Jaron Lanier, a web pioneer, recants the ‘information-wants-to-be-free’ doctrine: parallel thinking about rescuing ‘the creative class’

The clay will be wet for a long time yet in the digital revolution postgutenberg@gmail.com

The clay will be wet for a long time yet in the digital revolution
postgutenberg@gmail.com

unfinished spools postgutenberg@gmail.com

Why are the dreadlocks of the computer scientist Jaron Lanier a 21st-century counterpart of 1960s bra-burning (or rumours thereof) by women desperately seeking justice for women?

Because a snaky Medusa hairdo can help to draw attention to a cause whose importance too many people fail to understand.

Lanier’s super-hairy look long preceded his campaign of the moment: he wants remedies for the internet’s decimation of the ability of musicians, one tribe to which he belongs, to earn a living. By empathetic extension, he is just as worried about what the net has done to the livelihoods of artists, writers, and the rest of their unworldly kin. Like Carl Djerassi — the chemist and birth-control inventor recently mentioned on post-Gutenberg – his unusual creativity spanning art and technology has taught him how much arts-workers need the help of practical scientists.

Why should other non-artists care? Because, as he warns shrewdly – and, we suspect, accurately – without defensive action, the net could prove just as destructive to other professions, including some too smug to see themselves ever sharing the insecurity of the traditionally bohemian occupations.

Summarising the new Lanier book, Who Owns the Future, on the blog of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, Eric Allen Been says in his introduction to an interview with the author:

[I]t places particular emphasis on the ways digital technology has unsettled the so-called “creative class” — journalists, musicians, photographers, and the like. As he sees it, the tribulations of those working in such fields may be a premonition for the middle class as a whole. It’s “urgent,” he writes, “to determine if the felling of creative-class careers was an anomaly or an early warning of what is to happen to immeasurably more middle-class jobs later in this century.”

Particularly welcome is a grand mea culpa from Lanier – in which he offers artists the best possible defence against all those technologists bent on depriving them of the protection of copyright. In January, the Smithsonian magazine recorded his appalled witnessing of some tragic effects of removing that shield in the music world:

[A]ll 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.’

And I realized this was a hopeless, stupid design of society and that it was our fault.

His confession to his Nieman interviewer was a model of forthrightness:

Eric Allen Been: You were one of the early advocates of the notion that “information wants to be free.” […] Could you talk a little bit about why you changed your mind […]?

Jaron Lanier: Sure. It was based on empirical results. The idea sounded wonderful 30 years ago. It sounded wonderful in the way that perfect libertarianism or perfect socialism can. […] Empirically, […] there is an absurdity to the way it’s going.

Or, as he put it to Salon:

If you go way back I was one of the people who started the whole music-should-be-free thing. You can find the fire-breathing essays where I was trying to articulate the thing that’s now the orthodoxy. Oh, we should free ourselves from the labels and the middleman and this will be better.

I believed it at the time because it sounds better, it really does. I know a lot of these musicians, and I could see that it wasn’t actually working. I think fundamentally you have to be an empiricist. I just saw that in the real lives I know — both older and younger people coming up — I just saw that it was not as good as what it had once been. So that there must be something wrong with our theory, as good as it sounded.

Like the most inventive thinkers, he knows that many of the best ideas in any sphere have a long trail of discarded bad ideas behind them – and he might have been shaped by Samuel Beckett’s famous advice in Worstward Ho: ‘No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

So, how does he think we can stop the damage from the information-wants-to-be-free – ‘freemium’ – movement?

Been: […] [A] lot of what you’re proposing strikes me, in some senses, as a freelance economy.

Lanier: That’s right. What I’m proposing is actually a freelance economy, but it’s a freelance economy where freelancing earns you not just income but also wealth. That’s an important distinction to make. What I think should happen is as you start providing information to the network, it then will become a part of other services that grow over time.

So, for instance, let’s suppose you translate between languages, and some of your translations provide example phrase translations that are used in automatic translators. You would keep getting dribbles of royalties from having done that, and you start accumulating a lot of little ways that you’re getting royalties — not in the sense of contractual royalties, just little payments from people that are doing things that benefited from information you provided. […] What should happen is you should start accumulating wealth, some money that shows up because of your past as well as your present moment.

Been: So if I simply shared a link to a New York Times article on Twitter, for instance, would there be a payment exchange? If so, who would it go to?

Lanier: It would be person-to-person payments. Right now, we’re used to a system where you earn money in blocks, like a salary check, and you’re spending on little things like coffee of something. And in this system, you’d be earning lots of little micropayments all the time.

Ah, micropayments. … Lanier is singing in the same key as post-Gutenberg was in March of last year, in our entry titled, ‘Do we need a campaign for micropayments to support lyric perception?

Because Lanier’s cross-cultural sympathy so perfectly confirms our speculation in that mini-post – that artistic copyright could be saved by growing numbers of amateurs beginning to use the freedom of the net to start selling art themselves – we hope to be indulged in this re-blogging:

photograph by MIL22

photograph by MIL22

As more writers and artists without formal qualifications but with undeniable gifts find audiences for their work on the net, will micropayments finally take off?

By micropayments I mean fractions of euros or dollars – or their equivalent – paid through a transactional service like Kachingle or Flattr to look at an image or video, read a text, or listen to a musical performance or composition. These are payments so minuscule that they barely register with our pocketbooks, but do earn their creators some measurable income in the aggregate.

