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.
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:
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?