Who says information wants to be free? Or that “free” is the price of the future? Not Jaron Lanier, the Internet's capitalist philosopher and lead antagonist of Web 2.0. With his gentle manner and mane of Rasta braids, Lanier may not seem combat-ready, but he is crusading for individual expression and the integrity of creative works—both of which he sees threatened by a Web 2.0 mentality that values crowdsourcing over individual intelligence and mashups over the original work. And, he says, while perhaps Chris Anderson and Radiohead and even Lanier himself could earn a nice living from giving away their work and selling their “brand,” most artists cannot.
Today's Web 2.0 advocates speak of remixing, the “hive mind,” and the Creative Commons. Talking with PW in the offices of Knopf, the publisher of his new book, You Are Not a Gadget, Lanier admits, “I was one of the proponents of this stuff originally. I helped make up some of this rhetoric.” But today his rhetoric has changed: he speaks of the age-old virtues of humanism and dignity. Anonymity, he feels, has become the scourge of Internet intercourse; when people are freed of their individual identity, civil discourse disappears.
Some think the 49-year-old Lanier—an early Web technologist and a creator of virtual reality—is succumbing to nostalgia for the Web's idealistic early days, that he's lost in his own virtual reality. “It's time to take off the goggles and gloves, and join us here on Earth,” writes Michael Agger on Slate.
Agger calls Lanier a “romantic snob” for “believ[ing] in individual genius and creativity....,” opposed to a more democratic Web built on participatory sites like Wikipedia, Flickr, and Twitter.
This is the very mindset Lanier critiques, along with Chris Anderson's espousal of “free.” Far from making the Web more open, says Lanier, “free” has disenfranchised artists—whether musicians or authors—who can no longer make a living by selling their work.
PW talked with Lanier about his arguments against Web 2.0 and his own vision of a truly free and open Web.
Was there a moment when your critique of Web 2.0 culture crystallized in your mind?
I remember a few moments that were really dispiriting to me. I think the main thing that started to get to me was seeing my musician friends lose their careers. Since I'm a musician myself, I know quite a number of musicians, including some of the brand-name musicians, and the true numbers of what they make off of that are, with just a few exceptions, just bad, even though there's an illusion that it's better than it is.
I know that there are a number of responses that are very typical from the community that likes the stuff I criticize: well, it's creative destruction, and a new world is coming about, and eventually it will create better things, and it's their fault because they didn't adapt. That's what I used to say long ago. But when I looked at the individual cases, these were people who tried to adapt. They were doing something that was loved by other people and were being disenfranchised from benefiting in the society. It was almost like a new form of class warfare. Seeing the individual cases is what turned me. It wasn't any abstraction.
These were people who had had professional success—say, contracts with record labels?
The people who were hurt the most were what I call the creative middle class, people who were extremely successful—say, session musicians or record producers, songwriters. The thing about that is, as technology progresses, more and more human activity becomes similar to creative activity because the physical part gets mechanized. So what happens to musicians and journalists today is what happens to everybody at some point in the future.
How might it go beyond creative artists?
I'll give you an example. If you read a lot of the rhetoric, one of the clichés that comes up is, if you used to sell music and you can't anymore, give the music away for free for publicity and then make money selling T-shirts. Very common advice. I think there are some bands that are able to sell T-shirts and so forth. So everybody becomes a brand. You have microbranding, and you sell branded things. Now, there are already little home robots that are used by hobbyists that can make things—spoons and hangers, simple things for your house. Some of the hobbyist ones can make replicas of themselves. In 10 years those things will be cheap. They'll be able to make a custom T-shirt from a design off the Internet, and then the customization part will become worthless just like the bits you can burn on a CD off the Internet are already worthless.
So you're saying that Chris Anderson's idea of the freemium doesn't work for most musicians?
Chris's idea of the freemium is that there's some premium version of something that then you can be paid for, and for a writer, what Chris suggests is that you can go on the speaking circuit, you can consult, and so forth. And I've done that—in fact I was one of the pioneers of doing that in the '90s. I had a Web site that got a lot of traffic, and I turned it into a lot of lecture gigs. The problem with that life is that you have to sing for your supper for every meal. You don't get time off to raise children or deal with health issues. It does rob us of dignity. The other thing about that is, there aren't all that many [opportunities to speak]. There's a lot of competition for those $20,000 lecture gigs that Chris says we should all get, and you really do have to be at the top of the charts, and the falloff is precipitous. It goes from $20,000 to $500. Chris is one of the people who can play that game, as am I. But I feel maybe because I know so many musicians, I recognize how lucky and unusual we both are.
Most authors have never made a living from selling their books. They've always had to teach or do something else on the side.
Sure, that's also been true in music. But both music and publishing have always supported the creative middle class. So we're speaking now at the Random House offices in New York. There's a floor full of people here who are earning salaries and supporting families, who are not hit authors but are editors and publicists and all sorts of things, and they're immensely valuable. This new world that many like Chris propose disenfranchises them completely.
