Last week, Jaron Lanier, the father of virtual reality, published his new book (You Are Not a Gadget) and an accompanying op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. The WSJ piece begins:
All too many of today’s Internet buzzwords— including “Web 2.0,” “Open Culture,” “Free Software” and the “Long Tail”—are terms for a new kind of collectivism that has come to dominate the way many people participate in the online world. The idea of a world where everybody has a say and nobody goes unheard is deeply appealing. But what if all of the voices that are piling on end up drowning one another out?
Lanier goes on to make the case against Web 2.0. Using “crowdsourcing” to build free products (think Wikipedia), Web 2.0 ends up producing inferior content and software code. It slows down innovation. It destroys intellectual property and the financial structure that incentivizes creative individuals and institutions. And finally it disempowers the individual, the real source of innovation. (Lanier says, “I don’t want our young people aggregated, even by a benevolent social-networking site. I want them to develop as fierce individuals, and to earn their living doing exactly that.”) If you think this sounds like Ayn Rand philosophy (see vintage clip) grafted onto tech talk, you’re probably right. And from here, you can decide whether you want to buy the book or not.
On a personal note, I find it amusing that “Open Culture” qualified as an “Internet buzzword,” according to Lanier. As you can imagine, I track the use of the expression fairly closely, and quite frankly, it didn’t register on any radar until Lanier’s piece came out (and we got a simultaneous mention in AARP’s magazine). All you have to do is look at this Google Trends chart. It maps the usage of “open culture,” and you can see how it goes from nowhere to vertical in 2010, right when Lanier’s op-ed gets published. So what can I say to Jaron Lanier, but thanks (in a thanks, but no thanks kind of way) and may you sell a million copies of You Are Not a Gadget…
“Web 2.0 ends up producing inferior content and software code. It slows down innovation. It destroys intellectual property and the financial structure that incentivizes creative individuals and institutions. And finally it disempowers the individual, the real source of innovation.”
What a shame that he thinks this. I would hardly call products like Mozilla Firefox and its code inferior. As for intellectual property and the “incentiviz-ing” financial structure… the former doesn’t really exist and who cares about the latter other than those with an obsolete and inhibiting instinct to hoard?
Creation itself IS the incentive. It’s at the core of our human desires. People have created and innovated long before there was financial gain to be had.
I don’t write poetry for money. There’s a reason why artists “starve” and work at restaurants. I play with web codes and site building for fun. Many people build new bicycles because they like to tinker. Is it nice to get paid? Of course. But it’s creation itself that adds value to our life, not the reciprocation from society.
As someone who despises Ayn Rand and her pseudo-philosophy, and having recently read Lanier’s book, I have to say I cringe at the comparison. Rand was a misanthrope, while Lanier’s concerns (as the book’s title suggests) are humanistic.
Lanier writes, “I fear that we are beginning to design ourselves to suit digital models of us, and I worry about a leaching of empathy and humanity in that process.” (p.39) A very un-Randian sentiment.
“You Are Not A Gadget” is a fascinating and stimulating book. I also heard Lanier speak last week in Cambridge and he has a lot of thought-provoking things to say. If you’re interested, he gave an interview to NPR’s “On Point,” which can be found here:
As for your comments, Jeremy, I’ll be frank: I’m disgusted. When you write, “There’s a reason why artists ‘starve’ and work at restaurants,” I can see that you are utterly unaware of the fact that millions of human beings who were able to support their families in the past through creative work (and I’m not talking about chefs) are no longer able to do so because of the changing technological landscape. If that doesn’t concern you…
On this subject, I’ll pull one more quote from Lanier’s book: “The combination of hive mind and advertising has resulted in a new kind of social contract. The basic idea of this contract is that authors, journalists, musicians, and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind. Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion.” (p83)
I don’t agree with everything Lanier writes but it’s an interesting book and well worth reading.