Saturday, January 9, 2010

smacking down Jaron Lanier & 'World Wide Mush'

Normally, I wouldn't take on such a revered, well credentialed authority as Jaron Lanier,* but his recent Wall Street Journal piece on why the movement toward collectivism, collaboration, and openness is doomed to failure leaves him cruising for a bruising.

"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.

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'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.)

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.

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.
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:

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.


adam said...

Major kudos on this post. I haven't read Lanier's article yet, but from what you've written it appears he woefully misunderstands the power of ad-hoc flocks. In my experience it seems people already understand that restraint fosters creativity. I see it every day when people break off from the collective mass to form interest-driven swarms, with their own self-imposed boundaries, that accomplish amazing things. (Many of which you've mentioned in your post.)

To his credit, he is writing for an outlet that has a vested interest in opposing digital collectivism (and claiming that "blogging isn't writing"), insofar as they want to maintain traditional power structures.

Cheers. I look forward to reading more of your stuff!

Anonymous said...

Great piece, Jenna!

It's delicious that ex-collectivist hippie JL is now a whining patriotic conservative. He deserves some credit, as he was smart enough to write down what many were discussing and imagineering (in a collaborative conversation, online and off) after exposure to bbs, forums and cyberpunk novels. Now he acts as if the Web owes him royalties.

But the kids are alright, and the younger set will gain power through collaboration. Thanks to new blood and new ideas, technology, discourse and innovation thrive and evolve, even as those minds on the scene for decades stop evolving and start regressing into the golden light of nostalgia. It's the old school's complaint "in my day, we did real (art, music, whatever) but kids these days don't appreciate it and they're ruining everything."

I may be older than JL, but I don't buy into this reactionary thinking. The twentieth century is over -- deal with it, boomers!

Jenna McWilliams said...

@adam, thanks for the, er, kudos. I do love a good kudo from time to time. Next time, why don't you just send me a check instead?

Howard Rheingold has written about Lanier that he gets "collective action" confused with "collectivism," and he has a great post about it here:

@Anonymous, It's nice to hear that "the kids are alright." I keep returning to a quote from Clay Shirky's book Here Comes Everybody:

"To ask the question 'Should we allow the spread of these social tools?' presumes that there is something we could do about it were the answer 'No'." That gets me pretty far, argument-wise, these days.

Whitney said...

Great, great post, Jenna. Lanier has a tendency to piss me off; but, while I haven't read his article yet, I think there *are* some good criticisms of our obsession with collaborative work. (I only briefly, *briefly* hint at what those might be in a post from a few weeks ago: In any case, "collaboration" seems to get more attention than it deserves, especially when it comes to funding.

That being said, excellent knock-down. ;)

Melissa said...

@adam ...not sure we should give JL a pass just because he writes "... for an outlet that has a vested interest in opposing digital collectivism (and claiming that "blogging isn't writing"), insofar as they want to maintain traditional power structures." That's no excuse. If he's only writing those things because he's fitting the mold 'they' want to see, that's awfully sell-out-ish. If he doesn't actually think like that, then he shouldn't write for them.

But otherwise, yes, yes, yes.

Hamish said...

Lanier joins the sad reactionary elitist parade of pundits that the WSJ trots out from time to time, Andrew Keen, Nick Carr et al.

All advising us little people that our aspirations must needs be subsumed to clear a path for the great and good.

As for JL's business model mockery around T-Shirts, JL doesn't do T-Shirts, he does books, and that was what he was peddling. For all he whines "brainwork" shouldn't be given away for free, on one of the few news sites with an established paywall, he didn't put his essay behind it. Wish he had.

Jenna McWilliams said...

Thanks for your comments, all!

@Whitney, I share your concern with the pressure to collaborate for funders, though I think one of the nice things about the communities that arise online is that nobody is forced to join in. If collaboration isn't your game, you don't have to play. Yet when people do choose to collaborate, often the benefits stretch far beyond the community in question. Perhaps, if we want to be idealistic for a moment, this is why funding agencies value collaboration so highly?

@Melissa, good point. If we refuse to excuse writers for being, say, too conservative or too old (or too young!) or too antiquated, then maybe we should treat news organizations the same.

@Hamish, well played. Though given that this piece may draw more readers to his book, he would probably argue that he's not giving anything away for free--that publishing this article for anyone to read supports his effort to garner both money and kudos for his ~real~ work, the book(s). I wonder what Lanier thinks of all this and hope he finds his way to my little blog some day.

adam said...

@jenna, merely saying I enjoy your work and value your insights. Glad to have found your blog through Howard Rheingold. Next time I'll be sure to have my checkbook handy.

@melissa, I wasn't implying he should get a pass at all. I agree with everything you said, but it doesn't surprise me that these ideas are coming to us via the WSJ. Also seems like an appropriate place to drum up support for a new book.

Jenna McWilliams said...

Adam, yes yes. I was just hearkening back to Lanier's point that we contribute for only one of two rewards: praise or money. Obviously there'd be absolutely no other reason for me to join in on a conversation of this intellectual caliber.

