Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> Jaron lanier: The Internet destroyed the middle class
nettime's avid reader on Mon, 13 May 2013 18:12:42 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Jaron lanier: The Internet destroyed the middle class


__You talk early in ?Who Owns the Future?? about Kodak ? about
thousand of jobs being destroyed, and Instagram picking up the slack
? but with almost no jobs produced. So give us a sense of how that
happens and what the result is. It seems like the seed of your book in
a way.

Right. Well, I think what?s been happening is a shift from the formal
to the informal economy for most people. So that?s to say if you use
Instagram to show pictures to your friends and relatives, or whatever
service it is, there are a couple of things that are still the same as
they were in the times of Kodak. One is that the number of people who
are contributing to the system to make it viable is probably the same.
Instagram wouldn?t work if there weren?t many millions of people using
it. And furthermore, many people kind of have to use social networks
for them to be functional besides being valuable. People have to,
there?s a constant tending that?s done on a volunteer basis so that
people can find each other and whatnot.

So there?s still a lot of human effort, but the difference is that
whereas before when people made contributions to the system that they
used, they received formal benefits, which means not only salary but
pensions and certain kinds of social safety nets. Now, instead, they
receive benefits on an informal basis. And what an informal economy
is like is the economy in a developing country slum. It?s reputation,
it?s barter, it?s that kind of stuff.

__So instead of somebody paying money to get their photo developed,
and somebody getting a part of a job, a little fragment of a job, at
least, and retirement and all the other things that we?re accustomed
to, it works informally now, and intangibly.

Yeah, and I remember there was this fascination with the idea of
the informal economy about 10 years ago. Stewart Brand was talking
about how brilliant it is that people get by in slums on an informal
economy. He?s a friend so I don?t want to rag on him too much. But he
was talking about how wonderful it is to live in an informal economy
and how beautiful trust is and all that.

And you know, that?s all kind of true when you?re young and if you?re
not sick, but if you look at the infant mortality rate and the life
expectancy and the education of the people who live in those slums,
you really see what the benefit of the formal economy is if you?re a
person in the West, in the developed world. And then meanwhile this
loss, or this shift in the line from what?s formal to what?s informal,
doesn?t mean that we?re abandoning what?s formal. I mean, if it was
uniform, and we were all entering a socialist utopia or something,
that would be one thing, but the formal benefits are accruing at this
fantastic rate, at this global record rate to the people who own the
biggest computer that?s connecting all the people.

__So Kodak has 140,000 really good middle-class employees,
and Instagram has 13 employees, period. You have this intense
concentration of the formal benefits, and that winner-take-all feeling
is not just for the people who are on the computers but also from the
people who are using them. So there?s this tiny token number of people
who will get by from using YouTube or Kickstarter, and everybody else
lives on hope. There?s not a middle-class hump. It?s an all-or-nothing

__Right, and also I think part of what you?re saying too is that it?s
still in most ways a formal economy in that the person who lost his
job at Kodak still has to pay rent with old-fashioned money he or she
is no longer earning. He can?t pay his rent with cultural capital
that?s replaced it.

Yeah, well, people will say you can find a place to crash. People who
tour right now will find a couch to crash on. But, you know, this is
the difference ? I?m not saying that there aren?t ever benefits, like
yeah, sometimes you can find a couch. But as I put it in the book,
you have to sing for your supper for every meal. The informal way of
getting by doesn?t tide you over when you?re sick and it doesn?t let
you raise kids and it doesn?t let you grow old. It?s not biologically

Actually, can we stick with photography for a second? If we go back
to the 19th century, photography was kind of born as a labor-saving
device, although we don?t think of it that way. One of my favorite
stories, which might be apocryphal ? I can?t tell you for sure that
this is so, although photographers traded this story for many years.
But the way the piece of folklore goes is that during the Civil
War era, and a little after, the very earliest photographers would
go around with a collection of photographs of people who matched a
certain archetype. So they would find the photograph that most closely
matched your loved one and you?d buy that because at least there would
be representation a little like the person, even if it was the wrong
person. And that sounds just incredibly weird to us.

