Belmont Club

The Dogs Versus the Internet

But we're not dogs

But we're not dogs

Jaron Lanier, an author with a extensive background in computing, asks whether the Internet is bringing people out or turning them inward; whether it is is enhancing individual worth or aggregating us all. And those are two separate questions. In an interview with Amazon, Lanier argued that places like the Belmont Club are becoming — or could become — the devil’s kitchen. Lanier’s argues that in the beginning the Internet encouraged TV-oriented couch potatoes to become more involved. But then individual effort fell into the vast blender of aggregation that homogenized everything and allowed the aggregators to get rich.

The result, Lanier says, is that we’re all nonentities working for next-to-nothing in the service of humongous soulless aggregators like Wikipedia or Google. And that leaves Lanier profoundly depressed.

For the most part, Web 2.0–Internet technologies that encourage interactivity, customization, and participation–is hailed as an emerging Golden Age of information sharing and collaborative achievement, the strength of democratized wisdom. Jaron Lanier isn’t buying it. In You Are Not a Gadget, the longtime tech guru/visionary/dreadlocked genius (and progenitor of virtual reality) argues the opposite: that unfettered–and anonymous–ability to comment results in cynical mob behavior, the shouting-down of reasoned argument, and the devaluation of individual accomplishment.

Question: You argue the web isn’t living up to its initial promise. How has the internet transformed our lives for the worse?

Jaron Lanier:  … Deterioration only began around the turn of the century with the rise of so-called “Web 2.0” designs. … It became fashionable to aggregate the expressions of people into dehumanized data.  … Here’s just one problem: It screws the middle class. Only the aggregator (like Google, for instance) gets rich, while the actual producers of content get poor. …. Web 2.0 is a formula to kill the middle class and undo centuries of social progress.

Question: You say that we’ve devalued intellectual achievement. How?

Jaron Lanier: On one level, the Internet has become anti-intellectual because Web 2.0 collectivism has killed the individual voice. It is increasingly disheartening to write about any topic in depth these days, because people will only read what the first link from a search engine directs them to, and that will typically be the collective expression of the Wikipedia. Or, if the issue is contentious, people will congregate into partisan online bubbles in which their views are reinforced. …

On another level, when someone does try to be expressive in a collective, Web 2.0 context, she must prioritize standing out from the crowd. To do anything else is to be invisible. Therefore, people become artificially caustic, flattering, or otherwise manipulative. … Collectivists adore a computer operating system called LINUX, for instance, but it is really only one example of a descendant of a 1970s technology called UNIX. If it weren’t produced by a collective, there would be nothing remarkable about it at all.  Meanwhile, the truly remarkable designs that couldn’t have existed 30 years ago, like the iPhone, all come out of “closed” shops where individuals create something and polish it before it is released to the public. Collectivists confuse ideology with achievement.

Question: Why has the idea that “the content wants to be free” (and the unrelenting embrace of the concept) been such a setback? What dangers do you see this leading to?

Jaron Lanier: The original turn of phrase was “Information wants to be free.” And the problem with that is that it anthropomorphizes information. Information doesn’t deserve to be free. It is an abstract tool; a useful fantasy, a nothing. It is nonexistent until and unless a person experiences it in a useful way. What we have done in the last decade is give information more rights than are given to people. If you express yourself on the internet, what you say will be copied, mashed up, anonymized, analyzed, and turned into bricks in someone else’s fortress to support an advertising scheme. However, the information, the abstraction, that represents you is protected within that fortress and is absolutely sacrosanct, the new holy of holies. You never see it and are not allowed to touch it. This is exactly the wrong set of values.

The idea that information is alive in its own right is a metaphysical claim made by people who hope to become immortal by being uploaded into a computer someday. It is part of what should be understood as a new religion. That might sound like an extreme claim, but go visit any computer science lab and you’ll find books about “the Singularity,” which is the supposed future event when the blessed uploading is to take place. A weird cult in the world of technology has done damage to culture at large.

Question: In You Are Not a Gadget, you argue that idea that the collective is smarter than the individual is wrong. Why is this?

Jaron Lanier: There are some cases where a group of people can do a better job of solving certain kinds of problems than individuals. One example is setting a price in a marketplace. Another example is an election process to choose a politician. All such examples involve what can be called optimization, where the concerns of many individuals are reconciled. There are other cases that involve creativity and imagination. A crowd process generally fails in these cases. The phrase “Design by Committee” is treated as derogatory for good reason. That is why a collective of programmers can copy UNIX but cannot invent the iPhone.

I think Lanier is right in many respects but wrong in the most essential one. Right now, on the Internet everbody that you don’t want to know who you are knows who you are, while everybody who you want to know who you are thinks you’re a dog. As news reports which describe the arrest of pedophile rings or jihadi cells remind us, there is no true anonymity on the Internet unless special precautions are taken. Email headers, IP addresses, ISP records, etc ensure that most people can be tracked back to their real names and addresses.

But on the other hand the Internet has made it all too easy for individuals to produce content which is unidentified and unclaimed in the perception of the larger audience. Individual commenters on the Belmont Club, for example, have produced literally thousands of comments, some of them mini-essays in themselves. Others have produced poems in such profusion that if they were gathered into a volume they would qualify as an anthology.

Yet until recently there was no easy way for anyone to click a single button to conjure up a thread which would identify all the writing of Buddy Larsen or all the poems of Walt. And there was no way for the “real Buddy Larsen” or the “real Walt” to come forward and lay claim to and shape that immense body of work. Without that ability then Lanier’s dystopic vision of the Internet might well become a reality. Buddy Larsen and Walt become “homogenized”, all mixed up in the blender — denizens of the commons, alienated from their reputation, unable to build on their efforts, mere playthings of the great god Google.

But consider for a moment what would happen if the dogs could get names. Then everyone who didn’t want to be a dog on the Internet could swap his canine nature for a human one. That would allow everyone on the Internet to continue to be a dog or even several dogs, but a very special dog: one who is able to exercise his rights in ways that a human could. That creates enormous potential for individuation and collaboration. Most important of all the ability for dogs to claim their achievements creates the basis for markets and an industry of the future.

In many ways the issues Lanier brings up go back to the very roots of markets and democracy, to issues that were hotly debated at the time America was founded. Who owns your product? Can you consent to sell yourself into bondage? Do dogs have rights if they are possibly people?

These are questions perhaps for another book. But tomorrow is another day.

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