In an earlier draft of the book I actually went through research on exactly what's happened to the middle class in music, so if you go back to the start of the Web, there were hundreds of thousands of people filing taxes as musicians, only a tiny portion of whom did so on the basis of being known. But there were so many little jobs—session musicians, sound technicians—and that just fell off a cliff. I assert, and I think with good reason, that had we not screwed up in this way, we would not have had the recession. We have to be looking at results, and if the Internet was so great for wealth, then we should be getting wealthy. It has to be stated that simply.
Would the customer-generated reviews on Amazon fall under your critique of Web 2.0?
I think Amazon, from the point of view of the critique in the book, is pretty far on the good side of that spectrum because they emphasize the notion of the true name so people aren't posting anonymously.
People do use a pseudonym.
They can, but it's also possible for them to announce their true name. So Amazon at least distinguishes between anonymity and true names. Let's remember, Amazon is selling books by authors. Amazon and Apple are the two high-tech companies that have done the most to preserve the idea of personal expression, so one has to acknowledge that. There might be physical retailers who would hear me saying that and say, no, no, please, beat up Apple and Amazon. But the thing is, there are different problems here, and the question of the physical bookstore is one problem that does concern me a great deal, and I really mourn the loss of Cody's in Berkeley, where I live. I miss it terribly. But there's another problem, which is the loss of authors, which is in my mind even more serious. Unlike many other sites, Amazon and Apple are at least trying to promote authors and pay them something. I'm a little concerned about how much Amazon will be paying authors in the long run, and I wish Apple were paying musicians more now, but at least there's something.
Do you see that model developing in a way that could be more profitable for artists?
In the book, I propose that, for both reasons of convenience and practicality, it has to evolve to a universal system of payment. So rather than have one marketplace for Kindles and one marketplace for iPhones, I think eventually there has to be a universal system of payment—it probably should be something that involves government, which I know is a very unpopular thing to say in the U.S. now.
So how would that work?
You have only one copy of each thing, and you'd pay a tiny amount every time you wanted to access it—listen to something or keep reading. It sounds counterintuitive to us because we've done this whole thing with copying. How we get there from here is a profound question. I don't have all the answers for that. But if we could get there, it would be much easier than what we have to deal with now. The very first idea of the Web, which was Ted Nelson's concept, was exactly that.... You would find things via search or catalogue interfaces, and there would be business opportunities for people who have different ways of helping you find things, but you'd perhaps pay for that. I'd rather see a world where we pay a penny for a Google search than have to deal with putting advertising at the center of civilization.
Just to list some of the advantages: you'd no longer have to do digital rights management.
So I could access it from my device, but it wouldn't be on my device?
God, you've been hypnotized by this way of thinking... we're so used to this idea that it's going to take a generation to re-educate people. This is very simple: if you want to see something, you just ask to see it. This is genuine openness. And if you did it this way, you wouldn't have to have specialized devices anymore. That's a green issue.
If everything were accessed this way, what would be the role of booksellers?
I'd like to see Cody's reopen some day, but it might not be filled with shelves of books. I think there would still be books, because people like books. At some point in the future, there might not be as many paper books, and those that exist might be much more expensive, but I think the bookshop might become a physical place that you experience something special that you can't at home, something you can't do with the home virtual reality machine. It might be something more like a physical museum—there'll be a place where you go that relates to the content. I know that sounds a little vague. I'm thinking that there might be artifacts... right now we're in the middle of teenage vampire mania. So maybe you go there and it's almost like a little theme park related to [vampires], and you meet friends there, and it's a physical experience that can't be replicated online. And it's the role of the person who maintains it to help sell the online version of the content and earn a commission or something like that. I think there's an evolutionary path from where we are to there that doesn't depend on keeping the same number of paper books in the world.
So you think this model would make piracy obsolete?
The only thing that makes piracy obsolete is a new social contract. The reason that's not clear right now is in part there's such a legacy of free Internet music and books around, so if you get them for free it feels like there's this huge fire hose of stuff. I think a lot of people will start to realize that even if they're not a conventional author or musician, there might be a way they can make money off whatever they do online. At some point, there'll be what in the trade we call a phase change, and people will start to see what a new social contract that values intellectual output would actually be like.
A lot of people see new technology as democratizing—it's so much less expensive to publish or self-publish. The Creative Commons makes material available to everyone.
Yes, the Creative Commons idea certainly sounds good. I was one of the proponents of this stuff originally. The problem with the CC is that it actually promoted remoteness between people. The idea of the CC is you put your stuff out there, and then other people do things with it. You can ask to have your piece attributed to you, but you have no connection to them. It destroys the context that gives your stuff meaning. The whole point of the CC exercise is to exercise the philosophical point of view that there's meaning without context. It's a resurgence of positivism, if you like. It's a denial of the existence of subjectivity.... That makes it antihuman.