Digital pioneer, Jaron Lanier, on the dangers of “free” online culture

April 2016

By Catherine Jewell, Communications Division, WIPO

Jaron Lanier, a keynote speaker at the WIPO Conference on the Global Digital Content Market from April 20 to 22, 2016, is a Silicon Valley insider, a virtual reality pioneer and one of the most celebrated technology writers in the world. But he is increasingly concerned about today’s online universe. He explains why and what it will take to turn things around.

Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, visual artist, composer of classical music and a celebrated technology writer.  He would like "to see more systems where ordinary people can get paid when they contribute value to digital networks." (Photo: © Doug Menuez, Stockland Martel)

Has the digital revolution been a good thing for culture?

There are good and bad things. It’s like asking if cameras are good for culture. Culture has become digitally obsessed. It's just what culture is about today to an incredible degree.

But have digital tools had a positive impact on creativity?

I don’t know if anyone really has the perspective to say for sure. In my book You Are Not a Gadget, I did an experiment. Whenever I was around people and there was music playing, I asked them if they could tell me in which decade the music they were listening to was made. I was quite taken aback by how people can’t tell this decade from the previous one, whereas all the other decades seemed very distinct to them, including very young people. It is as if some kind of cultural stasis has happened, but it’s hard to say whether that is down to the Internet.

Sadly, the online universe has become very segmented and mean-spirited. It also has an increasingly isolationist quality about it. The algorithms used by social media platforms end up feeding us things they think we are already interested in, so we find ourselves in a mirror chamber with a narrower and narrower experience of the world.

I see a lot of really interesting and innovative stuff happening but I am not sure if tech-enabled art has moved me as much as some older art forms. But it's all very subjective.

What are your main concerns about the digital market today?

We have seen an implosion of careers and career opportunities for those who have devoted their lives to cultural expression, but we create a cultural mythology that this hasn’t happened. Like gamblers at a casino, many young people believe they may be the one to make it on YouTube, Kickstarter or some other platform. But these opportunities are rare compared to the old-fashioned middle-class jobs that existed in great numbers around things like writing, photography, recorded music and many other creative pursuits.

Economically, the digital revolution has not been such a good thing. Take the case of professional translators. Their career opportunities have been decreasing much like those of recorded musicians, journalists, authors and photographers. The decimation started with the widespread Internet and is continuing apace. But interestingly, for professional translators the decrease is related to the rise of machine translation.

Automated translations are mash-ups of real-life translations. We scrape the translations made by real people millions of times a day to keep example databases up to date with current events and slang. Elements of these phrases are then regurgitated into usable machine translations. There is nothing wrong with that system. It's useful, so why not? But the problem is we are not paying the people whose data we are taking to make these translations possible. Some might call this fraud.

All these systems that throw people out of work create an illusion that a machine is doing the work, but in reality they are actually taking data from people – we call it big data – to make the work possible. If we found a way to start paying people for their actual valuable contributions to these big computer resources, we could avoid the employment crisis that otherwise we will create.

You say free culture is dangerous. Why?

I actually helped make the argument that music should be free and would ultimately benefit culture and musicians, so it's not that I am unwilling to accept this new thing. I helped make it. And it does have some plus points. For one, people like feeling generous and it feels good to share and to be open. That is precious and we should find designs in society that celebrate that. But the way we are doing it means everybody becomes a servant of a tiny handful of large tech companies, and that's really pretty stupid. If an online service is free, you can bet it is feeding a scheme that makes money by subconsciously manipulating people. It is strange that so many are blind to this.

One thing that bugs me is the way context is lost. You start discovering new music or new culture in very particular ways. Algorithms become your guide. If an algorithm calculates that you may like a piece of music, it will recommend it to you. That makes the algorithm the master of context for humanity. It tends to remove culture from its context, and context is everything. The structure of the Net itself has become the context instead of real people or the real world. That's a really big deal.

One of the original ideas of mash-up culture is that you find a piece of music, someone else mashes it up, then it turns into a video, somebody else makes a parody of the video and it all turns into this giant flow of creativity. It is genuinely a cool thing that everybody can contribute. I don’t want to lose that but today, those who make the mash-up receive no benefit, it just serves Facebook or Google or some other giant corporation and becomes part of the incredible concentration of wealth we are seeing – and it dehumanizes the people involved along the way.