And then, you know, along a similar vein at that time early
audio recordings, which today would sound horrible to us, were
indistinguishable between real music to people who did double blind
tests and whatnot. So the thing is, why not just paint the real
person, because painting was really a lot of work. It takes a long
time to paint a portrait. And you have to carry around all the paints
and all that, and you could just create a stack of photos and sell
them. So in the beginning photography was kind of a labor saving
device. And whenever you have a technological advance that?s less
hassle than the previous thing, there?s still a choice to make. And
the choice is, do you still get paid for doing the thing that?s

People often say, well, in Rochester, N.Y. ? which is a town that kind
of lived on the photography business ? they had a buggy whip factory
that closed down with the advent of the automobile. The thing is,
it?s a lot easier to deal with a car than to deal with horses. I love
horses, but you know, you have to feed them, and they poop a lot, and
you have to deal with their hooves. It?s a whole thing. And so you
could make the argument that a transition to cars should create a
world where drivers don?t get paid, because, after all, it?s fun to
drive. And it is. And they?re magical.

__And so there could really easily be, somebody could easily have
asserted that photography is so much easier than painting and driving
cars is so much easier than horses that the people who do those things
? or support it ?shouldn?t be paid. Working in a nice environment ? if
you go to Sweden and you visit the Saab factory, it?s really nice. Why
should you even be paid to do anything?

We kind of made a bargain, a social contract, in the 20th century
that even if jobs were pleasant people could still get paid for them.
Because otherwise we would have had a massive unemployment. And so
to my mind, the right question to ask is, why are we abandoning that
bargain that worked so well?

__Right. Well, until about the year 2000 or so, some jobs had been
destroyed by new technology. This goes back to the industrial
revolution and earlier. But more jobs were created than those
destroyed. So what changed?

Of course jobs become obsolete. But the only reason that new jobs
were created was because there was a social contract in which a more
pleasant, less boring job was still considered a job that you could be
paid for. That?s the only reason it worked. If we decided that driving
was such an easy thing [compared to] dealing with horses that no one
should be paid for it, then there wouldn?t be all of those people
being paid to be Teamsters or to drive cabs. It was a decision that it
was OK to have jobs that weren?t terrible.

__So it wasn?t inherent in the technology. In other words, there?s
nothing inherently different about digital technology or the Internet
than there is with factory technology or the assembly line or these
other technological shifts that have developed?

Yeah. I mean, the whole idea of a job is entirely social construct.
The United States was built on slave labor. Those people didn?t
have jobs, they were just slaves. The idea of a job is that you can
participate in a formal economy even if you?re not a baron. That there
can be, that everybody can participate in the formal economy and the
benefit of having everybody participate in the formal economy, there
are annoyances with the formal economy because capitalism is really
annoying sometimes.

But the benefits are really huge, which is you get a middle-class
distribution of wealth and clout so the mass of people can outspend
the top, and if you don?t have that you can?t really have democracy.
Democracy is destabilized if there isn?t a broad distribution of

And then the other thing is that if you like market capitalism, if
you?re an Ayn Rand person, you have to admit that markets can only
function if there are customers and customers can only come if there?s
a middle hump. So you have to have a broad distribution of wealth. So
there?s no reason technically for any technology to ever create a job.
In other words, we could have had motor vehicles, and we could have
had film cameras, we could have had all these technologies without any
formal jobs. We just had a social contract in which we decided that
we?d allow formal jobs in factories and in drivers and in users of
cameras and creators of cameras and film.

It was all a social construct to begin with, so what changed, to get
to your question, is that at the turn of the [21st] century it was
really Sergey Brin at Google who just had the thought of, well, if
we give away all the information services, but we make money from
advertising, we can make information free and still have capitalism.
But the problem with that is it reneges on the social contract where
people still participate in the formal economy. And it?s a kind of
capitalism that?s totally self-defeating because it?s so narrow. It?s
a winner-take-all capitalism that?s not sustaining.

