Welcome Jaron Lanier (JaronLanier.com) and Host John Nichols (The Nation) (Twitter)

Who Owns The Future?

It has been understood for several decades now that Jaron Lanier is a big thinker when it comes to the technologies that define our lives. The computer science pioneer who explained virtual reality to the rest of us inspires journalists to employ terms such as “digital visionary” (The Observer) and “Internet guru” (Publisher’s Weekly).

But he is another kind of thinker as well: a humanist speaking from an enlightenment perspective that recalls the Lunar Society days of two centuries ago, when there was broad recognition of the meeting group between technology and poetry. And where the great scientists of a new age wrestled with not just formulas and calculations but also with the question of how to build a just and humane society.

In his groundbreaking 2010 book, You Are Not a Gadget (Vintage), Lanier challenged the digital utopianism that tells us that the solutions to all our problems can be found on the Web. It may have become “fashionable to aggregate the expressions of people into dehumanized data,” he explained, but it not healthy for citizens or for society. Rather, Lanier argued, we should recognize the value, the necessity, of human initiative and reasoned argument.

You Are Not a Gadget was an invitation to think differently about everything. And the conclusions Lanier reached confirmed conclusions that Bob McChesney and I had come to as we prepared our book The Death and Life of American Journalism. We shared – and share – Lanier’s conclusion with regard to the direction of a digital transformation that was emptying out traditional newsrooms but failing to replace them with a sufficient online journalism to employ all the laid off reporters – let alone to serve a democratic society.

“Here’s just one problem: It screws the middle class,” Lanier explained in a 2010 Amazon.com interview on the rise of ‘Web 2.0’ designs. “Only the aggregator (like Google, for instance) gets rich, while the actual producers of content get poor. This is why newspapers are dying. It might sound like it is only a problem for creative people, like musicians or writers, but eventually it will be a problem for everyone. When robots can repair roads someday, will people have jobs programming those robots, or will the human programmers be so aggregated that they essentially work for free, like today’s recording musicians? Web 2.0 is a formula to kill the middle class and undo centuries of social progress.”

Lanier’s exceptional new book, Who Owns The Future? (Simon & Schuster), builds on that argument with a scorching critique of a digital transformation that is empowering not the great mass of citizens but high-tech monopolies; that is creating not equality of opportunity but a wealth gap that leaves even our most creative people with fewer and fewer options.

“The old ideas about information being free in the information age ended up screwing over everybody except the owners of the very biggest computers. The biggest computers turned into spying and behavior modification operations, which concentrated wealth and power,” Lanier explains. “Sharing information freely, without traditional rewards like royalties or paychecks, was supposed to create opportunities for brave, creative individuals. Instead, I have watched each successive generation of young journalists, artists, musicians, photographers, and writers face harsher and harsher odds. The perverse effect of opening up information has been that the status of a young person’s parents matters more and more, since it’s so hard to make one’s way.”

Jaron Lanier is reopening one of the old debates that Henry David Thoreau was wrestling with when he suggested the prospect that: “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” We’ll wrestle with these ideas today, here in the Firedoglake Book Salon.

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]

66 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Jaron Lanier, Who Owns The Future?”

BevW May 25th, 2013 at 1:50 pm

Jaron, Welcome to the Lake.

John, Welcome back to the Lake, and thank you for Hosting today’s Book Salon.

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dakine01 May 25th, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Good afternoon Jaron and welcome to Firedoglake this afternoon. John, welcome back.

Jaron, I have not had an opportunity to read your book so forgive me if you address this there but how do we get out of this fix? How do we make it such that reporters and musicians and writers can actually make a living in this Information Age instead of the small number of people who have a quirky idea and run with it and make billions?

John Nichols May 25th, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Welcome Jaron. Your books put so many important issues into play. Let’s go big at the start with a question that is of particular interest to the FDL community: Is the Internet benefitting American democracy at this point?

BevW May 25th, 2013 at 2:02 pm

Jaron will be with us in a moment – a tech issue (grin)

BevW May 25th, 2013 at 2:05 pm

John, do you cover the inequalities of the new internet age in your upcoming book?

John Nichols May 25th, 2013 at 2:09 pm

Yes. In fact. We have several chapters on these issues. We reference Jaron’s writing and warn that online journalism – while vital – is not filling the void created by old media’s decline.

Elliott May 25th, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Welcome to the Lake – this is a discussion that hits home, thank you for coming.

