"Most people know me as the 'father of Virtual Reality technology'," Lanier announces. (This boast is repeated in his presumably self-crafted or at least author-approved bio at the bottom of the article.) He was also, however,
part of a circle of friends who tried to imagine how computers would fit into the peoples' lives, including how people might make a living in the future. Our dream came true, in part. It turns out that millions of people are ready to contribute instead of sitting passively on the couch watching television. On the other hand, we made a huge mistake in making those contributions unpaid, and often anonymous, because those bad decisions robbed people of dignity. I am appalled that our old fantasies have become so entrenched that it's hard to get anyone to remember that there are alternatives to a framework that isn't working.The "mistake" of making participation in online communities free and unpaid is only the first half of Lanier's frustration. He also hates what he calls the "collectivist" nature of online communities:
Here's one problem with digital collectivism: We shouldn't want the whole world to take on the quality of having been designed by a committee. When you have everyone collaborate on everything, you generate a dull, average outcome in all things. You don't get innovation.Lanier's first mistake is treating Wikipedia culture--or, as Stephen Colbert puts it, Wikiality--as a stand-in for all forms of collective problem-solving. Lanier of all people should know that the often anonymous, often trivial and often problematic Wikipedia model is only one approach to collaboration, and one that works--and often works very well--for fairly low-stakes and longer-term goals. You don't cite Wikipedia in a White House briefing on Islam in Nigeria, for example, but you do cite Wikipedia in proving to your brother-in-law that Breakfast at Tiffany's was released just at the very beginning of the 1960's, just like you said it was. (Did you get that, Dean? 1961.)
If you want to foster creativity and excellence, you have to introduce some boundaries. Teams need some privacy from one another to develop unique approaches to any kind of competition. Scientists need some time in private before publication to get their results in order. Making everything open all the time creates what I call a global mush.
Lanier also finds Google Wave problematic because he sees it as another iteration of wikiality; it "encourages you to blur personal boundaries by editing what someone else has said in a conversation with you, and you can watch each other as you type so nobody gets a private moment to consider a thought before posting.
"And if you listen to music online," he continues, "there's a good chance your listening will be guided by statistical analysis of Internet crowd preferences."
Ultimately, I suppose, and in true Wikipedia form, we all get the reality we expect to perceive. Lanier, in his mistrust of collective action, zeroes in on specific communities and specific features of specific resources that he believes prove that collectivism is a terrible, dehumanizing mistake. Along the way, he ignores the vast variety of successful projects of collective action, including:
- This year's DARPA challenge winners, based out of Sandy Pentland's Human Dynamics Laboratory at MIT, who successfully crowdsourced the search and retrieval of 100 red balloons hidden across America in a flabbergasting 8 hours and 52 minutes (researcher Riley Crane points out that while the balloons themselves were an arbitrary target, the process by which the balloons were retrieved might be applicable to more significant social problems);
- The recent Netflix Prize, which crowdsourced the development of a more accurate system for identifying Netflix members' potential interests based on previous titles viewed;
- And, oh yeah, the entire open source software movement, starring Linux, WordPress, Mozilla Firefox, Ubuntu, and a host of lesser characters playing supporting roles.
And those are just the easily identified successes of collective action. It's more challenging, but equally important, to identify and champion local or concentrated examples of collective action. When people learned of a proposed bill in Uganda that would legalize execution of homosexuals, they spread the word. Bad press for any country, even worse when prominent Americans appear to be involved behind the scenes. Video of Rachel Maddow brutally smacking down "ex-gay" evangelist Richard Cohen, suspected to have worked in support of the law, was viewed nearly 60,000 times on YouTube. While the bill is moving forward through Uganda's Parliament, the international outcry makes it more likely that a.) the law, if passed, will go largely unenforced; b.) international relations with Uganda, with governments or NGOs, will be strained; c.) any other country interested in passing a similar law will think twice about garnering such negative press; and d.) prominent anti-gay American politicians and evangelicals will think twice about joining up with a similar cause.
Over on Twitter, Dean Shareski announced he had been charged hundreds of dollars by his cellphone carrier when his daughter began texting new friends without adding them to the company's My5 plan. As he explains in a recent post, Twitter saved him $764.13: His tweets about the issue were retweeted by followers, and the company noticed and erased the extra charges.
Small and large, the possibility for collective action is empowering people to resist injustice, call for change in politics in attitudes, develop new tools to improve human lives. You don't get innovation? You can't foster creativity? I say bollocks to that.
Now for the second part of Lanier's argument, that the model of unpaid contribution has led to a general decline in quality and social and technological progress. He writes:
The "open" paradigm rests on the assumption that the way to get ahead is to give away your brain's work—your music, writing, computer code and so on—and earn kudos instead of money. You are then supposedly compensated because your occasional dollop of online recognition will help you get some kind of less cerebral work that can earn money. For instance, maybe you can sell custom branded T-shirts.Yeah, sure, the economics of creativity are shifting--but what Lanier sees as a kind of serfication of the creative class (what? really? really? really?) others see as an equitable redistribution of socially valuable goods. John Brockman reminds us of the words of McLuhan himself:
We're well over a decade into this utopia of demonetized sharing and almost everyone who does the kind of work that has been collectivized online is getting poorer. There are only a tiny handful of writers or musicians who actually make a living in the new utopia, for instance. Almost everyone else is becoming more like a peasant every day.
McLuhan had pointed out that by inventing electric technology, we had externalized our central nervous systems; that is, our minds. (John) Cage went further to say that we now had to presume that 'there's only one mind, the one we all share.' Cage pointed out that we had to go beyond private and personal mind-sets and understand how radically things had changed. Mind had become socialized. 'We can't change our minds without changing the world,' he said. Mind as a man-made extension became our environment, which he characterized as 'the collective consciousness,' which we could tap into by creating 'a global utilities network.'
If you believe we are all part of one social mind, the world's mind (and remember that we get the reality we expect to perceive), then it follows that the segmenting off of important ideas, the claiming ownership over ideas, the holding them separate from the rest of the social mind is the worst kind of sin: It is relentless and causeless self-abnegation, a sin against oneself.
It's true that some of the contributors to some of the projects I list here were paid for their participation; but they were paid for their time, and not for their ideas. The rewards for joining in a collaborative effort are not, despite Lanier's assertion to the otherwise, reduced to either praise or money; the rewards are in contributing to a socially meaningful activity, in being a productive part of something larger than oneself. Indeed, Lanier's very argument that "millions of people are ready to contribute" but that they are ready to do so even though their contributions are "unpaid, and often anonymous" shows that kudos or money are not the only motivators in collaborative spaces.
I'm an intermittent contributor to Wikipedia, and I do it without the expectation of money or kudos; I do it knowing nobody knows or cares about my contributions, except that what I add makes something neat a tiny bit better than it was before. There's value in that, to me and to the hordes of people who are perfectly comfortable contributing to collaborative projects anonymously and for free. Some things we do for money, after all, and some we do for love.
*jk jk jk I have absolutely no problem taking on such a revered, well credentialed authority as Jaron Lanier.