__Well, a lot of your book is about the survival of the middle class
in the digital age, the importance of a broad middle class as we move
forward. You argue that the middle class, unlike the rich and the
poor, is not a natural class but was built and sustained through some
kind of intervention. Has that changed in the last decade or two as
the digital world has grown?

Well, there?s a lot of ways. I mean, one of the issues is that in
a market society, a middle class has always required some little
artificial help to keep going. There?s always academic tenure, or a
taxi medallion, or a cosmetology license, or a pension. There?s often
some kind of license or some kind of ratcheting scheme that allows
people to keep their middle-class status.

In a raw kind of capitalism there tend to be unstable events that
wipe away the middle and tend to separate people into rich and poor.
So these mechanisms are undone by a particular kind of style that is
called the digital open network.

Music is a great example where value is copied. And so once you have
it, again it?s this winner-take-all thing where the people who really
win are the people who run the biggest computers. And a few tokens, an
incredibly tiny number of token people who will get very successful
YouTube videos, and everybody else lives on hope or lives with their
parents or something.

One of the things that really annoys me is the acceptance of lies
that?s so common in the current orthodoxy. I guess all orthodoxies
are built on lies. But there?s this idea that there must be tens
of thousands of people who are making a great living as freelance
musicians because you can market yourself on social media. And
whenever I look for these people ? I mean when I wrote ?Gadget? I
looked around and found a handful ? and at this point three years
later, I went around to everybody I could to get actual lists of
people who are doing this and to verify them, and there are more now.
But like in the hip-hop world I counted them all and I could find
about 50. And I really talked to everybody I could. The reason I
mention hip-hop is because that?s where it happens the most right now.

So when we?re talking about the whole of the business ? and these are
not 50 people who are doing great. Or here?s another example. Do you
know who Jenna Marbles is? She?s a super-successful YouTube star.
She?s the queen of self-help videos for young women. She?s kind of
a cross between Snooki and Martha Stewart or something. And she?s
cool. I mean, she kind of helps girls with how to do makeup, and she?s
irreverent. She?s had a billion views.

The interesting thing about it is that people advertise, ?Oh, what
an incredible life. She?s this incredibly lucky person who?s worked
really hard.? And that?s all true. She?s in her 20s, and it?s great
that she?s found this success, but what this success is that she makes
maybe $250,000 a year, and she rents a house that?s worth $1.1 million
in L.A.. And this is all breathlessly reported as this great success.
And that?s good for a 20-year-old, but she?s at the very top of, I
mean, the people at the very top of the game now and doing as well
as what used to be considered good for a middle-class life. And I
don?t want to dismiss that. That?s great for a 20-year-old, although
in truth, in my world of engineers that wouldn?t be much. But for
someone who?s out there, a star with a billion views, that?s a crazy
low expectation. She?s not even in the 1 percent. For the tiny token
number of people who make it to the top of YouTube, they?re not even
making it into the 1 percent.

The issue is if we?re going to have a middle class anymore, and if
that?s our expectation, we won?t. And then we won?t have democracy.

__You mentioned a minute ago that there?s about 50 in hip-hop. What
kind of estimate did you come up with for music in general?

I think in the total of music in America, there are a low number of
hundreds. It?s really small. I wish all of those people my deepest
blessings, and I celebrate the success they find, but it?s just not a
way you can build a society.

The other problem is they would have to self-fund. This is getting
back to the informal economy where you?re living in the slum or
something, so you?re desperate to get out so you impress the boss man
with your music skills or your basketball skills. And the idea of
doing that for the whole of society is not progress. It should be the
reverse. What we should be doing is bringing all the people who are
in that into the formal economy. That?s what?s called development.
But this is the opposite of that. It?s taking all the people from the
developed world and putting them into a cycle of the developing world
of the informal economy.

__You say early in the book, ?As much as it pains me to say so, we
can survive only if we destroy the middle classes of musicians,
journalists, photographers.? I guess what you seem to be saying here
is the creative class is sort of the canary in the digital coal mine.

Yes. That?s precisely my point. So when people say, ?Why are musicians
so special? Everybody has to struggle.? And the thing is, I do think
we are looking at a [sustainable] model.

