A Techo-Prophet Who Says the Web Has Harmed Us

Back when I was subscribing to Stewart Brand’s CoEvolution Quarterly in the 1980s, Jaron Lanier made frequent appearances in its pages as techno-prophet extraordinaire.

He was the guy who was helping to invent virtual reality. He was presented as being miles ahead of the rest of us. He was, as this Smithsonian article, “What Turned Jaron Lanier Against the Web”  says, a Silicon Valley rock star.

Now he is a Silicon Valley heretic. And having seen the consequences, he has changed his mind about a number of things, including the whole “information wants to be free” mantra, which he helped to promote.

The mistake of our age? That’s a bold statement (as someone put it in Pulp Fiction). “I think it’s the reason why the rise of networking has coincided with the loss of the middle class, instead of an expansion in general wealth, which is what should happen. But if you say we’re creating the information economy, except that we’re making information free, then what we’re saying is we’re destroying the economy.”

The connection Lanier makes between techno-utopianism, the rise of the machines and the Great Recession is an audacious one. Lanier is suggesting we are outsourcing ourselves into insignificant advertising-fodder. Nanobytes of Big Data that diminish our personhood, our dignity. He may be the first Silicon populist.

“To my mind an overleveraged unsecured mortgage is exactly the same thing as a pirated music file. It’s somebody’s value that’s been copied many times to give benefit to some distant party. In the case of the music files, it’s to the benefit of an advertising spy like Google [which monetizes your search history], and in the case of the mortgage, it’s to the benefit of a fund manager somewhere. But in both cases all the risk and the cost is radiated out toward ordinary people and the middle classes—and even worse, the overall economy has shrunk in order to make a few people more.”

This is a challenging article, one that I plan to return to and absorb. Read it yourself.

Added: Rod Dreher talks about the Lanier article and how it dovetails with a lesson he learned in life: Never trust the Crowd.