When we were thinking up the Internet, I firmly believed that with a global information system in place, it would be impossible for people to deny things like climate change, but we are seeing the exact opposite. Our information systems allow people to live in little bubbles and to disconnect from reality in a way we didn’t foresee. This is very disappointing and is having a negative impact on art, politics, science, the economy, everything really.

“We have designed our information systems to flatter people,” says Jaron Lanier. “People take selfies and the immediate illusion is that it's about them. Yet people are losing ground everywhere and we are seeing an incredible concentration of wealth among a tiny elite. (photo: iStockphoto/Nicolas McComber)

What about the sharing economy?

When Google was just starting, there was a fascination among Silicon Valley intellectuals with the culture of the world’s slums and their informal economies. This inspired the idea of the sharing economy where the people at the center of the network – the Facebooks, Googles and Ubers – become ultra-wealthy and ultra-powerful and everyone else gets a sense that they are benefiting by bartering with each other. But the idea that we can get by in a sharing economy where ordinary people are expected to share while a few companies at the center get all the money is just not sustainable.

Participating in a well-functioning formal economy means you can plan for a whole life, you don’t have to sing for your supper. If you get sick you have savings. You have some predictability in your life. That’s why we want real assets like a house or intellectual property (IP). A true sharing economy that is inclusive is interesting to contemplate, but that is absolutely not what we are talking about here.

So what needs to be done to ensure a sustainable digital economy?

The obvious starting point is to pay people for information that is valuable and that comes from them. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but the basics are simple and I am sure it can be done.

Some sort of imposed socialist system where everybody is the same would be ruinous. We should expect some degree of variation. But right now a handful of people – those inheriting traditional monopolies like oil and the increasingly powerful big computer networks – have a giant chunk of the world’s wealth and it's having a destabilizing impact. While an oil monopoly might control the oil, it won’t take over everything in your life, but information does, especially with greater automation.

If we expect computers to pilot cars and operate factories, the employment that is left should be the creative stuff, the expression, the IP. But if we undermine that, we are creating an employment crisis of mass proportions.

That’s where IP comes in. The general principle that we pay people for their information and contributions is critical if we want people to live with dignity as machines get better.

But IP needs to be made much more sophisticated and granular. It needs to be something that benefits everybody – as commonplace as having pennies in your pocket.

It is the only future that gives people dignity as the machines get better.

IP is a crucial thread in designing a humane future with dignity.

How would you like to see the digital landscape evolve?

I would like to see more systems where ordinary people can get paid when they contribute value to digital networks; systems that improve their lives and expand the overall economy.

Economic stability occurs when you have a bell curve, with a few super-rich people and a few poor people but most people somewhere in the middle. At present, we have a winner-takes-all situation where a few do really well and everybody else falls into a sea of wannabees who never quite make it. That's not sustainable.

You are supporting the Conference on the Global Digital Content Market that WIPO is hosting. Why is that?

IP is a crucial thread in designing a humane future with dignity.  Not everybody can be a Zuckerberg or run a tech company, but everybody could – or at least a critically large number of people could – benefit from IP.

IP offers a path to the future that will bring dignity and livelihood to large numbers of people. This is our best shot at it.

Who are your heroes and why?

There are many, but they include:

  • J.M. Keynes,  he was the first person to think about how to really manage an information system.
  • E.M. Forster for The Machine Stops, written in 1907, which foresees our error with a very critical eye.
  • Alan Turing, who stayed a kind person even as he was tortured to death.
  • Mary Shelley who was a keen observer of people and how they can confuse themselves with technology.

And of course my friend Ted Nelson. He invented the digital media link and was perhaps the most formative figure in the development of online culture. He proposed that instead of copying digital media, we should keep one copy of each cultural expression on a digital network and pay the author of that expression an affordable amount whenever it is accessed. In this way, anyone could earn a living from their creative work.

What is your next book about?

Dawn of the New Everything: First Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality is a memoir and an introduction to virtual reality. It will be out soon.

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