Jaron Lanier May 25th, 2013 at 2:17 pm

Hey there- not a tech issue at all, but a social one. The café I like to hang out in just decided to institute a no wifi on weekends rule and caught be by surprise. I just talked the owner into making an exception for me. He’s afraid of being put out of business by people sitting with devices for hours while others wait for a table, and eventually lose interest.

Anyway, yes WOTF covers all that stuff mentioned.

John Nichols May 25th, 2013 at 2:20 pm

Hey Jaron: Glad you’re with us. Let’s go big at the start with a question that is of particular interest to the FDL community: Is the Internet benefitting American democracy at this point?


Jaron Lanier May 25th, 2013 at 2:22 pm

to answer how we might improve the situation I must ask you to take a look at the book- not something that summarizes easily- I argue we ought to monetize information, and that the usual fears about that- that it would deny access to the poor, etc, are not really problems- I was an early enthusiast for free information but experience has taught that it kills jobs and concentrates power and money more and more with those people who own the most effective, biggest computers to make use of the information

greenwarrior May 25th, 2013 at 2:22 pm

I was touched by the dedication in your book.

“To everyone my daughter will know as she grows up.
I hope she will be able to invent her place in a world in which it’s normal to find success and fulfillment.”

It let’s us know right at the beginning how concerned you are for the future and that it’s personal for you. I wish your daughter and all the rest of us the same.

bluedot12 May 25th, 2013 at 2:22 pm
In response to Jaron Lanier @ 8

That is a problem. We frequent a small coffee shop and there are some who hang around for most of the day, we’ve been told. Problem is they take up all the space and so you have to leave with your drink. Bummer.

greenwarrior May 25th, 2013 at 2:24 pm

Jaron, we will know to whom you are replying if you hit “Reply” located in the bottom right hand corner of the comment you are responding to.

John Nichols May 25th, 2013 at 2:24 pm

For folks who have not yet read your books, give us a sense of why it is vital to monetize information,

Jaron Lanier May 25th, 2013 at 2:26 pm

democracy depends on the broad middle of society being able to outspend the elite tip- the aristocracy/plutocracy/oligarchy/etc – otherwise politics becomes too corrupt to function democratically – and currently the internet, along with other digital networks, is concentrating money with incredible speed and intensity in a new elite (of which I am a member, as it happens)
If this pattern continues, democracy will be harmed. I like being successful, but I only want to be successful in a society that is pleasant and kind- so I really want to help fix this stupid tend

spocko May 25th, 2013 at 2:27 pm

I was around when the commercialization of the internet started. Back in those days everyone had VC money and people were asking, “Is anyone making any money?” Because making money was the metric that everyone in America cares about. Lots of people in SV think that Tim Berners Lee was an idiot for not making money on his ideas, They considered the really smart one was Netscape founder Marc Andreessen.

I worked with a lot of hardware and software guys who saw themselves above politics and believe that building the best product will enable you to win. As the industry matured (and their jobs were sent over seas via the networks they created) they started to see how big money rigged the game in their lives just like it did Detroit.

But what I didn’t see were people in the industry pointing out just how rigged the game is against the middle class or turning around and trying to fight it. Why do you think that is?

bluedot12 May 25th, 2013 at 2:27 pm
In response to Jaron Lanier @ 10

I may be reading that wrong but it sounds counterintuitive.

Jaron Lanier May 25th, 2013 at 2:28 pm

too many comments- am not really going to answer each specifically – while I type, other comments come in- so please just deal with the pattern I can deal with

anyway, am not dark or pessimistic- to me the most blatant form of pessimism is complacency- to try to improve things is to believe they can be improved

bluedot12 May 25th, 2013 at 2:28 pm
In response to Jaron Lanier @ 15

I am not seeing how paying for information fixes that?

Jaron Lanier May 25th, 2013 at 2:31 pm

let’s see, someone said “it sounds counterintuitive” and someone else asked “will people in the industry start to notice the middle class is suffering?”

well, yes, we will start to notice and at first that will feel utterly counterintuitive, because we’ve been pumping bad intuition for too long

spocko May 25th, 2013 at 2:32 pm

The other day Tim Cook was testifying about why they shouldn’t have to pay taxes on all that money that Apple earned. At the heart of this story is the idea pushed by Tax lawyers, lobbyist and accountants that only sucker and stupid companies pay taxes.

