You Are Not A Gadget, Lanier, But You Might Be A Bit Of A Tool

toolsA post of mine from the Extropians list. It relates to an interview with Jaron Lanier regarding his new book “You Are Not A Gadget”. This is a criticism of the interview, not the book (which I have not read).

> Presumably Emlyn and some others here will strongly disagree with Lanier’s
> new book — at least based on the interview included on the Amazon page…
> From that interview, his views are worth pondering, but he does seem to be
> excessively anti-Web 2.0/collective wisdom.
> Max

Wow, what a depressing interview. It’s very “Hey You Kids Get Off My Lawn!”

I saw this post, and read the link, before my morning coffee, and actually started running around the house shouting, it made me so angry. I’ve tried to calm down before posting 🙂

Question: You argue the web isn’t living up to its initial promise. How has the internet transformed our lives for the worse?

Jaron Lanier: The problem is not inherent in the Internet or the Web. Deterioration only began around the turn of the century with the rise of so-called “Web 2.0” designs. These designs valued the information content of the web over individuals. It became fashionable to aggregate the expressions of people into dehumanized data. There are so many things wrong with this that it takes a whole book to summarize them. Here’s just one problem: It screws the middle class. Only the aggregator (like Google, for instance) gets rich, while the actual producers of content get poor. This is why newspapers are dying. “

Aggregator is bullshit business speak, a reframing to make people providing a service look bad. What he means is search engines. Why is all the traffic going through them? Because it’s a better way to find stuff. The real problem here is that the grouping we call a newspaper is irrelevant; it’s a centuries old invention about distributing information on paper (there’s a clue in the name, news*paper*). I recently read a marketing person talking about what’s happening as the debranding of content; no matter how hard the marketers try, people (who they like calling consumers) just wont go to brands first and find things from there, they insist on going to the faceless search engines and searching everything all at once. It turns out people just don’t care about these brands. Newspapers are dying because the heavily optimised business model is broken and unrepairable.

The search engines actually send traffic to the newspapers *for free*. They don’t have to do that. Here’s some more on this:

Actually “aggregator” is a good term for newspapers. They take a lot of unrelated things and aggregate them. Their business model relies on this, and to the extent that this is undermined they are screwed. What users are doing is ignoring the aggregation (a whole newspaper) and cherry picking the good stuff; they are being disaggregated. Incidentally, this is what is also hurting the music industry (you can only sell songs now, not albums), and is why the movie business is doing well (you can’t disaggregate a movie).

As to the middle class, well, if you are working in an obsolete job, get a clue and do something else. If there is a systemic inability for you to be able to do any middle class work at all, maybe the system needs changing? But I talk about this more below.

It might sound like it is only a problem for creative people, like musicians or writers, but eventually it will be a problem for everyone. When robots can repair roads someday, will people have jobs programming those robots, or will the human programmers be so aggregated that they essentially work for free, like today’s recording musicians? Web 2.0 is a formula to kill the middle class and undo centuries of social progress.”

(more running and shouting)

This isn’t even wrong, it’s so bad.

Yes, there’s a problem coming up, it’s the SF dream of years ago, rushing up to smash us in the face; the dream of automating away all labour. We’ve already automated agricultural work away, at least in the developed world, and manufacturing is going that way (largely done or offshored in the developed world, and I read bits and pieces here and there that chinese manufacturing is beginning to automate heavily rather than add people, for instance). But I suspect Lanier doesn’t mourn those peasant and working class jobs going by the wayside.

The internet is a *fundamental breakthrough*. Web 2.0 is just a bit more unfolding of that. I think we will probably dedicate most of the 21st century to this continuing unfolding, and it’ll be upheaval all the way. Upheaval doesn’t mean, hey, stuff will be interesting and fun and you’ll be able to buy cooler iPhones, it means that stuff we take for granted as fixed will change.

Now I think he’s conflated two issues in the paragraph above. First, that creative people’s jobs are threatened. Second, that all work will disappear.

That creative people’s jobs are threatened now is true to an extent. There are two major types of work threatened here, one apparently threatened but probably actually strengthened, and one actually threatened.

