before. Like Facebook is the first so-called public company that’s controlled by a single person. Amazon is a giant, fast-growing public company that refuses on principle to ever make a profit in order to destroy competition and the anti-trust regulators take its side because it’s lowering prices for consumers for the moment. These things are just astonishing.

This idea that Jeff Bezos will live forever is ridiculous. They’re not going to live forever -- Google’s immortality project isn’t going to work in time -- and so that power is going to be inherited by someone else. And almost always in history, not always, once in a while you get a Claudius in ancient Rome or something, once in a while somebody better takes charge. But usually the people who inherit power are worse, you get a lot more Neros than you get Claudiuses, and so, so you know … This idea that this won’t turn into the NSA is ridiculous.

And another thing I want to bring up is what was going on with the tech companies; they were not voluntarily giving over data to the NSA. They were forced to by law, and forced to not talk about it. And I know that, if you read Glenn Greenwald’s book, he feels that the tech companies did more than they needed to, but I think he’s being naive. When the government comes calling and they say here’s a court order, you have a decision to make. And you can’t send a whole international corporation to go live in a villa in Brazil, you have to decide whether to keep functioning or not. And so I think there’s a tremendous naiveté that if you just leave it to the big corporations, that will be better. It might be for a little while, but in the long term it makes no difference.

Your larger point is that whether the people running these corporations are virtuous or otherwise, the structure right now means our data will be shared with people we don’t want it to be shared with.

Right, right, right.

So you mentioned Amazon: There’s a new wave of backlash against Amazon because of the Hachette case, where Amazon has been delaying shipment, significantly, of books by a publisher with which it’s quarreled. You write about Amazon a little bit in your book; how do you see it functioning these days?

Well, I portrayed it in the book more favorably than it seems to deserve to be portrayed now, because what I was saying in the book is that I didn’t think Amazon directly targets people for domination. I think it was all just algorithmic and arm’s length. So I was painting it more as this autistic nerd that was taking over the world through computation. But this case, I mean, I don’t know this case in detail. They’re not my publisher and I haven’t talked to them, so, I really don’t know. But for all appearances this looks like direct targeting and it does look like retribution, so I might have been overly kind in the book.

People who are optimistic about digital technology, especially the way it connects to the creative class -- musicians, photographers and so on -- point to Kickstarter, which I think is celebrating a fifth anniversary of sorts, and other crowd-funding platforms, which have been important for indie filmmakers and artists and creative beings. How do you see Kickstarter? Do you see crowd-funding as a silver lining to some of these ravages?

Yeah, well, I mean, in the book I was very favorable to Kickstarter, if I recall. And I remember saying I hope it grows larger than Amazon, and it is a model that embodies the idea of economic growth instead of just wealth concentration, because it’s actually doing new things, so I think there’s a lot to be said for it.

I also said that Kickstarter and the whole tech community has to outgrow this idea that as long as you’re doing it over the Internet you don’t have to take risk into account, that somebody else can take the risk. That any investment has to be tied to risk and you can’t have this arm’s length thing where you get the benefits but society takes the risk.

So at some point there has to be some concept of insurance or cost of failure sharing and that sort of thing, or else Kickstarter can’t grow to actually change society. But in principle, sure, I’ve been highly supportive of it and remain so.

Your book was described by some people as dystopian or pessimistic, deeply concerned about the future we were headed toward. We’ve had all kinds of news in technology, economics and culture since you wrote the last word of “Who Owns the Future?” I wonder if the elapsed time or developments since have caused you to rethink or revise anything significant from the book?

Let me think about that. I’m playing the pretty long game here in terms of decades and centuries to come, not really month to month. So it doesn’t seem like much time has passed. But I was surprised, I mean, as I mentioned before, I had portrayed Amazon as being less specifically vindictive or mean-spirited toward targets than it seems to be, and that surprised me. I don’t know.

The truth is, it all seems kind of the same to me right now. If you look at the criticisms of my book, that I’m aware of anyway, there aren’t too many people who really criticize this thesis about the problem; there are some, but they mostly did it in a way that was pretty generic and just sort of cheerleaders for the way things are or for inevitability or something.

But of those who criticized the solution, which I think is a much more important project of criticism, if anything I’ve been seeing more and more interest in it. I mean, the negative notices came out early, and it’s actually had vastly more influence in sales and notice recently, and the latest reviews, I haven’t really seen a critical one in a while, and I’ve seen crazy positive ones, and it’s been getting a bunch of awards and a lot of attention and all that, so it seems to be on a ramp in which it’s being taken more and more seriously.

I also get an enormous number of inquiries all over the world -- every major government and every major educational institution and every think tank interested in this idea of universal micro-payments and whether it might be a path forward. I might almost say that early on there was some criticism but at this point there’s more just curiosity and it’s been very favorable and friendly so far as I can tell, extraordinarily so. There will be a lot more news about that in the next few weeks.

What’s next for you? Where is your writing and thinking taking you these days?

I’d like to write another book. I was thinking of finally writing a book about virtual reality since there’s so much interest in that now. So maybe I’ll finally get around to that.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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