Having already explained my affinities with author Evgeny Morozov - here and here - some readers might find it odd that I haven't also tackled the work of Jaron Lanier, a somewhat more celebrated figure who now espouses similar attitudes towards the cyber-networked world (but with more of a role in actually shaping it.) Indeed, Morozov's most recent book and Lanier's have been reviewed as part of a "package deal" in at least a couple of journals' review pages. Morozov's work comes from the perspective of a public intellectual, and Lanier's from more of an engineer's standpoint, and this entails some major stylistic differences. Yet both seem critical of technology as it now stands, particularly the fact that its existence independent of humanity is a chimerical illusion that we waste far too much time on chasing.
I have a feeling that more than a few readers of Morozov's columns (published in left-leaning journals like The New Statesman), would wince at Lanier's views on capitalism, e.g. that it is "the most successful design yet invented for the purpose of generating and preserving individual human dignity and liberty."[i] It's unfortunate that such quotes will be repellent for many potential members of Lanier's audience, because his distrust of thoughtless conformity is something to be valued in any present of future economic system. As we'll see, this discontent is not always a recipe for universally applicable ideas, though it is ample fuel to kindle a conversation that needs to take place.
Lanier seems to be a thinker who disdains party lines on key issues, at one moment praising the trade unions despised by rank-and-file conservatives, and at the next making pronouncements like the above one on capitalism, which they would surely endorse. Many of his communicative habits are of the New Left (e.g. using "she" rather than "he" as a personal pronoun when the subject is otherwise unknown), yet he is far apart from them on his estimation of collectives. It is certainly not every day that a widely marketed book written by a Microsoft test researcher (let alone one who essentially popularized the much misused term virtual reality) contains an invitiation for readers to "resign from all the free online services you use for six months to see what happens […] you will probably learn more about yourself, your friends, the world, and the Internet than you would have if you never performed the experiment." And it is not even every day that cultural critics seem to notice, as Lanier has, that many digital services of "open / transparent" culture are themselves quite secretive - hiding "predictive models of [their] users in deep, dark basements."[ii]
Both of Lanier's most recent books on technology - You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future? - exude plenty of this iconoclasm, and recommend such as a vital component of humanism. At the same time, he does not view technological progress in itself as the most irrefutable proof of humanity's triumph, since too much naiveté about technology's full capabilities exists. Lanier's bitterness towards blind, uncritical techno-salvationism is made evident (and comically so) in the following illustrative text, which underscores the fact that the age of technological abundance can still be an age of overall material scarcity:
You sit at the edge of the ocean, wherever the coast will be after Miami is abandoned to the waves. You are thirsty. Random little clots of dust are full-on robotic interactive devices, since advertising companies long ago released plagues of smart dust upon the world. That means you can always speak and some machine will be listening. “I’m thirsty, I need water.” The seagull responds, “You are not rated as enough of a commercial prospect for any of our sponsors to pay for freshwater for you.” You say, “But I have a penny.” “Water costs two pennies.” “There’s an ocean three feet away. Just desalinate some water!” “Desalinization is licensed to water carriers. You need to subscribe. However, you can enjoy free access to any movie ever made, or pornography, or a simulation of a deceased family member for you to interact with as you die from dehydration. Your social networks will be automatically updated with the news of your death.” And finally, “Don’t you want to play that last penny at the casino that just repaired your heart? You might win big and be able to enjoy it.”[iii]
This amusing bit of sci-fi satire is the prologue to a very impassioned, if not always impeccably argued, attack on the Internet-centrism of the present, which itself is just of the unquestioning faith in Moore's Law to be applicable to areas of human endeavor that have nothing to do with microprocessors. Lanier argues that "people are the flies in Moore's Law's ointment", thus becoming another voice in the growing chorus of skeptics who are beginning to shout down the quasi-religious "Singularity" theory of Ray Kurzweil and friends.
Like many other Internet-skeptics, Lanier's reluctance to join the party is a moral and spiritual decision, but also one grounded in predictions of economic catastrophe. Using the examples of investigative journalists, educators, and musicians (all being some of the more desirable professions actually within my reach), Lanier repeatedly emphasizes the fact that the public Internet has savaged the opportunities for making a living off of these pursuits. When not suggesting that these professions will not unable to find any new work once their services have been deemed unworthy of wages, Lanier also proposes - in You Are Not A Gadget - that many of these 'creative' talents might end up feeding into an ever-increasing advertising industry (frighteningly announced as "the only form of expression meriting genuine commercial protection in the world to come.")[iv] I might also suggest another career option in line with what John Gray envisioned in Straw Dogs, i.e. that a boom in the counseling and therapeutic industries will accompany violent technological changes. Perhaps "creatives" already lacking confidence in their abilities to weather the coming storm should try to earn their bona fides in that trade.
