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?

Testimonial to the curious state of commercial publishing: literary young Lochinvars locked out despite high praise from gatekeepers

John A. A. Logan poised to evoke the touch of evil in The Survival of Thomas Ford – and below, less alarmingly, with his mother, Agnes Logan
Photographs by Alasdair Allen (above) and northern-times.co.uk

‘We sly women are the world’s only hope,’ said Jan, ‘And not just any old sly women either. You can forget about yer Jews and Protestants for starters. And of course any woman who dabbles in atheism.’

‘You get them, man,’ said Bathsheba. ‘It happens.’

[…]

‘Still in deep denial about the Counter-Reformation, yer Prods.’ Bathsheba beeped the horn again. ‘The most comically perplexed souls of all time, poor things.’ Beebeep. ‘The ne plus ultra of human… Of human whit? Thingummibob. Whit’s the word? Cartoonishness? Am I toasty warm? Get us the thesaurus.’

Jan found it in the glove compartment and gave it over.

The Adorata, Sean Murray

What is the point of thrillers – the noir kind, especially?

Er, … entertainment, do you suppose? you suggest drily, stifling a sardonic ‘D’oh!

To which post-Gutenberg’s answer would be, but what is the point of this sub-genre of entertainment?

Yes, yes … we know, an absurdly ambitious question for a funny little blog.

But this hardly rules out suggesting a line of enquiry for an answer: might the point of blood-and-gore electrified by crackling suspense be to fight horror with horror? That is, neutralise real-life horror, shock and sadness, with the imagined and invented kind? Nothing supplies temporary relief for the agony of witnessing the suffering of someone beloved in extremis – helpless to do much to relieve it – as well as a story so powerful that it takes control of your brain and entire nervous system, whether read in snatches or all the way through.

Events of recent weeks have shown us that a well-written thriller violent and gripping in direct proportion to the unbearable, in actual life, works better than any other literary form – particularly for a reader who loathes violent films and literature, and often resents the manipulations of narrative suspense.

The book is set aside, and the reader feels inexplicably stronger and ready to face down the monsters again. Some process less akin to catharsis than to Freud’s idea of displacement is surely at work – which, in a Wikipedia definition,

operates in the mind unconsciously and involves emotions, ideas or wishes being transferred from their original object to a more acceptable substitute. It is most often used to allay anxiety …

The book – or rather, e-book — that worked this strange magic for us is The Survival of Thomas Ford, about which we learnt from a Twitter link by its author, John A. A. Logan, to a detailed history of the manuscript’s long string of rejections that we would call staggeringly unbelievable and absurd if we did not know it to be an impeccably accurate record of the state of conventional publishing in 2012. We began to watch John’s tweet stream after we found ourselves on the same side in an online debate about copyright in the age of the net; among the not-terribly-popular lobbyists for paying artists and writers for work in the age of e-pirating.

Soon, we were reading arresting sentences and sequences like these:

 Jimmy sipped Coke and watched Robert out of an eye’s sly edge.

 Robert believed that it was sometimes possible for the universe to overlook certain misdeeds, even serious ones. He had believed from an early age that the universe made errors, usually errors of omission. He believed, in fact, that Jimmy’s very existence was evidence of such an error.

  If Jimmy was a vacuum, then Robert had been sucked in.

We registered something indefinably Scottish in the observations, the styles of expression, and marvelled at the absence of the too-familiar props in mass-market thriller-writing – glamourising brand names and settings – and clichéd ‘middle-class’ attitudes to people on less fortunate social rungs, or the reverse. A hospital cleaner, finding herself for the first time in an urban garden thinks,

This garden was like a machine for escaping the city.

After weeks of reading in tiny sips, for a lack of time, we reached a scene in which a father punishes his adult son for mistreating immigrant Polish bricklayers by flinging him into the mud with a feral twist that all but breaks his neck. Soon, there are characters bleeding from kitchen knives stuck in their sides and … For fear of the spoiler effect, we’ll stop there and say that we usually go to extremes to avoid sustained violence in any form, and were able to endure no more than a half-hour of The Silence of the Lambs. But we could not stop reading Survival.

John Logan is certainly not trying to be Muriel Spark, the grand priestess of modern Scottish literature, but as real life trouble intensified and spun out of control for us, we grew increasingly impatient with audio recordings of still gritty but tired recent books by Ian Rankin to which we had turned – because they were sitting on our library re-shelving cart – to make sure that we stayed fully alert on long driving expeditions on featureless roads. We longed to listen instead to the fresher writing voice and inspiration of the next chapter of the Logan thriller with its endlessly surprising perspectives and frequently excellent prose.

