My argument against Jaron Lanier can be summed up in three words:
First, I give him credit for actually standing up to the internet. He makes a terrific point about how corporations are basically taking advantage of us, at the expense of us losing our individuality, and we’re not really gaining anything from the process. If we buy into his point, creativity in the internet era has peaked, information sharing is damaging capitalism to a brutal level, and the only ones who can earn money from the internet are a select few. We’re basically in a 1 percent vs. 99 percent showdown, only we don’t realize it because the internet is so convenient.
Yeah, but still.
My biggest concern with Lanier is how easily he disregards all the good that can come from this technology that we have. Information, in my opinion, is meant to be shared. The more ideas that are shared, the better ideas we can form. From there, individual innovation can occur on a micro level, but a group pushing towards one thing as a starter doesn’t hurt. Hiding capitalistic ideals of profit over fair use seems like Lanier is frightened more than he is concerned. Are we in a better place now that we have Wikipedia? It’s debatable. Are we worse off? Definitely not. The same can be said for any open source software that, as Lanier believes, places the human below the machine. These are all things we don’t really need as a society. But the fact that we have them takes nothing away from the table.
Let’s take his example of the mashup. Yes, it is extremely referential, and doesn’t provide anything technically new. But can’t we say that about basically anything ever? To some level? Didn’t The Beatles break it big by covering old rock-and-roll hits coming up in Germany? Isn’t Warhol’s best work basically augmentations of famous pictures? Claiming that creativity doesn’t exist on the internet is blatantly ignorant. It’s a lot easier to get lost in the reposts of the internet, but things created from old things are still new things. And entirely new things are being created and shared every day. I find artists and writers and information from this state alone that I would never find out about without the internet. And it’s all free. And if it wasn’t free, I wouldn’t ever access it.
For somebody who plays a lot on capitalism and how free information devastates the middle class, he certainly takes a 1 percent view on how information should be shared. Lanier greatly undersells exposure, which is a crucial aspect to success. Clearly exposure does not equal monetary success, but limiting content to those who can afford it undermines the medium of the internet entirely.
I bet Lanier would vote for SOPA.
If Shirky and Benkler takes things too far in the liberal direction, then Lanier takes it way too far in the conservative direction. Wikipedia, Facebook and the internet in general are all tools. And over time, our culture will learn how to adapt these tools to our best use, and not let them take advantage of us. Lanier is right, we are not a gadget. But that doesn’t mean that if we have gadgets, we are controlled by them. The longer things will be around, the better versed in controlling them we will be. In the early days of the printing press, the information was still concentrated in the higher classes due to literacy issues. It wasn’t until well after that “mass media” started being a thing, and the common man had any input into the medium. Maybe the masses just haven’t reached internet literacy yet, just as the masses hadn’t reached regular literacy in Gutenberg gimes.
Yes, things move faster in today’s technological climate, but the internet is still in its teenage years. It still has room to grow and has shown so much promise. No medium is without great fault. The internet’s faults are just waay different than anything we’ve ever experienced ever in the history of communication. I mean, what was movable type’s biggest fault? That you had to mail it and couldn’t change the page after it was produced and sent? The internet is so different because the standard ways of dealing with mediums does not apply to it at all.
I know Lanier understands that, but I think he’s afraid more than he is embracing it. He argues often that MIDI killed the theoretical note. It defined it with code, rather than having the note live in the mind. This is his greatest example of the internet killing individuality. And he’s right in that sense. But you know what people did instead of backlashing against the internet entirely? They innovated on top of it. And guess what? The note isn’t dead. They still play orchestras with real instruments, not keyboards with programs. The music note just has two definitions now.