What’s Eating Jaron Lanier (written about 5 years ago)

R.U. Sirius

So I came across this thing I never published and I like it quite a bit even though I should probably update it but I have a toothache.

So let me just protest that I love Jaron and really loved his recent quasi-autobiographical book Dawn of the New Everything: A Journey Through Virtual Reality 

Anyway, here is something from several years ago in the raw…


Every few years, one of my friends from the early days of digital enthusiasm turns up on the media’s radar as a “defector.”

Huzzah! The former advocate or progenitor of the Next New Thing has turned into a flaming critic.  Perhaps he or she has even issued a Jeremiad against the former Great Hope of All Humanity.  It’s a turnkey, media-ready narrative, easy to convey and easy for a reading public that pays little attention to the more complicated discourses taking place around the impacts of radical technology to digest.  He was for it. Now he’s agin’ it.  You can tweet that and have enough characters left over for a haiku.    

Jaron Lanier, who emerged into the media spotlight in the early ’90s as the chief spokesperson for Virtual Reality, seems to be having a longer — and more vocal — run at this sort of thing than most. His 2000 piece — “One Half A Manifesto” — published in Wired, struck out against what he saw as a cybernetic totalism wherein some techno enthusiasts were laboring to create our nonbiological replacement species.  With his  2011 book, You Are Not  A Gadget, he went a bit further into “fighting the future,” finding aspects of the Web 2.0 culture depersonalizing and economically unfair to creatives.  In a recent and much-ballyhooed portrait in The Smithsonian magazine titled “What Turned Jaron Lanier Against The Web,” Ron Rosenbaum portrays Jaron as being like a “spy who came in from the cold.”  

The whole Manichean set-up is a bit much, but the actual content of Jaron’s complaints, I think, are not particularly obscure and touch a disquieted nerve in many of us — particularly those of us who have experienced life before the ubiquity of the social web.

The bummer, according to Lanier — at least as expressed in the aforementioned article — are as follows:

1: We are falling into a “hive mind.” Being webbed together — living in public and thinking collectively leads to a sort of insectoid de-individualization and a devaluation of excellence.  Some time back, Lanier called Wikipedia “digital Maoism” and questioned the au courant deference to “the wisdom of the crowd.”

2:  That whole “Information wants to be free” thing — what some call “free culture” — is not economically kind to artists, musicians, writers and creative folks in general.  Aside from being economically devalued, skilled creative types are demeaned as we’re pushed down into the shit end of the Long Tail along with the vast, relatively unskilled hordes who are happy to provide their own content, thank you very much, and to grab up our stuff for free.  The creative middle class is being disintermediated.

3:  Digitized music sucks

4:  The same technology that privileges file sharing also privileges the plutocratic finance economy.  Digital networked capital is unfair and largely disconnected from actual productivity. 

5:  The Singularitarians are fanatical quasi-religious nuts

6:  Most anonymous people  assholes.  There’s a virtual tsunami of ugliness and hate that seems to be gathering force.

It’s not my purpose here to take on every one of these points (I partly agree with all of them… with the emphasis on partly.)  Primarily, I’m interested here in the places where I stand, politically, in opposition to Lanier’s implicit stance. For example, I think that the emergent property of transparent voluntary collaborationism — what we might call “hive mind” creativity and economics (that whole open source thing)  — is probably the most hopeful sign of any potentially positive future. 

But like Jaron, I don’t like totalism.  This is an obscure point, I think, in most public discourse, but any strong tendency needs to evoke its opposite or a sort of rigidity sets in. Honor your iconoclasts.

When I interviewed Jaron back in 2002, he complained about a  “tautological” programming that, in his opinion, tends to arise out of open source circles, finally exclaiming, “Do these people not know the meaning of boredom!?”  Here we have the fundamental  complaint not only of many rogue innovators against the hive, but an implicit defense of a certain creative extravagance that — in the past — has characterized many of our culture’s most interesting artists.  It’s a recognition of the fact that individual bravura expressions that add spark and color to our worlds tend to get reigned in when culture gets too democratized.  And this tendency becomes particularly oppressive and dreary in the realm of culture. 

It seems reactionary — particularly if one has progressive politics — to push back against the growing tendency; which is that people want to watch, read and listen to people who are just like them.  But, while Jaron went to silly school when he castigated the essential utility that is Wikipedia as “digital Maoism,”  we do well to recall that hyper-egalitarianism in culture played a major role in producing the grey, conformist, dehumanized social contexts that rendered the Leninist experiments of the 20th Century so viscerally oppressive. 