We don?t realize that our society and our democracy ultimately rest on
the stability of middle-class jobs. When I talk to libertarians and
socialists, they have this weird belief that everybody?s this abstract
robot that won?t ever get sick or have kids or get old. It?s like
everybody?s this eternal freelancer who can afford downtime and can
self-fund until they find their magic moment or something.

The way society actually works is there?s some mechanism of basic
stability so that the majority of people can outspend the elite so we
can have a democracy. That?s the thing we?re destroying, and that?s
really the thing I?m hoping to preserve. So we can look at musicians
and artists and journalists as the canaries in the coal mine, and
is this the precedent that we want to follow for our doctors and
lawyers and nurses and everybody else? Because technology will get to
everybody eventually.

__It wasn?t too long ago that it was unskilled people on assembly
lines who answered phones or bank tellers and it?s just crept up in
the decades since. You?ve mentioned a few times this sort of digital
utopianism that still emanates from Silicon Valley. Where does that
kind of thinking come from and why does it exist despite all the
evidence to the contrary?

Well, it?s an orthodoxy now. I have 14-year-old kids who come to my
talks who say, ?But isn?t open source software the best thing in life?
Isn?t it the future?? It?s a perfect thought system. It reminds me
of communists I knew when growing up or Ayn Rand libertarians. It?s
one of these things where you have a simplistic model that suggests
this perfect society so you just believe in it totally. These perfect
societies don?t work. We?ve already seen hyper-communism come to
tears. And hyper-capitalism come to tears. And I just don?t want to
have to see that for cyber-hacker culture. We should have learned that
these perfect simple systems are illusions.

__Speaking of politics, your concerns are often those of the political
left. You?re concerned with equality and a shrinking middle class. And
yet you don?t seem to consider yourself a progressive or a man of the
left ? why not?

I am culturally a man on the left. I get a lot of people on the left.
I live in Berkeley and everything. I want to live in a world where
outcomes for people are not predetermined in advance with outcomes.

The problem I have with socialist utopias is there?s some kind of
committees trying to soften outcomes for people. I think that imposes
models of outcomes for other people?s lives. So in a spiritual sense
there?s some bit of libertarian in me. But the critical thing for me
is moderation. And if you let that go too far you do end up with a
winner-take-all society that ultimately crushes everybody even worse.
So it has to be moderated.

I think seeking perfection in human affairs is a perfect way to
destroy them. It just doesn?t work. So my own take on it is, actually
another way I?ve been thinking about it lately is a balance of
magisteria. ?Magisteria? was the term that Stephen Jay Gould described
science and religion. And I?ve been thinking that way about money and
politics, or computers and politics, or computers and ethics. All of
these things are magisterial, where the people who become involved in
them tend to wish they could be the only ones.

Libertarians tend to think the economy can totally close its own
loops, that you can get rid of government. And I ridicule that in
the book. There are other people who believe that if you could get
everybody to talk over social networks, if we could just cooperate,
we wouldn?t need money anymore. And I recommend they try living in a
group house and then they?ll see it?s not true.

My cyber-friends think if you can just come up with a perfect scheme,
that some perfect digital scheme will solve all the problems. My
belief is that if we deal with all of these things, they can balance
out each other to prevent the worst dysfunctions of each one from
happening. And at minimum if we can just have enough distribution
of clout in society so it isn?t run by a tiny minority, then at the
very least it gives us some room to breathe. And that?s the minimum
requirement. Maybe not the ideal.

So what we have to demand of digital technology is that it not try
to be a perfect system that takes over everything. That it balances
the excess of the other magisteria. And that is doesn?t concentrate
power too much, and if we can just get to that point, then we?ll
really be fine. I?m actually modest. People have been accusing me of
being super-ambitious lately, but I feel like in a way I?m the most
modest person in the conversation. I?m just trying to avoid total

__Let?s stick with politics for one more. Is there something dissonant
about the fact that the greatest fortunes in human history have been
created with a system developed largely by taxpayers dollars? Military
research and labs at public universities. And many of the people whom
the Internet has enriched have become libertarians who earnestly tell
you that they are ?socially liberal and fiscally conservative,? and
resist progressive taxation because of it.

