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Who owns the future? Jaron Lanier on KCRW's This...Is Interesting

transcriber's picture

"You know, if it’s all a volunteer economy of people sharing files, you’ll have these giant spy services that become superpowerful from watching what people are doing and then being able to manipulate them. But the better idea is for people to be able to pay each other when they get good at designing these things because then you can still have a middle class even though the machines have gotten really good."

Inspired by ponderings on Lambert's fundraiser and my mystification at all things dismal science, I'm going back to a podcast I heard last year. Things aren't working, the middle class is dying, and internet pioneer and free thinker Jaron Lanier looks back forensically -- "we did screw something up" -- and forward with Captain Kirk optimism. This is interesting. Podcast at KCRW, and my transcript below the fold.

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This...Is Interesting
Matt Miller interviews Jaron Lanier
KCRW, June 5, 2013

TRANSCRIPT

Matt Miller: I’m Matt Miller, and This...Is Interesting, the podcast that brings you the people and ideas that are shaping our world. Today, will Google and Facebook destroy the middle class, and is there a better way to structure the internet economy? My guest is Jaron Lanier, a computer guru who helped create virtual reality in the 1980s and who now may be the most authoritative critic of today’s internet business model and the culture of technologists. His new book is Who Owns the Future? Jaron, welcome.

Jaron Lanier: Hey, thanks for having me.

Matt Miller: So, I’m so glad. You know, we’ve known each other for a while and I’ve followed the trajectory of your public arguments with great fascination and want to bring this to our audience. What’s your beef, Jaron? Can you say? What got you, what made you write this book?

What was just bizarre to me is that during the period of introduction, which has more or less been the last 10 or 15 years, we’ve seen economic recessions, jobless recoveries, a decline in the middle class, decline in social mobility, and I had thought that would be impossible because I thought networking would bring about so much new wealth.

Jaron Lanier: Well, what got me to write it is really easy to say, which is I spent decades looking forward to seeing all these benefits to society from digital networking finally reaching people, and some of the benefits really came about. I mean, there’s no question there have been some successes. But what was just bizarre to me is that during the period of introduction, which has more or less been the last 10 or 15 years, we’ve seen economic recessions, jobless recoveries, a decline in the middle class, decline in social mobility, and I had thought that would be impossible because I thought networking would bring about so much new wealth. And so I felt compelled by that result to try to go back, because I’m an empiricist, and figure out if maybe we’d screwed something up, and I feel we did screw something up. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to.

Matt Miller: And screwed up in terms of the way the, the way something you call the architecture of digital networks is somehow at odds with what you think is a –

Jaron Lanier: Yeah.

Matt Miller: – the proportion of the middle class, right?

Jaron Lanier: Right. So I can approach this from a whole bunch of different ways, but you know the way I’d like to approach it right now is kind of historically. So let me suggest to you a three-act play, if you don’t mind. First act is the nineteenth century. Tons of anxiety about whether improving technology will destroy jobs. Right? That’s what Marxism was about, that’s how –

Matt Miller: The Luddites.

Jaron Lanier: – [ … ] got its start.

Matt Miller: Luddites.

Jaron Lanier: Right. Yeah, all these things. And so twentieth century comes along and guess what, we have something called a labor movement. And the labor movement proposes a remarkable idea, which is as technology gets better it should mean more jobs that are more comfortable and more dignified and less dangerous instead of fewer jobs because machines are doing things.

So for instance, a great example is, it turns out you can actually get paid to drive a truck or a cab, and that didn’t come automatically because, you know, somebody could say, “Hey, driving is so much easier than dealing with horses. People pay to drive. People love driving. Why should we be paying these guys?” And the reason why is there’s this union. There are Teamsters who say, “Hey, you know, you have to pay us.”

So the twenty-first century comes along and we reconsider the question again and we say, “You know what? Automation’s getting better. Machines are getting better. You have programs that can automatically translate information. You can transfer music and journalism without any cost. Why are we paying these people?” We’re undoing the covenant that made the twentieth century reasonable for middle-class people. That’s our problem. It’s the idea –

And the problem is that the very most sweet and idealistic people are promoting exactly the wrong idea, which is the open source and open culture movement people. And I was one of the formative people in that movement, and I totally get it, I understand why it’s appealing, but what it’s actually doing is enriching these incredible new concentrations of power around people who use that open information to spy on everybody and to manipulate everyone. It’s totally backfiring.

And the problem is that the very most sweet and idealistic people are promoting exactly the wrong idea, which is the open source and open culture movement people. And I was one of the formative people in that movement, and I totally get it, I understand why it’s appealing, but what it’s actually doing is enriching these incredible new concentrations of power around people who use that open information to spy on everybody, and so it’s completely backfiring, and to manipulate everyone. It’s totally backfiring. And so we made a mistake. That’s what happens.

Matt Miller: Now give people, just so they understand where you’re coming from, just two seconds on your background so people understand. You were –

Jaron Lanier: Oh. (laughs)

Matt Miller: – trained as a computer scientist. I just want – because you’re unusually authoritative because you’re someone who’s helped build this world that we’re now living in.

Jaron Lanier: Yeah. I guess I am. It’s funny. So, yeah, I was a chief scientist of the engineering office of Internet2, which was the primary academic body that looked at how to make the internet work when it got big. I’m considered the father approximately of virtual reality technology. I’ve created startups that have been sold to, oh, let’s see, Google and Oracle and Adobe, so I’ve done the startup thing. And I’m – let’s see, I’m currently a researcher at Microsoft Labs, and the thing about that is I’m totally inside what I criticize. I’m not an outsider. I tell my peers exactly what I think, which is this stuff. And I’ve also consulted to people running giant financial concerns like hedge funds and high-frequency trading. And I’ve also consulted to governments and every possible sort of large concern you can imagine. So I’ve pretty much seen it all.