If there isn’t any hope of changing that mind set, are there things that we the people can do to force businesses that benefit from our infrastructure, education systems, courts, environmental regulations and fire and safety staff pay their fair share?

bluedot12 May 25th, 2013 at 2:33 pm
In response to Jaron Lanier @ 20

Maybe you could say a few words about the process you are seeing ?

seaglass May 25th, 2013 at 2:34 pm

I was a systems engineer for 10 yrs. and I watched how the better the technology got the lower my wage went and the fewer the jobs there were.

Jaron Lanier May 25th, 2013 at 2:35 pm

paying for information means that the illusion of automation is broken- there is no such thing as automation or artificial intelligence, only people in disguise- behind every “smart” technology is “big data” which was made by people- either pay those people or accept that better technology will mean more unemployment
the reason middle classes did ok in the 20th century was that we decided it’s ok to pay people even if the jobs are no longer as dangerous or miserable – that’s a summary of what the labor movement accomplished from a tech perspective – we need to continue that covenant
also, if information is free, it’s free for the government and others to spy on everyone and manipulate them at no cost-

bluedot12 May 25th, 2013 at 2:35 pm
In response to spocko @ 21

We could be headed to a tax free corporate world. We need a better rationale and rules.

seaglass May 25th, 2013 at 2:35 pm
In response to spocko @ 21

The old idea of noblesse oblige is dead as a door nail and the progressive taxation idea that grew from it is also dying.

seaglass May 25th, 2013 at 2:37 pm
In response to Jaron Lanier @ 24

How do you get around Ricardo’s law of labor when the labor can be moved from one location to another at light speed?

greenwarrior May 25th, 2013 at 2:40 pm
In response to Jaron Lanier @ 18

If you like, you can just take your time and go to the top (or not) and answer the questions one by one. People will wait and learn while you’re answering questions that were typed earlier than theirs.

bluedot12 May 25th, 2013 at 2:40 pm
In response to seaglass @ 23

What timeframe was that? We have had continual under employment for the past thirteen years and higher paying Jobs have been outsourced for longer.

Jaron Lanier May 25th, 2013 at 2:41 pm

all the big companies do what apple does, or at least they will, now that it’s been announced
it IS an example of the tech-supremacy mindset that annoys me so much
non-techie people with lesser computers are stuck with physicality, where money exists in some country or another, but techies transcend that commonality
there’s constant talk in silicon valley-type circles about finding an island to host a libertarian paradise, or to do it with a floating city on the high seas- this idea comes up again and again
there’s a vague blackmail quality to the way this works- “sure we’ll repatriate the money, when you agree to our terms” all that wealth being held up, out of the system…

bluedot12 May 25th, 2013 at 2:41 pm
In response to seaglass @ 27

Maybe you can’t do it.

masaccio May 25th, 2013 at 2:42 pm

Do I understand correctly that you are talking about making sure people are properly paid for content production? Or is it something broader? I have to say it makes me want to read your book.

bluedot12 May 25th, 2013 at 2:44 pm
In response to Jaron Lanier @ 30

Yes, but it includes all companies, not just tech. Our tax laws and those of other countries enable it.

seaglass May 25th, 2013 at 2:44 pm
In response to bluedot12 @ 29

2001 – 2011

bluedot12 May 25th, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Bit coins might be an attempt to circumvent tax law and other regs.

Jaron Lanier May 25th, 2013 at 2:49 pm
In response to seaglass @ 27

libertarians imagine a fantasy land in which each laborer has the freedom to move about and compete without time pressure or any pressure- and under those circumstances unions might not be needed-
a monetized information economy just might realize this fantasy, however- and as more and more technologies of supposed automation appear (self driving vehicles, robots of all kinds, 3D printers, etc) then the information sector will grow and grow- creating the potential for a new dynamic of middle class creation and support
this might sound a little nuts stated so briefly, but I hope I make the case more thoroughly in the book
the key is whether it would work – sometimes information systems create horatio alger-like effects in which a lot of people believe they have a shot but are being fooled
on the other hand, I think we’ve seen evidence- good evidence- that some information systems could generate nice middle class distributions of outcomes if they were monetized
this is a whole big topic that’s hard to introduce in little chat posts

seaglass May 25th, 2013 at 2:50 pm
In response to Jaron Lanier @ 30

Why is it that many techies seem to think that their skills and ideas somehow exist apart from the rest of society in some tech space above the average worker? Your right it’s simply arrogance and having worked in that world for many yrs. and worked in the other most of the rest of my life , it was galling.