The first one is high profile people/orgs who live by creating some “content” and selling copies ad infinitum. There is a lot of wringing of hands over this, but in fact there’s no evidence that anyone is suffering. It is true that people’s business models may need to change, but it’s not all that hard in fact. The clever people are noticing that if you separate out the scarce from the non-scarce stuff (copies are non-scarce, while scarce are personalised things, timely things such as events, automated server based services, etc), then you can use the non-scarce stuff to get reputation, and reputation can be used to sell the scarce stuff. So famous musicians now make money from touring and use the recording to sell the touring, rather than the other way around, for instance. In the end, this is a small group of people, running businesses which are not exempt from environmental shifts, but who have places they can shift into and be just fine.

The second, actually threatened group, is people doing massively duplicated and substitutable creative work. These are usually again from a 20th century business model, and were born of the tyranny of geography, requiring the same work to be replicated over and over in different locales. Examples are newspaper photographers, some types of graphic design, some types of media monitors?, many of the non-journalist creative jobs in newspapers (eg: advice columns, horoscopes, laying out the classified ads). Also, it’s not always geography, but commercial pricing and the inability or unwillingness of most commercial entities to work together or make interoperable stuff, that gives us other groups; people  who write dictionaries or encyclopedias, many types of packaged software development, and in-house development which is in packaged software space.

These people’s jobs are being destroyed in the 21st century. Free/cheap stock photo collections continue to hammer the mundane body of photography, graphic design is downloadable so there is less market for the low end, media is endlessly aggregated online. All the pieces of newspapers that aren’t journalism are better done online, and don’t need to be redone over and over. Wikipedia eats the encyclopedias, dictionaries are replaced by online equivalents, packaged software is eaten by open source.

(Next on the chopping block: Universities, whose cash cow, the undergrad degree, will be replaced with cheap/free alternative, and scientific journals, which are much better suited by free online resources if the users can just escape the reputation network effect of the existing closed journals)

The only real threatened jobs are where people are doing low value crap. Padding. High value stuff will remain. For example, to the extent that journalists are actually useful (and this is highly arguable; journalists are generalists, good at making it look like they know more than they do, in an age where we can see the primary sources and hear direct from the experts), they will be preserved, if they provide a service that can’t be substituted. Eg: local reporting might be pulled together under umbrella organisations who monetize that somehow, but more likely it’ll be crowdsourced from the actual local people.

But you can’t pad any longer. You can’t make an album of 2 hits and 13 pieces of crap; no one will buy the crap. People will read your great articles, but you can’t sell a whole newspaper which is mostly pointless crap and ads (a great analysis by Clay Shirky here: You can sell blockbuster movies, but the poor quality filler ones will bomb like never before, people know it sucks even before release. You can sell a great novel, but the market for 20 volume tolkeinesque extruded product will eventually fail (books are a bit behind the curve due to the slow take up of eBooks, but that’s happening now). You can sell fantastic innovative software like photoshop, or sibelius, but you can’t endlessly resell your office applications which have become commoditised, and you can no longer make money making cruddy little CD burning apps which should be freely available utilities.

Back to the paragraph above, he then mentions robots taking away all the work. Well, that’s been a dream for a long time. And the problem is not that people will miss the work, it is how will we live, ie: get money, without jobs? Good question, a really big question that needs answering. But paid work isn’t good in itself; it’s by definition stuff you do because you are being paid, and probably wouldn’t do otherwise, a necessary evil. It’s really hard to support holding on to the concept of paid work if it stops being needed for production.

Finally though, it’s a huge leap from uninspired duplicated and substitutable paid creative work being in trouble, to all jobs will disappear. Between here and there is such a long, windy, obscured path that the one can’t shed light on the other.

Question: You say that we’ve devalued intellectual achievement. How?

Jaron Lanier: On one level, the Internet has become anti-intellectual because Web 2.0 collectivism has killed the individual voice.

Rubbish. The Web is full of individual voices. Web 2.0 collectivism (eg: wikipedia) is small compared to the number of articles, blog posts, comments, which have an author. It’s just that it’s a big world, with a *lot* of individual voices, so getting a mass audience is tougher.