The “free culture” issue — the situation that emerges as cultural product goes digital and is therefor infinitely duplicable and instantly available to everyone with web access —  is a far more complicated and convoluted mess.  But here again, I stand, ambiguously, and despite my immediate self interests, on the side of those who want the information to be free — to not impose scarcity where there isn’t any.  But I stand with them for reasons that — while they may not be so unusual — are rarely voiced.

And this takes us back to those early days (I met Jaron back in 1987 or ’88) when Jaron and I were both younger and perhaps more resilient.  I can’t speak for him, but I think it’s fair to say that that their was a broad feeling amongst those of us at play in the fields of the arising tech revolution that If the anarchic shockwaves of changing social relations brought about by — among other things — the digitization of cultural stuff and the resultant ease with which that stuff could be copied unto infinity and accessed from anywhere — then we would happily surf those crazy shifting waves.

But the other part of that deal — at least as may of the people I was hanging out with in those days perceived it — was that everything else was going to change.  We knew that the end of scarcity in the digital realm was “heightening the contradictions” (as they say) in the industrial capitalist model.  We assumed that either capitalism would rise to the challenge by finding ways to support those disintermediated or replaced by technical change —  or it would be forcibly altered or dissipated in the forward rush of boundary defying technologies.  Well, we got our disintermediation of cultural wealth, sort of. There’s certainly a surfeit of free culture.  But there’s also this middle terrain, best represented by iTunes, where — by offering convenience and legitimacy (and by being extremely well advertised)  — turnstiles are resurrected and money is exchanged.  Here we are not disintermediated so much as cheapened, which serves mainly to cloud the discussion by offering the almost entirely false premise that all but a very few people can still make a livelihood off of their digitized stuff.   As Jaron says, in that Smithsonian piece, I’d had a career as a professional musician and what I started to see is that once we made information free, it wasn’t that we consigned all the big stars to the bread lines.” (They still had mega-concert tour profits.) “Instead, it was the middle-class people who were consigned to the bread lines. And that was a very large body of people. And all of a sudden there was this weekly ritual, sometimes even daily: ‘Oh, we need to organize a benefit because so and so who’d been a manager of this big studio that closed its doors has cancer and doesn’t have insurance. We need to raise money so he can have his operation.’”

This time it’s personal  And the personal question is whether there is an economic place in the world… well,  for us — for the cultural professional — the musician, the writer. And again, that place, it seems to me, is down their with the hobbyists at the shit end of the Long Tail.  In Chris Anderson’s glib happyland, everybody gets to bring their game to market.  In reality, that long tail is populated almost entirely by people who either don’t need to — or simply don’t — make anything like a reasonable livelihood from their efforts. 

Why should this matter to you? Well, aside from the fact that everybody’s salable skill will eventually get disintermediated, automated or both, it shouldn’t.  Their is no intrinsic entitlement to a middle class life for creative workers — or for anyone — written into the cosmos.

On the other hand, there’s no intrinsic entitlement to free access to the products of cultural creativity written into the cosmos either.  All of these tendencies come about (or don’t) as the result of where the technology takes us, within the context of the type of society in which those technologies grow, and with the additional and important possible directional thrust that might occur as we negotiate what’s fair and, if warranted, actually make those societies change.  And this finally is where the shouting over the p2p exchange of digital stuff versus the interests of the creator to gather a livelihood needs a contextual shift.  You might say that we have come to at least partially embrace our entitlement that there is such a think as  free culture in a political and economic context that tells us there is no such thing as a free lunch.  It is only by jettisoning the pinched, obsolete, reactionary shredding of the social “safety net” and reimagining our economic mutuality in the 21st context of vastly accelerating automation, disintermediation and other changes that render most people objectively economically superfluous that we will end this standoff. 

Obviously, our political discourse has a long way to go in this regard — and a deeper exploration of this is subject for another essay at another time.  Regarding Jaron Lanier’s disaffection, the Smithsonian article makes it clear that his noting of the economic marginalization of creatives was the “single development” that has pushed him into his dark and foreboding mood. I think, in fact, that this is generalizable.  Most of the disaffection and fears that people express regarding the cultural shifts that surround our virtualizing culture actually are an expression of the stress of living in an economic pressure cooker that’s about to blow.  Given a modicum of slack, this techno-juggernaut starts to look again like the marvelous garden of intriguing possibilities that it did back in the day, when we enthused and dreamed an expansive and delightful future.


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