Jaron Lanier May 25th, 2013 at 2:50 pm
In response to bluedot12 @ 33

every big powerful entity has become a tech company

bluedot12 May 25th, 2013 at 2:51 pm
In response to Jaron Lanier @ 30

On the high seas eh? Sounds really futuristic. They will have to hire armies to keep the pirates away. Or the drones if they don’t pay their taxes?? :)

John Nichols May 25th, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Really appreciate all the wise comments and questions, as well as Jaron’s insights. This is an important conversation. Here’s a broad question to put in the mix: We often think that technology makes our lives easier. Is this the case with digital technology?

Jaron Lanier May 25th, 2013 at 2:52 pm
In response to masaccio @ 32

yes, but much broader

bluedot12 May 25th, 2013 at 2:54 pm
In response to Jaron Lanier @ 38

You mean like the Dow 30?

Jaron Lanier May 25th, 2013 at 2:55 pm
In response to John Nichols @ 40

Well the past was really worse in most ways- infant mortality, life expectancy, plagues/public health – we are spoiled enough to forget how bad everything was fairly recently
on the other hand, a lot of the benefits of the latest digital technologies are perhaps more subjective or cultural if we’re honest- but there’s nothing wrong with culture
some digital tech transcends culture- we wouldn’t know about the pattern of global climate change without networking and big data, or about the human role in it without simulation

Jaron Lanier May 25th, 2013 at 2:56 pm
In response to bluedot12 @ 42

like intelligence agencies, criminal enterprises, major electoral efforts… every big powerful entity has a big computer at the center lately

BevW May 25th, 2013 at 2:58 pm
In response to John Nichols @ 40

John, good question. I was thinking about that recently. It used to be we had a “work day” and it ended at 5pm, then cell phones came in in the mid 90s, access to individuals was increased, but we had time-off with family, boundaries. By 2000s with the internet, we are on and connected 24/7. Life seems to have sped up and the individual / family time is gone, we work weekends and during vacations. I enjoy the access to data – but miss the down time.

Jaron Lanier May 25th, 2013 at 3:00 pm
In response to BevW @ 45

um, yeah here we are on a lovely spring afternoon, online!!!!
am at a nice café with trees, a fountain, friends, flowers- one can find a middle path

bluedot12 May 25th, 2013 at 3:08 pm
In response to Jaron Lanier @ 44

I think I need to reset. You are describing a very wide range of things affecting the middle class. Those things seem to go beyond just technology. It is the global economy, perhaps enabled by technology. But if we think we are ever going to stop China from becoming an economic power bigger than the US , we are kidding ourselves. Jobs have been and will continue to be moved around the globe. I’m trying to figure how paying for content can reverse that? IBM does software in India, etc.

John Nichols May 25th, 2013 at 3:18 pm

Excellent nuanced insight on the value of technology, Jaron. Are they steps that can be taken — personally, policy wise — to put technology to best use for society?

Jaron Lanier May 25th, 2013 at 3:22 pm

the point is to consider how tech change in this coming century will affect old problems
if you think the answer is “not at all” I just think you’re wrong
if tech might matter, then the next question is whether there might be opportunities to make things better as tech changes- that’s my game
I reject the comfort of smugness, which seems so commonplace- so many people seem to get grim comfort from being pessimists
am near certain my proposals will turn out to be wrong to some degree, but am not claiming to know answers in advance, only good experiments to try
free information was one good experiment, and the answer turned out to be that the side effects were deleterious
time to try again
we must keep trying, to be human, to not be automatons, to not be old and dull, to not give up
anyway, both china’s and the usa’s labor markets will be disrupted, as we say, by tech change- 3D printers will deflate china’s manufacturing economy in a heartbeat at some hard to predict point in time

bluedot12 May 25th, 2013 at 3:25 pm
In response to Jaron Lanier @ 49

I agree. It always pays to figure out what comes next.

fatster May 25th, 2013 at 3:26 pm

What’s troubling me is how the “broad middle of society” will be able to “outspend the elite tip” if the pauperization of what was the middle class continues apace. How do we reverse that or struggle through it to a better place? Does the ‘monetizing of information’ enter at this point? And, if so, how would that work?
Thank you.