Also, many of the individual voices are new ones who are being heard. I wish I could find Dr Ben Goldacre’s article on this, where he talks about the hopelessness of science journalism, and the way you can now get your information directly from the researchers, because they’re blogging about it, for free.  A good example is the blog of Fields medalist Terrance Tao:

It is increasingly disheartening to write about any topic in depth these days, because people will only read what the first link from a search engine directs them to, and that will typically be the collective expression of the Wikipedia.

Why do they only read that? Because mostly we just need a good, impartial summary and Wikipedia does that wonderfully.

(note: Max disputed this claim of impartiality, and to some extent I agree. OTOH, nothing is impartial, ey?)

But nothing is stopping anyone from writing. It’s easier to publish than ever before. So that can’t be the objection. The objection above is actually that it is hard to be read.

I propose that it is actually no more difficult to be read now than it ever was. It just looks that way to people who are used to having someone publish their work, because they had broken through what was previously the most difficult boundary; the publishing industry gatekeepers. Now that this is no longer as relevant, of course there is more to read, so more competition to be heard amongst all that. But that’s no more difficult for writers and potential writers overall, just better for readers.

Or, if the issue is contentious, people will congregate into partisan online bubbles in which their views are reinforced. I don’t think a collective voice can be effective for many topics, such as history–and neither can a partisan mob. Collectives have a power to distort history in a way that damages minority viewpoints and calcifies the art of interpretation. Only the quirkiness of considered individual expression can cut through the nonsense of mob–and that is the reason intellectual activity is important.

I think we were always partisan, just like we were always stupid. It’s just that now, we can see *everyone*. So we can see the other partisan groups, and we can see the stupid stuff, in a way that was largely hidden before. I also think things are actually improving. For example, we’ve always had conspiracy theories, but now we can see these things, and laugh and prod at them. Think about how scientology has declined as the laser light of the networked people has been beamed into it.

On another level, when someone does try to be expressive in a collective, Web 2.0 context, she must prioritize standing out from the crowd. To do anything else is to be invisible. Therefore, people become artificially caustic, flattering, or otherwise manipulative.

Compete for attention. That’s the essence of the modern world. You used to be able to buy your way to success (eg: big content industries could vertically lock up the market, or at least work together cartel-wise to keep out others). Now you increasingly cannot. So, you need to work at being more interesting, in order to garner interest.

But then that paragraph doesn’t make sense. To be “expressive” you must prioritise “standing out from the crowd”? Non sequitur. To be expressive, you express. That’s really unrelated to audience. To get attention, you might need to concentrate on standing out from the crowd, but that’s unrelated to being expressive. The real lament here is about the difficulty of getting attention. Yeah, it’s tough, suck it up.

Web 2.0 adherents might respond to these objections by claiming that I have confused individual expression with intellectual achievement. This is where we find our greatest point of disagreement. I am amazed by the power of the collective to enthrall people to the point of blindness. Collectivists adore a computer operating system called LINUX, for instance, but it is really only one example of a descendant of a 1970s technology called UNIX. If it weren’t produced by a collective, there would be nothing remarkable about it at all.

Fuck me sideways, this old chestnut. Linux is far too big an enterprise to easily generalize about, but it was never about being an intellectual achievement, or being remarkable. It was a response to the frustration that such banal infrastructure as operating systems required paying rent to commercial interests, and were closed, so people couldn’t modify it, fix it, see the internal working and better optimise their work to it, etc etc etc. This was such a painful problem that technical people rebuilt the whole thing from the ground up to be free for everyone forever. That people did this is testament to how crappy the situation was before.

Linux massively supports individual freedom. You can go get a copy, and do whatever you want with it, without reference to anyone. Don’t like DRM? You don’t have to have it. Don’t like govt agency backdoors? In principle you can be sure they are not there (and I think so in practice, but I’m assuming enough other eyeballs, and could be wrong). Don’t want to be held over a barrel by corporate interests? You don’t have to. Want to adapt it to run on your quirky piece of hardware? You can. Want to do your own bizarre shit? You can.

Constrast that with any of the closed OSs. Open source does provide plenty that’s innovative, but mostly it’s not been about that, it’s been about freedom, the pure icy cold frosty chocolate libertarian kind.