That last attribute is something John’s work has in common with other young Scots writers, too many of them unpublished, or self-published and unnoticed because of hair-raisingly nonsensical sagas of rejection – like his. The extract from a modernist — Barthian, Bellowish, (William) Burroughsian – novel by Sean Murray in the epigraph for this post came from a discussion of misogyny in the work of male novelists on Donkeyshott and Xuitlacoche, the domain of a blogger, Philip Hall, who has a head crammed with stimulating, cosmopolitan ideas. The guest-post on his blog spotlighting the Adorata remarked, ‘If your life depended on it, could you imagine Mailer creating a female character with a thesaurus stored in her car?’

In disembodied cyberspace, post-Gutenberg has had more than one encounter with these Scottish scribes — whose energy and dauntlessness recall ‘O, young Lochinvar is come out of the west/Through all the wide Border his steed was the best …’. We have been honoured by bracing and uplifting encouragement from them – which might make our motives for writing this post suspect. Fear not. We have … ahem … credibility to protect, as obscure as we are, in this patch of the net.

Before we leave you to read a clip from John’s account of his well-deserved — but hard-won — success with publishing Survival as an e-book, we have a question. Can we — those of us who care about the absurdity of neither John nor Sean Murray finding a conventional publisher with conventional marketing muscle — do something to finance the efforts of writers suffering from the disappearance of editors capable of nurturing unpublished writers? Or sustaining the efforts of those who already have stellar publishing credits, but have run afoul of the salespeople promoted to über-gatekeepers at some of the most famous literary imprints?

We have made suggestions before, about how this might be done – using micropayments, something better than Kickstarter and a new way of organising publishing as a massively inclusive, subscriber-based ‘co-owned’ medium.

That post-Gutenberg — thousands of miles from Scotland, with no real-life acquaintance with any of these scarcely-known Scottish scribblers — should care so much about helping them find support surely means that something can be done, and soon.

Over, now, to John himself – although you will want to read his entire record of the death of common sense. The last page of Survival says that John has been published by Picador, Vintage and Chapman – all in the loftiest tier of the serious end of the book business.

… In December 2010, the literary agent phoned me for 90 minutes, to tell me he was sure a major publishing house’s editors had wanted to take my book, but then at the meeting with the sales dept the sales folk for this publishing house had said that I “reminded them of someone they had had high hopes for two years earlier but then had lost money on”. And that ended that house’s interest in the book.

A little later, the senior commissioning editor at another major UK publishing house wrote to say “I think John Logan is a hugely talented writer. I love books like this that have the pace and excitement of a thriller but the voice and emotional depth of a literary novel”. But again when it came right down to it, no sale!

Then my agent passed the book to a film consultant who worked with him. She told him my novel, The Survival of Thomas Ford, was the best book she had read in that literary agency in the last 4 years. This was taken very seriously, as this film consultant had discovered Slumdog Millionaire as an unpublished manuscript and was responsible for it getting developed into a film …

Audience jealousy of artists, part 2; & what this has to do with Sisyphus and rock ‘n’ roll

 

Stills from Jankovics Marcell’s ‘Sisyphus’ (1974)

[ part 1 is: here ]

And what about the collective memory of artistic creation? For every Prometheus and Sisyphus haunting scholars, how many of their former equals are barely stirring and covered in dust?

The Sonderberg Case, Elie Wiesel (2010)

Our screen shots from a short Jankovics Marcell animation, Sisyphus (1974) — a work of genius in nearly every frame — could be depicting the struggle to change the monetary terms on which artists make art. We would like, in this lifetime, to see that accursed rock stop and stay still, where it ought to. By that, we mean that some self-sustaining way of letting artists and writers keep up with plumbers must somehow be put into practice.

Presumably Marcell, a Hungarian, earned enough from licensing a giant US multinational to adapt his haiku-like video for a (comparatively crude and clod-hopping) tv advertisement to make the world a gift of his original, so that anyone can watch it, free. But only a sub-microscopic fraction of creators can afford such generosity.

We still shudder, remembering the relentless succession of hostile posts in the discussion on a newspaper site we quoted extensively the last time we wrote on this subject, last month. Artists have starved and suffered throughout history, ran the argument – if we have to dignify rants with that word. So what? … the ranters raged.

It is asking for nearly inhuman self-control, to suppress the vituperative and scatological reply that comes immediately to mind, on hearing that question. People all over the world were actual serfs for aeons, but then became merely virtual serfs – wage-slaves – a few centuries ago. Being a baby-making machine, year after year, and – as someone once put it, ‘tied by their tits’ to their broods – was seen, for most of humanity’s time on earth, as the unavoidable fate of women. If injustice could be defended merely by precedent, and by precedence extending to pre-history, how odd that we no longer accept chaining and whipping our fellow-beings like defenceless animals.