Popular writers and artists would still far out-earn rivals who cater to more specialised tastes, but some of those appreciated by smaller audiences might be able to retain more of the earnings that they must give away, at present, to middlemen they cannot really afford to pay at all – intermediaries who rarely have the time or inclination to spend much time promoting their work.

So far, so-called Millennials – the generation in their twenties and early thirties now shaping our experience of the net — have shown little enthusiasm for micro-transactions. Their complaints about feeling cheated by corporate middlemen in the music business, when obliged to pay for the pleasure of ‘sharing’ a song, are not completely incomprehensible.

But why are they so unenthusiastic about experimenting with micropayments — direct transactions between buyers and sellers?

Many ardent campaigners for the so-called ‘Freemium’ economy willingly pay small ransoms for the latest gadgets – even when these are only minor improvements or enhancements of last year’s versions, and are designed to fatten the profits of the hated capitalists. Few of them learn to cook simple meals from scratch: they are happy to pay huge mark-ups for bland microwaveable fare cooked and packaged by giant corporations, or to patronise fast-food chains.

Why is it seemingly only art that turns them into Scrooges?

If more Millennials come to see themselves as artists, writers and musicians in years to come – using the democratic new publishing tools – will they become less unsympathetic?

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7 thoughts on “Jaron Lanier, a web pioneer, recants the ‘information-wants-to-be-free’ doctrine: parallel thinking about rescuing ‘the creative class’

  1. I think I’m with Lanier on the need for micropayments, but I’m skeptical of forced payments. He doesn’t explicitly say anything about how to make people pay, but without regulation such a scenario would not be much different from the situation today.

    Thinking of “monetising information” this suddenly came to mind: http://hypertext.sourceforge.net/token_word/ (experimental system for literature quotes, reuse and micropayments)
    I haven’t used it, but the idea is interesting, and if extended to the entire web perhaps something along the lines of what Lanier envisions.

    You suggest that non-artists should care because the net may well prove destructive to their professions too. While I agree with that, I see little reason to single out artists or a ‘creative class’ in the first place (and which ‘artists’? Are architects or web designers necessarily less creative than writers or musicians? How about a cook?). Any person or company that has so far relied on selling copies of information, and now things, are directly and deeply affected by recent technological advances.

    The “shield” (or lance, perhaps?) of copyright has never been stronger than now, yet it seems the average musician or writer are having ever harder times to sell songs and books. Even with totalitarian measures of enforcing copyright and punishing infringement, would more works be sold? Quite probably, but with today’s globally top-list economy it may not help the average writer or musician — how could a large proportion of writers succeed when competing with the rest of the world (including the dead!)?

    I forgot half of what I was planning to comment on.

  2. I posted a comment, but I’m not sure it went through. Is it in the moderation queue, or should I post again?

  3. Hello 5th … I hope you kept a copy of that comment because it isn’t here. That is, it isn’t in the most obvious place — in this section. I’ll check the spam filter. If I haven’t rescued it an hour from now, will you please post it again — and if it still doesn’t appear, email postgutenberg@gmail.com? … Sorry for this muddle. I am keen to see what you said — naturally.

  4. I wonder how it got into spam … It’s at the top of the queue, now, or where it should have been in the first place. … Please remember the other half and post again — I’ve been thinking of a follow-up entry, not just a comment in reply to you and a friend who is sure that Milennials aren’t playing Scrooge. He might be right, but …

  5. I guess my comment just didn’t reach the standards of the spam-checking program :)

    I’ll save my next comment for later, there are quite many interesting aspects here and I think I need to think it through properly before posting more disparate little remarks … (and the spam program agrees!)

    Looking forward to your follow-up entry!

  6. 5th, … a good thing that the comment was found … and apologies for the world’s slowest reply.

    The new post on copyright got too long for a discussion of exactly who is covered by the word ‘artist’. But as inclusiveness is of the essence of the post-Gutenberg world, and the raison d’être of this blog, the most attractive approach to the question is Marcel Duchamp’s – quoted in an excellent discussion of the same subject in this contribution by Daniel Grant to the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-grant/how-do-you-define-artist_b_582329.html

    Artists are people who call themselves artists. According to Marcel Duchamp, the artist defines art, and it seems increasingly true that nowadays artists also define who and what they are. Definitions by nature are confining and restrictive, while art and its makers seek to be expansive and inclusive: It may be simpler to state what makes an artist a professional than what defines an artist. Artist has become a universal statement of creativity or, in the case of a culinary artist, someone who does something well.

    … and your answer for cooks is in there, too.

    The problem of defining ‘artist’ is exactly like trying to work out what someone means using the other phrase Lanier does a lot, these days: ‘middle class’. We were taught that certain professions, like teaching, were middle class, but that Americans use it interchangeably with middle-income; a matter of statistics. Now, that could make its place in some of Lanier’s recent arguments a little confusing.

    The easiest and only solution p-G sees for the hopeless fuzziness of ‘artist’ is to let context limit its scope – in this case, people who believe that they do work significantly affected by changes in public attitudes to copyright, and by alterations in copyright law.

    How does that suit you?

    The next post will deal with your other points. This one is mostly addressing a friend’s email mentioning commodification.

  7. That was a very suitable quote, with culinary artists and all! I would agree with the inclusive view of the word artist, though one could probably argue that not using it at all would avoid a fair amount of confusion, ambiguity and unhelpful associations …

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