What is really 'de-centralized?'
In my own work on music and sound art, I have held out hope for the Internet's potential to de-emphasize the necessity of living in major population centers, something that has been especially crucial to garnering a reputation in the "avant-garde" circles I find myself in. The geographic de-centralization of the Internet allows for musicians to either promote themselves in hope of monetary compensation, or just share of themselves in return for some social or spiritual reward, and do all this without having to relocate to one of the world's media centers and suffer their grossly inflated living expenses. Despite all this, Lanier would still argue that centralization - if we mean by that the concentration of profit into a shrinking number of hands - is a fact of networked culture, and that those who do hope to make money from this pursuit are facing ever-mounting odds, not decreasing ones. In this context, Lanier's likening of services such as Facebook to Wal-Mart seems a little less outrageous than it could be, given the latter's contention that its "everyday low prices" were supposed to compensate for its gutting of the American job market.
"You have to be somebody before you can share yourself"
For reasons such as the above, Lanier - not what I would call a consummate libertarian in the sense that American politics knows them - proposes a greater regulation of networked activity. At the very least, he calls for the self-regulation of online behavior in which "you have to be somebody before you can share yourself." This attitude informs his impatience with a "second-order" creative culture formed of mash-ups and remixes, as well as his contention that much of the "first-order" creativity defended by "open culture" absolutists is simply lowest common denominator fare involving cheap gags and kitsch sentimentality. Again, my experience with the fringes of music and audio art has me somewhat agreeing with this assessment - I have encountered a depressing number of sound-alike, would-be radical recordings of synthetic sludge that, especially when offered as free net-releases, seem to serve the same purpose of "social grooming" as Twitter posts about the kick-ass bowl of ramen that one just ate. Lanier's protest is not just one made in order to ensure more quality control - he also contends that, even more dangerously, "naïve openness fertilizes panopticons" (if you need to know, yes, he does speak out convincingly against the metadata-targeting PRISM program of the NSA.)[v] In the coup de grace to all of this, he also baits "open culture" by calling it what must be considered a swear word by its more enthusiastic adherents: conservative.
Songles, etc. - how much novelty do we need?
Lanier is a person with some novel ideas for changing how creative culture is commodified (I recommend reading his proposal for "songles," which is clever regardless of whether you agree with it or not.) However, just as he is reluctant to question certain "givens" like wage labor, he also does not do enough questioning of how much novelty we really need. Given that he believes people should have something truly meaningful to share online before they hit the "post" button, he seems to place too much value upon the continued "evolution" of things like the musical form, feeling that eras lacking in novelty are also lacking in soulfulness. Since it cleaves so close to his own statement about "being someone before you share yourself," I might point him towards his compositional colleague Miller Puckette's estimation of musical novelty, namely that
…It is […] important that it not just be any surprise, but that it be a surprise that reveals something. When you hear a great moment in music, it is because there’s a feeling of your eyes opening. That perhaps is why random sequencing, although surprising, is not musical in that is doesn’t reveal as it surprises.[vi]
I cannot agree more with Puckette's assessment, and am baffled that Lanier's lament for lost novelty in You Are Not A Gadget does not take something like that into account. There is a reason why music styles like dubstep, with its whizz-bang sense of sonic novelty and "featurism", have become steadily commercialized and rapidly lost their bite - music styles that simply focus on a "new sound" without also seeking a concurrent shift in consciousness are destined for similar fates.
…and how much monetization do we need?
While this may simply represent an evolution of his attitude, rather than an actual inconsistency in his thinking, it is also interesting that Lanier takes the above anti-anonymity stance in You Are Not A Gadget and effectively claims in Who Owns the Future that social network users should be paid for surrendering that anonymity. This is just one component of Lanier's overall solution for reclaiming the dignity of cyberspace: for those who have not encountered it already, his plan is for "bits to have value" rather than being free.
I find it interesting that, among the reviews I've read that criticize this "monetization of data sharing" scheme as silly, little argument comes from the perspective that we should simply do away with all forms of wage-earning employment, or just all coerced employment altogether. Time and time again, I find myself reading through sections of You Are Not a Gadget, Who Owns The Future and their related journal articles, and feel that Lanier has not gone far enough in questioning the future of employment - i.e. whether we might be able to exist without it - in a world where the astounding technological changes he mentions do proceed as planned. Indeed, he acknowledges that this discussion exists and has existed since the dawn of the digitally networked age, but "does not know" if "this idea will ever come back into the discussion."