I have found your site at and cannot recommend it highly enough. Well done and keep it up, old fellow.

adam said...

Oh that digital archive of self-flattery I call my website? It in no way deserves such an honorable mention. But I appreciate the explicit endorsement. And the platitudes ;-)

Also appreciate you pointing me to Howard's post.

jay said...

Jenna, you says that Jaron's statement that "Most people know me as the 'father of Virtual Reality technology'" is a boast. Well, it happens to be true. I've met Jaron, but for me he will always be the father of VR.

Jenna McWilliams said...

I don't dispute the veracity of Lanier's claim. Most boasts, after all, are firmly rooted in truth.

JC said...

Interesting post...Does this mean you think the educational system should be revamped so that professors are hired for their time, vice their ideas? Is tenure and publish or perish a thing of the past?

Jenna McWilliams said...

I think--and maybe I'll get proven wrong--that tenure and publish and perish are problematic and antiquated systems that arose out of good impulses: to keep scholars working, producing useful material, offering their work to a wider public, instead of drifting along.

Increasingly, as my pal Whitney mentions above, scholars are funded for their ability to collaborate and to build something larger than they could as individuals. If tenure survives the crises of higher ed, then it's likely to emerge as a system that supports collaboration. I'm reading The World Question Center, which asked some of our most impressive minds "How has the internet changed the way we think?" Here's part of Clay Shirky's answer (you can read the whole piece at

"The Invisible College, the group of natural philosophers who drove the original revolution in chemistry in the mid-1600s, were strongly critical of the alchemists, their intellectual forebears, who for centuries had made only fitful progress. By contrast, the Invisible College put chemistry on a sound scientific footing in a matter of a couple of decades, one of the most important intellectual transitions in the history of science. In the 1600s, though, a chemist and an alchemist used the same tools and had access to the same background. What did the Invisible College have that the alchemists didn't?

"They had a culture of sharing. The problem with the alchemists had wasn't that they failed to turn lead into gold; the problem was that they failed uninformatively. Alchemists were obscurantists, recording their work by hand and rarely showing it to anyone but disciples. In contrast, members of the Invisible College shared their work, describing and disputing their methods and conclusions so that they all might benefit from both successes and failures, and build on each other's work."

If we're very, very lucky, universities will find a way to reward the culture of sharing, which is admittedly a very different model from that established over centuries. No more solitary geniuses, toiling alone! Le génie est mort, vive le Génie!

Elaine said...

This reminds me of the “schooling” I got from my brother about the importance of Firefox over Christmas. I don’t know much about computers frankly and so the subtleties of the internet information debates are often lost on me. I did not know that Firefox was unique in its attempts to, as my brother put it, “keep the internet free for everyone.” It was actually a bit of an ah-ha moment for me. This post supported his claim and I thank you for that Jenna because I usually don’t listen to my brother.
You quoted Lander as saying, “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.”
What I hear here is, one day we woke up realizing that our product could make us rich (something we really hadn’t considered before) and so we then set about trying to figure out how to maximize its profit potential before it became public domain.
I think the foundational hole in his statement above is his assumption that the contributors would have wanted to be paid for their participation. I enjoy blogging and participating in the debates on other blogs not because I believe it will lead to payment but because I enjoy it and am willing to continue to do so unpaid if the site remains free to use for everyone. You, Jenna, also said something along the same lines with respect to your participation on Wikipedia.
Can an industry or a technology spring from nothing on its own without subsidy or investment in its infancy? Internet information is possibly an example of this. Information sites seemingly sprang out of nothing simply to meet a demand. However, I think it could be argued that the contributor’s participation without financial gain was a subsidy provided by the masses. If these sites force payment where then is the repayment of the investments made by the contributors? They were paid nothing for their work and now must pay to view the site.
This reminds of another funny Christmas “schooling” where my dad explained that it used to be that television programming was free to the masses because it was funded by advertisements. Now, we pay for cable AND have advertisements. Did they need the additional funds from the monthly cable bill to pay for the infrastructure of the industry? It was my understanding that government subsidies did that, at least during the beginning of the cable tv industry. So, maybe the internet could become another cable television in that they charge you not once but three times for the information (bill, time lost viewing advertisements and the initial cost paid in the form of subsidies). And, unfortunately, I believe that is what Lanier is suggesting. I cannot even begin to imagine what a massive logistical undertaking it would be to attempt to reimburse every contributor for their time and participation and this could only be done through advertisements or charging to view material. Personally, I would rather contribute for free so that I could have free unfettered access to the information. I believe Lanier’s real issue is, again, his attempt to maximize profits for his individual gain and not for the benefit of the public.

Jenna McWilliams said...

Elaine, I wonder to what extent we're already in the thrice-paid-for system you describe here. Think of all the time lost scrolling through ridiculous ads!

I find it fabulous that you're willing to continue to blog even without money or even praise. And because you're too modest to broadcast it here, I'll just point out that your blog is one of the best new blogs I've encountered and it's here:

Greg DeKoenigsberg said...

Found your blog while looking for Jaron Lanier smackdowns, having just written one of my own in his response to the open textbook movement. This piece is fantastic -- well done.


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