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Jaron Lanier understands the internet as well as anyone on Earth. He did, after all, help build it. Over the past thirty years, Lanier has been a force of nature in the digital world, inventing the concept of virtual reality in the 1980s and (as chief scientist of Internet2) helping to build the backbone of the Web in the 1990s.
Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world this year. And now, one of the world’s great digital inventors issues a stunning warning: his co-creation is turning us all into paupers.
Speaking at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles last week, the heavyset, dreadlocked Lanier said: “As machines get better, people ought to be able to earn a living from their hearts and brains. Because the alternative to that is as the machines get better, the people who aren’t needed will become peasants, will be forgotten, and will become lost.”
Lanier has been named the Innovator in Residence at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, providing a new academic home for the Renaissance man.
A sceptic of the economic underpinnings of the “Information Economy,” Lanier sees the current power structure of the Web to be extremely dangerous: social networking sites (like Facebook), wikis (including Wikipedia), tech-savvy investors (like hedge funds), and Google create “privileged nodes, spying on everything and pulling money out of the system”.
At the same time, Lanier argues, these “resource-sucking applications” encourage users to contribute their labor without compensation, known to many as crowdsourcing. Professional labour is devalued, as is personal intellectual property. And as social media replaces paid creativity, so web users become products, eyeballs to be sold to advertisers. Revenue flows up to the privileged nodes, while everyone else is left out in the cold.
The end result, Lanier warns, could be a collapse of the middle class, a scary and dystopian vision from a man known for accurately seeing the future of technology.
“The present designs are very shortsighted; they trade our future for trinkets, more or less,” Lanier said. “They give us an easy, somewhat lazy, somewhat shallow kind of reward, when what we need is something sustainable and long-term”.
Part of the problem, as Lanier sees it, is that Web 2.0 companies built their business models on creating artificial divisions between people.
“There’s a perverse incentive to undo the whole reason why many of us worked so hard on the internet for so many years. We’ve created a world in which there’s now a disabling of the natural powers of the internet, in order to create a commercial opportunity for re-enabling them.”
In other words, popular sites aim to separate people into communities and then profit by reconnecting them. A Silicon Valley insider himself, Lanier says that most of the latest offerings are manipulative and bad for society: “If you’re buying into social media, you’re becoming [Silicon Valley’s] pawn,” he said. “I want you all to become rich and buy things from us on that basis rather than us picking pennies off of you while we’re all in a downward spiral.”
Not everyone sees things as darkly, however.
Agger wrote: “[H]is critique is ultimately just a particular brand of snobbery. The talents and insights of Lanier and his peers were aimed at a tech-savvy elite whose impact will never be the same again. The innovative momentum is now about democratizing the Web and its users—Flickr, Twitter, and, yes, Facebook.”
Lanier is used to being disagreed with, and it’s pretty clear he relishes the humanness of social debate. Just don’t call him a Luddite.
“I’m a profoundly nerdy, geeky, optimistic techno-utopian without apology and anyone who says differently is looking for a fight,” Lanier said. “I love working with gadgets; I just don’t think you’re one of them.”