Yeah, no kidding. I was there. I gotta say, every little step of this
thing was really funded by either the military or public research
agencies. If you look at something like Facebook, Facebook is adding
the tiniest little rind of value over the basic structure that?s there
anyway. In fact, it?s even worse than that. The original designs
for networking, going back to Ted Nelson, kept track of everything
everybody was pointing at so that you would know who was pointing at
your website. In a way Facebook is just recovering information that
was deliberately lost because of the fetish for being anonymous.
That?s also true of Google.

__Near the end of the book you talk about the changes in the book
business. It doesn?t sound pretty. What?s going on there and what have
you learned as someone who has now written several books?

I don?t hate anything about e-books or e-book readers or tablets.
There?s a lot of discussion about that, and I think it?s misplaced.
The problem I have is whether we believe in the book itself.

To me a book is not just a particular file. It?s connected with
personhood. Books are really, really hard to write. They represent a
kind of a summit of grappling with what one really has to say. And
what I?m concerned with is when Silicon Valley looks at books, they
often think of them as really differently as just data points that
you can mush together. They?re divorcing books from their role in

I?m quite concerned that in the future someone might not know what
author they?re reading. You see that with music. You would think in
the information age it would be the easiest thing to know what you?re
listening to. That you could look up instantly the music upon hearing
it so you know what you?re listening to, but in truth it?s hard to get
to those services.

I was in a cafe this morning where I heard some stuff I was interested
in, and nobody could figure out. It was Spotify or one of these ? so
they knew what stream they were getting, but they didn?t know what
music it was. Then it changed to other music, and they didn?t know
what that was. And I tried to use one of the services that determines
what music you?re listening to, but it was a noisy place and that
didn?t work. So what?s supposed to be an open information system
serves to obscure the source of the musician. It serves as a closed
information system. It actually loses the information.

So in practice you don?t know who the musician is. And I think that?s
what could happen with writers. And this is what we celebrate in
Wikipedia is pretending that there?s some absolute truth that can
be spoken that people can approximate and that the speaker doesn?t
matter. And if we start to see that with books in general ? and I say
if ? if you look at the approach that Google has taken to the Google
library project, they do have the tendency to want to move things
together. You see the thing decontextualized.

I have sort of resisted putting my music out lately because I know
it just turns into these mushes. Without context, what does my music
mean? I make very novel sounds, but I don?t see any value in me
sharing novel sounds that are decontextualized. Why would I write
if people are just going to get weird snippets that are just mushed
together and they don?t know the overall position or the history of
the writer or anything? What would be the point in that. The day books
become mush is the day I stop writing.

__Let?s close with music then. You?re a longtime musician and
composer. You?re a collector of obscure and archaic instruments. How
does your interest in music and especially pre-modern acoustic music
shape your thinking and your life as well?

Well, the original way I got into it is very personal. It?s just that
my mother died when I was young, and she was a musician. My connection
to her. I got involved in more and more unusual music because I didn?t
want that connection to become something that was too static. It had
to be constantly changing or it would become a clich?. So that?s how I
got into it.

But as far as the connection to computers, the thing to me is that
I?ve always been intrigued with music interface. Musical interfaces
are such profoundly better user interfaces than anything we?ve done
with a digital computer. They have better acuity. They create more
opportunities for virtuosity. They work with the human body more
profoundly, the nervous system. I mean good musical instruments. And
I?ve just been intrigued by them. It made me realize that just because
something is the latest, newest thing that seems like the cleverest
thing we can do at the moment doesn?t make it better.

So to realize how much better musical instruments were to use as human
interfaces, it helped me to be skeptical about the whole digital
enterprise. Which I think helped me be a better computer scientist,

__Did your life as a musician show you some of the things that you
ended up excavating in ?Gadget? and the new book?

Sure. 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. It was really that simple.

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: http://mx.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} kein.org