Poverty was once universally accepted as the inevitable lot of most scholars. The great 17th century Dutch rationalist-philosopher Spinoza – whose idea of God, Albert Einstein said, was closest to his own — is known to have lived on porridge, groats and milk, or was certainly obliged to eat that diet more often than most of us would think endurable. Then someone invented tenure, and certainly in rich countries – even after years of budget cuts – few contemporary academics share the abject insecurity, at the level of penury, that too many artists among their fellow-citizens do.

We have returned to the subject not to say anything new as much as underline the importance of change – and because we forgot to mention, earlier, that thoughtful interpreters of Greek mythology consider the fates of Prometheus and Sisyphus to be allegories for the life of inventors and creators. What most of these theorisers have in mind, in drawing their parallels, is not money and financial survival but the interior, psychological struggles of creative people — and the punishment for extraordinary talent, in both stories.

This post ends with a semi-non-sequitur, an extract from an essay by Rollo May (1909-1994) – a disconcertingly perceptive, often poetic, writer on the psychology of workers at creativity’s coalface – for which our excuse is simply that we have been admiring the passage for a very long time.

It earns its hopefulness; is as far as possible from Pollyanna optimism. As May explains to the uninitiated in a terse footnote, ‘Sisyphus was a king of Corinth condemned by Zeus to roll a large stone ceaselessly up a hill.’ (Alternatively, as Nick Pontikis claims in an irresistible, fleshed-out version of the legend on his Thanasis blog — we are indebted to the stoical monarch for the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.)

… Are we doomed to live in a world no one can make sense of? …

… Out of that … despair is born this myth which is new but eternally old, the only myth that fits this seemingly hopeless situation. This is the myth of Sisyphus. The one myth which … goes no place at all, seems to be a repetition, every day and every act being forever the same in perpetual monotonous toil and sweat.

But that is to omit its crucial meaning. One thing Sisyphus can do: he can be aware of each moment in this drama between himself and Zeus, between himself and fate. This – because it is most human – makes his reaction completely different from that of the dark night of the mountain up which he rolls his rock …

… The myth of Sisyphus is sometimes interpreted as the sun climbing to its apex every day and then curving down again. Nothing could be more important for human life than these circular journeys of the sun. …

… [W]e face monotony in all we do; we draw in and exhale breath after breath in ceaseless succession through every moment of our lives, which is monotony par excellence. But out of this repetitiveness of breathing the Buddhists and Yoga have formed their religious meditation and a way of achieving the heights of ecstasy.

For Sisyphus is a creative person who even tried to erase death. He never gives up but always is devoted to creating a better kind of life; he is a model of a hero who presses on in spite of his or her despair. Without such capacity to confront despair we would not have Beethoven or Rembrandt or Michelangelo or Dante or Goethe of any others of the great figures in the development of culture …

Sisyphus’ consciousness is the hallmark of being human. Sisyphus is the thinking reed with a mind which can construct purposes, know ecstasy and pain, distinguish monotony from despair, and place the monotony – the rolling of the stone – in the scheme of his rebellion, the act for which he is condemned. …

Sisyphus … must have noticed in his trips some wisp of pink cloud that heralds the dawn, or felt some pleasure in the wind against his breast as he strode down the hill after his rock, or remembered some line of poetry to muse upon …

… [In t]he myth of Sisyphus … [w]e are required … to recognise our human state of consciousness in progress or without it, … with the disintegration of the world or without it. It is this that saves us from destruction when our little rules prove unavailing.

This is what led Albert Camus to conclude his essay on Sisyphus, ‘We must consider Sisyphus happy.’

… Rollo May does mention money in a passage before that extract, not in connection with artists who have too little of it, but showing us why their poverty so often elicits self-righteous scorn. He says, in a profoundly intelligent dissection of greed, focused on America, but applying widely on every continent:

There has been in America no clear-cut differentiation between right and wrong ways to get rich. Playing the stock market? Finding oil under your shack in Texas? Deforesting vast tracts of Douglas fir in the state of Washington? Amassing piles of money for lectures after getting out of prison as a Watergate crook? The important thing in the American dream has been to get rich, and then those very riches give sanction to your situation. The fact of your being successful is proof that God smiles on you and that you are among the saved. It is not hard to see how this, in true Calvinistic tradition, drifted into getting rich as the eleventh commandment.

[ part 1 is: here ]