More from Lanier: " There are only a tiny handful of writers or musicians who actually make a living in the new utopia"

From “World Wide Mush” by Jaron Lanier in the Wall Street Journal:

…The “open” paradigm rests on the assumption that the way to get ahead is to give away your brain’s work—your music, writing, computer code and so on—and earn kudos instead of money. You are then supposedly compensated because your occasional dollop of online recognition will help you get some kind of less cerebral work that can earn money. For instance, maybe you can sell custom branded T-shirts.

We’re well over a decade into this utopia of demonetized sharing and almost everyone who does the kind of work that has been collectivized online is getting poorer. There are only a tiny handful of writers or musicians who actually make a living in the new utopia, for instance. Almost everyone else is becoming more like a peasant every day.

And it’s going to get worse. Before too long—in 10 years, I’d guess—cheap home robots will be able to make custom T-shirts from free designs off the Internet. When that day comes, then a T-shirt’s design will be no more valuable than recorded music is today.

…The owners of big computer resources on the Internet, like Google, will be able to make money from the open approach for a long time, of course, by routing advertisements, but middle-class people will be increasingly asked to accept a diet of mere kudos. No one should feel insulated from this trend. Poverty has a way of trickling up. Once everyone is aggregated, what will be left to be advertised?

…I don’t want our young people aggregated, even by a benevolent social-networking site. I want them to develop as fierce individuals, and to earn their living doing exactly that. When they work together, I hope they’ll do so in competitive, genuinely distinct teams so that they can get honest feedback and create big-time innovations that earn royalties, instead of spending all their time on crowd-pleasing gambits to seek kudos. This is not just so that they and their children will thrive, but so that they won’t become a mob, which, as history has shown us again and again, is a vulnerability of human nature.



From the New York Post (via Joe Carducci), a piece on Jaron Lanier’s new book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto:

How the Internet is leading toward “digital Maoism” and the loss of individuality

Last Updated: 6:07 AM, January 10, 2010

The most popular aspects of Internet life — including Wikipedia, Facebook and digital music — are so detrimental to humanity that they give young people “a reduced expectation of what a person can be.”

That’s the disturbing conclusion of Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist famous for coining the term “virtual reality.” Lanier, a visiting scholar with the Department of Computer Science at Columbia University, among other positions, says that the Web has reduced communication to the point where we’re molding ourselves to serve it in harmful ways.

Social networking, for example, reduces people from complexities to categories, and subjects them to the will of what he calls the “hive mind.”

“The most effective young Facebook users are the ones who create successful online fictions about themselves,” he says. “They must manage off-hand remarks and track candid snapshots at parties as carefully as a politician . . . avoiding the ever-roaming evil eye of the hive mind, which can turn on an individual at any moment. A Facebook Generation young person who suddenly becomes humiliated online has no way out, for there is only one hive.”

The Internet favors the mob over the individual, and group efforts like Wikipedia are prized, even as they peel away personality and perspective. Uncredited bits of information — article excerpts, photos, video, etc. — are stripped of their humanity by being stripped of their context.

“Something like missionary reductionism has happened to the Internet with the rise of Web 2.0,” Lanier says. “The strangeness is being leached away in the mush-making process.”

Lanier regards this as an “anti-human” approach.

“Emphasizing the crowd means de-emphasizing individual humans in the design of society,” he says. In one notable instance, Wired Magazine founder Kevin Kelly posited that society no longer needs authors, and wound up in a feud with John Updike after declaring it a “moral imperative” that all the world’s books become “one book,” available for editing and mashing up by anyone who sees fit.

The result of all this, says Lanier, is that “when you ask people not to be people, they revert to bad, mob-like behaviors,” noting how vicious anonymous commenters even have driven some to suicide.

In explaining how we got here, Lanier discusses how computer science tried to replicate complex human activities with inferior results. One example is MIDI, which was developed in the early 1980s for the sole purpose of imitating the sound of a keyboard. Yet MIDI was limited, inherently unable to digitally represent “the curvy, transient expressions” of a singer or sax player.

Nonetheless, MIDI became “the standard scheme to represent music in software,” and is now the basis for all digitized music — including songs on our iPods — despite sounding far inferior to analog recordings.

Rather than search for a better solution, Lanier says that our response has been to lower our expectations of music quality. In the same way, we settle for what the Internet can give us in terms of information, entertainment and personality. The medium limits the message.

The consequences of letting things persist could be dire, he says, comparing those who believe in the anti-human path to “digital Maoists.”

“History tells us that collectivist ideals can mushroom into large-scale social disasters,” he writes. “The fascias and communes of the past started out with small numbers of idealistic revolutionaries . . . I am afraid we might be setting ourselves up for a reprise.” …

“We have “entered a persistent somnolence,” he says. “We will only escape it when we kill the hive.”

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