Jaron Lanier May 25th, 2013 at 3:30 pm
In response to fatster @ 51

this is, once again, a whole big topic addressed in the book that is hard to summarize in a little post

but… some networks seem to result in people drawing information from a broad range of other people, while others generate a winner-take-all pattern-

if general entertainment bits were monetized, hub-and-spoke nets like youtube or the apple store would not create a middle class, but, amazingly, thickly connected social nets like facebook or tumblr WOULD do so

plus all if all the big computers had to pay for data, that would also encourage a middle class

there’s a lot of promise, even though the ideas are unfamiliar

John Nichols May 25th, 2013 at 3:35 pm

Jaron, how should we respond to privacy concerns? Are there right policies? Should we worry most about government? Corporations? The combination?

fatster May 25th, 2013 at 3:37 pm
In response to Jaron Lanier @ 52

“if all the big computers had to pay for data”

Heh heh. (Apologies: I’m imagining us charging all the snoops for vacuuming up our personal, private data. We would surely be wealthier if we could do that.)

Srsly, just as concentration of wealth meant concentration of power, so I assume concentration of technology will also. Are we seeking a way to break through that, making the technology as well as the information more widespread?

Jaron Lanier May 25th, 2013 at 3:40 pm
In response to fatster @ 54

don’t apologize- am serious- snoops should pay for data

the government has to pay for police cars and guns- why should the power of the government ever, ever be freed from the power of the purse?

free information means infinite spying advantages for whoever has the biggest (or really, the most effective) computer

Jaron Lanier May 25th, 2013 at 3:41 pm
In response to John Nichols @ 53

make data cost money- all the runaway concentration of wealth and power lately correlates with free access to other peoples’ data

btw, that was also true in earlier gilded ages – the term “computer” used to mean women employed in huge numbers keeping the books for the most powerful organizations

John Nichols May 25th, 2013 at 3:47 pm

Folks, we have about 15 more minutes. Good point for concluding questions and insights.

BevW May 25th, 2013 at 3:51 pm

As we come to the last few minutes of this Book Salon discussion,

Jaron, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us discussing your new book and our future.

John, Thank you very much for Hosting this great Book Salon.

Everyone, if you would like more information:

Jaron’s website and book

John’s website and books

Thanks all, Have a great Holiday weekend.

Tomorrow: Nicco Mele / The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath; Hosted by Symon Hill (author of Digital Revolutions)

If you would like to contact the FDL Book Salon: FiredoglakeBookSalon@gmail.com

fatster May 25th, 2013 at 3:52 pm

To at least a significant extent (I’d say large extent, fwiw), the government is controlled more and more by Big Money which I’m interpreting as “the purse”. Simultaneously, and certainly not coincidentally, we are losing more and more of our rights to our own personal, private data as defined in the Fourth Amendment. (Just saw your response #56, which makes me feel more at ease, and thnx for that.)

We can’t go all Luddite over this, unfortunately, but how do we effectively combat it?

Jaron Lanier May 25th, 2013 at 3:56 pm

sounds like tomorrow’s author sees things differently than I do!

sure, it feels like you’re powerful when you tweet, but ultimately you’re enriching a particular elite more than you’re defying any other elite, every single time you tweet- since when has it been cool to apply all your rebellious energy to the enrichment of a few California companies? since the rise of free data…

anyway, thanks for your interest- those of you in the bay area, please patronize café Leila in Berkeley, on san Pablo – they gave me access, against policy!

Jaron Lanier May 25th, 2013 at 3:57 pm
In response to fatster @ 59

oh gosh, read the book…

take care, everyone…

fatster May 25th, 2013 at 3:58 pm
In response to Jaron Lanier @ 60

Thanks, Jaron, for an interesting discussion.

PS I don’t tweet. :)

John Nichols May 25th, 2013 at 3:59 pm

We are not gadgets. We’re human beings with tremendous potential. Jaron Lanier reminds us of that w/ his brilliant books. And today’s fine conversation confirms the point! Thanks Jaron. Thanks everyone who joined us.

Jaron Lanier May 25th, 2013 at 4:00 pm

it’ll be interesting to see how my upcoming reddit ama will compare to this…. anyway, am now signing off

May 25th, 2013 at 4:33 pm


Elliott May 25th, 2013 at 4:41 pm
In response to Jaron Lanier @ 64

good luck there lol

Thank you both for coming

(yay Bev)

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