Jaron Lanier on Digital Economy

Having read “You are not a gadget”, I was pleased to see an article by Jaron Lanier on the BBC website yesterday. Was he still warning of the perils of Web2.0, or had he decided it wasn’t as bad as all that?

In “You are not a Gadget” Lanier made cautionary points about how software design decisions lock-in styles of interaction, expression and thereby thought and self-image. In web2.0 he sees our representation of ourselves as a piecemeal stream of check-box statements to nobody in particular. The fragmentation and re-constitution of intellectual artefacts render authorship a side-issue as knowledge becomes the homogenised, crowd-sourced soup we see on Wikipedia. The individual is eroded as a felt presence along with intellectual property rights; mob behaviour is ever a risk in environments where anonymity is preserved as a legacy of the days when ‘virtual identities’ were thought the way forward. He tends to make the same point several times, but I had the feeling that there was a point to make, particularly about how digital interactions affect our notion of who we are.

The article for the BBC, entitled “Sell your data to save the economy and your future” serves up the same enjoyably pessimistic dish as before. The article seemed to have suffered some aggressive editing leaving it less than entirely coherent. In particular, he gives causal precedence to technology for what are economic effects of normal capitalist processes (increasing automation in the pursuit of efficiency) and neoliberal policies (export of industries to developing nations, growing wealth and income inequalities). Having shared the article with a colleague, an email conversation ensued, my own part of which was more admiring of Lanier’s article than hers. Here is my final email, trying to summarise my thoughts:

“I think he does have a point, which is that we should be wary of certain trends in the digital economy. After that you kind of have to finish his arguments for him. He’s a software developer, and so focuses on the tech, but to me he’s writing about corporate monopolistic tendencies: disproportionate power and influence resting in a few hands. When he talks about threats to democracy, he’s echoing a concern that goes back to the concerns of Thomas Jefferson and other US presidents 200 years ago who brought in anti-trust legislation to guard against monopolies.

“He has the technological egg coming first and the economic chicken back in the coop but this is understandable given his background. As someone who worked on Internet technologies going back a long way, including at Microsoft, he’ll have seen how wide-scale tech adoption can lead to lock-in (e.g. the peculiar permanence of Word, but also network effects that make an alternative to Facebook difficult to develop even for Google). He seems to view this as the driver for monopolies. When data about how to perform surgery, build houses, knit socks or whatever is accessible by smart machines, when machines can rebuild and fix themselves, high value nodes become significant monopolies.

“He worries how automation will affect employment, a concern as old as capitalism. This is exactly what the Luddites were protesting about in the mid-nineteenth century and the same pursuit of efficiency led to progressive de-skilling and automation of manual labour throughout the 20th century. As more productive capacity is achievable by fewer people, what happens to the people who used to do those jobs? So far new types of employment have come along to replace them, but he perhaps is concerned if this going to continue in an era where dominant economic forces have little stake in maintaining high levels of employment (at least I think that’s what the austerity reference was about).

“I can remember when a million unemployed was a scandal that helped to bring down a government, now 2.5 million unemployed doesn’t merit a mention in the papers. 45 million people in the US are on food stamps. I think Lanois is right to try to connect the dots even if his aim’s not great.

“There’s a bunch of other stuff in there as well: like he thinks we should get a small payment everytime somebody uses our data: an interesting idea but looks unworkable.