Now, by "employment" here I mean (borrowing Bob Black's term) the phenomenon of "compulsory production," that form exertion which differs from creation in that it is "never done for its own sake" but "done on account of some product that the worker (or, more often, somebody else) gets out of it."[vii] Even by proposing that such a decline in the culture of "compulsory production" could or should exist, I will be accused of the same utopianism that I myself have roundly criticized, but my criticism is directed at ideologies which believe in the perfectability of human societies, not on just having a measurably saner life than what we have now.
Is 'The Future' inevitable?
Nevertheless, Lanier seems to argue in Who Owns The Future that the existence of money prevents more bloodshed and misery than it facilitates - noting that "people are more clannish than greedy," and that "money allows blood enemies to collaborate…when money changes hands we forget for at least a moment the history of conflict and the potential for revenge."[viii] It must be noted that this is one of the few places in either book where Lanier touches upon violent human conflict: the evolution and expansion of modern warfare, certainly as "technological" an issue as any, is touched upon very briefly in Lanier's last two books. He asks us in You Are Not A Gadget to "follow the money" to read a given society's moral compass, noting that "if money is flowing to advertising instead of musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than truth or beauty."[ix] And indeed, I'd agree this is a fair assessment to make. Yet more money still is flowing into the coffers of a war machine that seems to know no checks on its growth, and so I would argue that "manipulation" is only part of the picture of a degraded value system.
This is all tied in with what I've stated on other occasions, i.e. that I do not see an exponential curve of technological progress as an absolute given in my lifetime. Betting all one's chips on "inextricability" from cyber-reality - something that has been written about by, say, some of the contributors to Ctheory - is not a risk I would personally take. Many of the bloody territorial disputes now raging, from Israel to Russia, involve combatant countries with considerable stockpiles of nuclear weapons, the use of which will disrupt the flow of human and natural resources so severely that Lanier's worst-case scenarios for employment will seem like a wondrous daydream by comparison. As it stands, it is surprising that his worst-case scenario does not already take into account the new role that frustrated, displaced, and perhaps starving "creatives" may play in the future: as ample cannon fodder for its many wars.
When Lanier discusses the "blogosphere" as a means of protest against all of this, and as a corrective to a corrupt mainstream media, he is at his weakest as a writer: his chain of causality sees the rise of activist blogging as something that foiled or upstaged attempts by the mainstream media to do truly effective investigative reporting. The anti-war "blogosphere" that Lanier mentions arose out of frustration with that very dereliction of duty by the MSM, and by the sense that it was merely the house organ of the military-industrial-prison complex. Sure, the anger of thousands of bloggers was indeed a "wash" as Lanier puts it, but - by that logic - so was the activity of a countless number of street demonstrations. George W. Bush ended up being the most angrily protested individual in U.S. history, so the blame for any failure to stop the Iraq invasion must reside somewhere other than with the bloggers.
I am also left wondering why Lanier's lengthy and intimate involvement with music did not lead him, when laying out his suggested 'ways forward' for a profitable music culture, to alight upon the music subcultures that have been operating as a sort of glorified barter economy since the 1980s. By this I mean, of course, the "tape-trading" networks and their offshoots. These networks were merely symptomatic of a situation that I and many, many others found ourselves in: if we expressed what we truly wanted to, with a minimum of compromise, we would never be paid anything amounting to a living wage from doing this work. At best, we would be able to recoup the losses from purchasing recording equipment, at worst, we'd be paying for the right to express ourselves as we wanted. One of the true joys of these endeavors was the possibility it provided for certain money-less transactions; exchanging the spiritual and physical stimulation of new sound sensations for temporary shelter or other personal favors. I don't think anyone in this group ever entertained the idea that an unmediated form of communicative energy would become our "day job," and I'm fairly certain that many would have rejected such an opportunity anyway, since it would mean turning art into another form of compulsory production.
[i] Jaron Lanier, "Confusions of the Hive Mind." Communications of the ACM, Vol. 52 No. 9 (September 2009), pp. 111-112.
[ii] Jaron Lanier, "How Should We Think About Privacy?" Scientific American Vol. 309 No. 5 (Nov. 2013)
[iii] Jaron Lanier, Who Owns the Future?, p. 18. Simon & Schuster, New York, 2014.
[iv] Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget, p. 82. Vintage, New York, 2011.
[v] This argument can be found in "The Meta Question," in The Nation July 8-15 2013, pp 20-22.
[vi] Miller Puckette quoted in "Dartmouth Symposium on the Future of Computer Music Software." Computer Music Journal, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Winter, 2002), pp. 13-30.
[vii] See https://www.primitivism.com/abolition.htm. Retrieved August 2 2014.
[viii] Lanier (2014), p. 30.
[ix] Lanier (2011), p. 83.