Meanwhile, the truly remarkable designs that couldn’t have existed 30 years ago, like the iPhone, all come out of “closed” shops where individuals create something and polish it before it is released to the public. Collectivists confuse ideology with achievement.

iPhones are lovely, but one of the worst examples of closed shop thinking around. If open source is the bazaar, then the iPhone is a shiny shopping mall. Stuff like that is anti-human; it comes out of a place where there are no people, just consumers. I do think they’ve been a nice demonstration of what you can do with a bunch of new technologies (accelerometers, cheap 3G, cheap touch screens, cheap good quality cameras), but think of what they can’t do. For example, what justification can their possibly be for not having phones transparently use WiFi for phone calls when in range, and 3G only when there is no other option? The hardware can do it, people want it. It’s BS.

People often (often!) say to me that Google will be the next Microsoft, and turn into bastards. Maybe. I’m far more worried about Apple, which has always been a closed shop, hostile to 3rd parties and into fleecing the consumer; Microsoft has always been a better choice in terms of freedom.

Question: Why has the idea that “the content wants to be free” (and the unrelenting embrace of the concept) been such a setback? What dangers do you see this leading to?

Jaron Lanier: The original turn of phrase was “Information wants to be free.” And the problem with that is that it anthropomorphizes information. Information doesn’t deserve to be free. It is an abstract tool; a useful fantasy, a nothing. It is nonexistent until and unless a person experiences it in a useful way. What we have done in the last decade is give information more rights than are given to people. If you express yourself on the internet, what you say will be copied, mashed up, anonymized, analyzed, and turned into bricks in someone else’s fortress to support an advertising scheme. However, the information, the abstraction, that represents you is protected within that fortress and is absolutely sacrosanct, the new holy of holies. You never see it and are not allowed to touch it. This is exactly the wrong set of values.

(more running and shouting)

Information enriches us. It is pushing strongly in the direction of free not because some ideologues want it to, but because a billion people, empowered by a digital information network joining them all together, want it to be so. Wikipedia exists not because some ideologues want it, but because it’s stupendously useful to a billion people, and some of them work to keep it happening. The collection of all of the world’s music exists on Youtube not because some ideologues want it (in fact, there don’t seem to be any focussed groups who do, and some that definitely don’t), but because it’s an incredible wealth that a billion people really want.

I’m really hammering the keys now, pissed off. This massive collection of searchable, quality information on the net (including the brilliant ways the web 2.0 technologies have found to rise the cream to the top), represents an astounding increase in the absolute wealth of humanity, absolutely flabbergasting. Who has not had their daily lives changed by being able to look up almost any fact at a moment’s notice, hear any music, get advice on any topic? Think of the way we used to hoard computer and programming manuals, encyclopedias, dusty books on arcane subjects, paltry collections of LPs and CDs. If we define wealth as access to and power over stuff, is there any across the board increase in absolute wealth that compares to what we’ve had in the last 10 years, in all of human history?

What you say will be copied: this is a platform for perfectly copying digital information. That it will be mashed up: good god, it’s a genetic algorithm at work. Information is being worked on by it. People do the mutating and recombining (and sometimes inject new pieces supposedly from whole cloth). The fitness function is how well it competes for attention amongst people (largely, on how good/crap it is). If mashups are crappy, they’ll disappear into the morass of crap on the internet. If they are better, they then have better claim to attention than the original work. Your ego is your problem.

I’ve seen a lot of people making similar complaints to Lanier in the last year or so. Bono’s recent suggestion that we use draconian Chinese-style monitoring and control online to prop up his CD revenues comes to mind. They all seem to share some suspicious similarities: they are relatively wealthy, and at least part of their income is passive income from IP. I think for wealthy people, this increase in absolute wealth isn’t a big deal, because it’s absolute; relative to what they already had, it’s a rounding error. If Bono wanted access to all the world’s music, he could just get a little man to go buy it all for him. Wealthy people can maintain massive private libraries. Many of the areas where we’ve had improvement are around things that didn’t cost much, but randomly accessing all of it (all the scientific journals, or all the books, or all the CDs) was cost prohibitive, unless you were wealthy.

And I guess of course, if you make a lot of your money from opening royalty checks, well, you don’t want that to stop. That income from IP (which requires people respecting your personal brand) is a lot more important to you than this absolute increase for everyone, which you can barely notice.

