In the 1990s, Jaron Lanier was one of the digital pioneers hailing the wonderful possibilities that would be realized once the Internet allowed musicians, artists, scientists and engineers around the world to instantly share their work. Now, like a lot of us, he is having second thoughts.
Mr. Lanier, a musician and avant-garde computer scientist — he popularized the term “virtual reality” — wonders if the Web’s structure and ideology are fostering nasty group dynamics and mediocre collaborations. His new book, “You Are Not a Gadget,” is a manifesto against “hive thinking” and “digital Maoism,” by which he means the glorification of open-source software, free information and collective work at the expense of individual creativity.
He blames the Web’s tradition of “drive-by anonymity” for fostering vicious pack behavior on blogs, forums and social networks. He acknowledges the examples of generous collaboration, like Wikipedia, but argues that the mantras of “open culture” and “information wants to be free” have produced a destructive new social contract.
“The basic idea of this contract,” he writes, “is that authors, journalists, musicians and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind. Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion. Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising.”
I think there’s something to Lanier’s critique, but only within the current context of capitalism. Culture has become “precisely nothing but advertising” because of commercialization and commodification. The structure of the web that leads to this is the result of broader institutional arrangements- as Marx observed, the distribution is implied by the production. Corporations have leveraged their power to shape the web (at least partially) to their own ends. Integrate the web into a non-capitalist framework and the problems become far less so.
But when Napster and other music-sharing Web sites started becoming popular, Dr. Liebowitz correctly predicted that the music industry would be seriously hurt because it was so cheap and easy to make perfect copies and distribute them. Today he sees similar harm to other industries like publishing and television (and he is serving as a paid adviser to Viacom in its lawsuit seeking damages from Google for allowing Viacom’s videos to be posted on YouTube).
The article continues with a discussion of how piracy has hurt the music industry. Instead of identifying artists as the ones hurt, Tierney talks about the industry as an entity that needs protection. He does this because it’s much more difficult to make the case that piracy has hurt artists- they see very little from record sales and piracy in many cases introduces new people to artists, who sometimes see an increase in concert attendance (which support bands far more than record sales).
“An intelligent person feels guilty for downloading music without paying the musician, but they use this free-open-culture ideology to cover it,” Mr. Lanier told me. In the book he disputes the assertion that there’s no harm in copying a digital music file because you haven’t damaged the original file.
“The same thing could be said if you hacked into a bank and just added money to your online account,” he writes. “The problem in each case is not that you stole from a specific person but that you undermined the artificial scarcities that allow the economy to function.”
Here, Lanier shows us directly the irrationality of the system- he even says that it’s based on manufactured scarcity. If the scarcity upon which a system depends can be undermined so easily, why should anyone be rushing to protect it? It seems like a lost cause from the outset.
Mr. Lanier was once an advocate himself for piracy, arguing that his fellow musicians would make up for the lost revenue in other ways. Sure enough, some musicians have done well selling T-shirts and concert tickets, but it is striking how many of the top-grossing acts began in the predigital era, and how much of today’s music is a mash-up of the old.
“It’s as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump,” Mr. Lanier writes. Or, to use another of his grim metaphors: “Creative people — the new peasants — come to resemble animals converging on shrinking oases of old media in a depleted desert.”
The fact that huge-selling artists no longer exist is much more a function of the fragmentation of musical tastes and genres (thanks to the web) than an indication that artists are doing badly. Lanier’s metaphor hardly holds up, either- exactly what makes him think that culture is shrinking? Why is the “old media” better than the new, and in what meaningful capacity did culture “freeze”? Were monopolistic intellectual property agreements the only thing driving the creation of culture before the web?
The result is a problem a bit like trying to stop a mob of looters. When the majority of people feel entitled to someone’s property, who’s going to stand in their way?
This is a broken metaphor, because in the case of digital content one person’s ability to use something doesn’t interfere with another’s ability to use it. The property is not the actual data, but the monopolistic exclusive right to that data. Once again, it’s only a problem when viewed in the context of our irrational system.