The idea that information is alive in its own right is a metaphysical claim made by people who hope to become immortal by being uploaded into a computer someday. It is part of what should be understood as a new religion. That might sound like an extreme claim, but go visit any computer science lab and you’ll find books about “the Singularity,” which is the supposed future event when the blessed uploading is to take place. A weird cult in the world of technology has done damage to culture at large.

Well there you go. Jaron Lanier hates us [transhumanists] in particular. “a new religion”. Wanker. Show me this damage. Where are we poorer in information terms today than we ever were. Where is our culture(s) weaker, more degenerate?

Question: In You Are Not a Gadget, you argue that idea that the collective is smarter than the individual is wrong. Why is this?

Jaron Lanier: There are some cases where a group of people can do a better job of solving certain kinds of problems than individuals. One example is setting a price in a marketplace. Another example is an election process to choose a politician. All such examples involve what can be called optimization, where the concerns of many individuals are reconciled. There are other cases that involve creativity and imagination. A crowd process generally fails in these cases. The phrase “Design by Committee” is treated as derogatory for good reason. That is why a collective of programmers can copy UNIX but cannot invent the iPhone.

A collective of volunteer programmers will not invent the iPhone because it is an essentially corporate beast. It is shiny and lowest common denominator. It emphasises features that can make money (Make it rich in the App Store!), and hides those that wont (eg: voip over wifi). It is non-hackable in any useful way. It is not only not user serviceable, but barely serviceable even by Apple. You can’t strip the apple software out and install your own thing on it. It’s a symbol of the corporate desire for the perfect consumer, who knows nothing, slavers over the shiny thing, swallows the mass marketed message. A wallet with legs.

Volunteer programmers primarily create things that they themselves want and will use. Linux is derided as hard to use on the desktop; that’s because it’s made by people who don’t want to cater to the lower common denominator. The whole attitude that you shouldn’t have to know anything, you can just buy stuff, is a product of 20th century mass market consumerism, it’s anti human and wrong. The point of the internet is that you can know anything, and can certainly inform yourself quickly enough to get along in most anything as needed. “Consumer” is a euphemism for “Mark”, it’s not something to aspire to, it’s failure. If we have evolved to be anything noble, it is to be creative, constructive creatures.

That’s why a corporation can make an operating system but can never invent Linux.

In the book, I go into considerably more detail about the differences between the two types of problem solving. Creativity requires periodic, temporary “encapsulation” as opposed to the kind of constant global openness suggested by the slogan “information wants to be free.” Biological cells have walls, academics employ temporary secrecy before they publish, and real authors with real voices might want to polish a text before releasing it. In all these cases, encapsulation is what allows for the possibility of testing and feedback that enables a quest for excellence. To be constantly diffused in a global mush is to embrace mundanity.

No one is stopping you from doing this. In fact anyone doing anything thoughtful does this; create in private, polish, then release. The internet is largely individual voices, individual works, and that will not go away any time soon.

That there are collective approaches being deployed doesn’t attack the individual voice. Remember that every one of those collective approaches comes down to an individual or small group who had an idea, “what if we created an environment where people collaborate in such and such a way”?

It’s seems to me such a confused idea, that you can’t privately create in the web 2.0 world. Of course you can. Any guide to getting an open source project off the ground will tell you first to create something that works, then try showing that to people and see if they’re interested in helping.

That you can control what you publish – well, that’s a whole different thing. Short answer is “no” of course.

The real thing that is difficult for creative people is the global competition. It’s not creating in isolation that’s hard, it’s the same as it ever was. It’s getting anyone to care once you want to bring your creation into the light. You can do your best work, and find not only can you not sell it, you can’t give it away for free, because people have so much choice, and of such quality, that you have to work really hard to get people to even glance at your thing. But that’s just old fashioned competition, ratcheted up to the scale of a billion+ potential competitors.

If you care about doing quality work, you can still do that. To the extent that it’s hard to be paid to do it, exactly when was the mythical glorious past where it was easy? If you care about getting your ego stroked, getting personal attention, well yeah, get in line, and be ready for that to be really hard.

You Are Not A Gadget, Lanier, But You Might Be A Bit Of A Tool

6 thoughts on “You Are Not A Gadget, Lanier, But You Might Be A Bit Of A Tool

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