Matt Miller: And so you know – I just want people to understand that Jaron Lanier obviously knows whereof he speaks. You’re also an accomplished musician, right, and you play these kind of interesting – what are they, kind of arcane instruments, or –

Jaron Lanier: (laughs)

Matt Miller: You tell me.

Jaron Lanier: Yeah, I have a weakness for, a passion for learning obscure acoustic instruments for some reason, so I just keep on searching out and learning unusual historical or world instruments. It’s just a thing I love to do. But it’s also given me an insight into the music business because I’ve done it professionally and I’ve been signed to major labels and whatnot and therefore I’ve been able to see how the music business works, and the music business was one of the test cases for digitizing an industry and so I got to see that from both sides.

Matt Miller: And so – wait, wait, what I want folks to understand is you’re this kind of fascinating polymath who brings –

Jaron Lanier: (laughs)

Matt Miller: – but who also brings this very rare, I mean to me, cultural critique, because we don’t get a discussion in the public square about the culture of technologists, this small community of folks whose choices about the design of the systems and then the business models that are built around them really have big implications for the trajectory of the economy and society. Talk for a minute, because I want people to understand, when you talk about the services that now are spying on folks to monetize their data, etcetera – this is the Googles and the Facebooks etcetera – say a little more about how this ethic of “information should be free” is now putting things, in your view, that matter at risk.

Well, “information should be free” – it sounds so great. And where it falls apart is if you have a bunch of people who are sharing freely on a network, whoever has the best computers can outcompete everybody else. A high-frequency trading firm or a Google or a national intelligence agency can gradually not take risks, gradually gather benefits, and gradually impoverish everybody else. And it happens over and over again.

Jaron Lanier: Yeah, sure. Well, “information should be free” – it sounds so great because you think throughout history every time there’s been some nasty dictator, the first thing the guy does is try to control the TV station, control the flow of information. So if you opened up information, you’d counter the tendency of people to turn into control freaks who oppress each other, right? I mean, that’s the basic theory. And it sounds good. And where it falls apart is if you have a bunch of people who are sharing freely on a network, some of those people are going to have access to better computers than others. And better might mean bigger, it might mean better programs, there are all kinds of factors, but the point is, whoever has the best computers can outcompete everybody else, and right now the best computers are spectacularly better than ordinary computers. I mean, a big financial, like a high-frequency trading firm or a Google or a national intelligence agency, they have practically, you know, city-sized computers with their own power plants and they have to use rivers to cool them. You know, these giant things. And what they do is they gather data from everybody else in order to calculate subtle moves so that whoever owns the computer can gradually not take risks, gradually gather benefits, and gradually impoverish everybody else. You know? And it happens over and over again.

A great example is American health care. What used to happen is a healthcare company would hire statisticians who are called actuaries who would do their best to approximately set rates on a sort of a broad basis, but if you can actually gets tons of data on people as individuals you can try to create the perfect insurance scam where you only insure the people who need insurance the least. And the problem with that is that eventually, you know, everybody, the whole society, has to pay for your, you know, supposedly perfect business.

The recession was all about this. And it happened all over the developed world at once, and exactly following the same pattern.

And it’s happened in finance a whole bunch of times. Initially, early on, actually Enron and Long-term Capital were the dry runs, and recently the (laughs) – well, the recession was all about this. And it happened all over the developed world at once, and exactly following the same pattern.

Matt Miller: Which was this attempt to, or this kind of false belief that you could eliminate risk by slicing and dicing it through computerized models, and then it turned out that risk is still there and...

You can be this switchboard or this like sort of perfect actor who’s just letting everybody else take the risks, and you don’t do anything, you just have this superior computational position and you just sort of take a cut from everybody else’s lives. But then eventually it crashes and there’s some huge public bailout. And it’ll just keep on happening.

Jaron Lanier: Yes. I mean, you can for a while eliminate risk for yourself. You can be this switchboard or this like sort of perfect actor who’s just letting everybody else take the risks, and you don’t do anything, you just have this superior computational position and you just sort of take a cut from everybody else’s lives. But then eventually the society isn’t big enough to absorb, you know, this subsidy to the people who own the biggest computers, and then it crashes and there’s some huge public bailout. And it’ll just keep on happening.

And social media is following exactly the same pattern, as is search, where these companies gather data from people. The way it’s used is to create behavioral models of the people. The idea that it’s based on open information is a falsehood, because the most important information, which are the behavioral models, the predictive information, is stuff you never get to see. The only way that stuff is used is that third parties come along and pay for the placement of the options in front of you, which slowly manipulates you, over time – these are these link ads and whatnot – and gradually what happens is people are steered into decisions that suddenly over time benefit the people close to the big computers, but the way you pay for it is gradually your career prospects are reduced, gradually your access to credit is reduced, gradually your options start to fade away, because all the power and clout is accumulating with this big computer.

Matt Miller: Stop for a second here, because I want people to –

Jaron Lanier: (laughs)

Matt Miller: Because a lot of people who use Google and Facebook, obviously they’re doing it voluntarily, then they find it’s bringing enormous benefits to their lives, and yet the point that you stress, which I want people to sort of hear you tease out, is the only way those, those business models work basically on the monetization of the data voluntarily supplied by, you know, a billion people and then the things they do to market everybody’s information to advertisers, right?

Jaron Lanier: Well, some of it’s voluntary. I mean, we’re all being tracked all the time when we’re online by thousands of little spybot programs, and increasingly there are cameras that watch what we do in public as well. So it’s partially voluntary and partially not. But the key is to understand how you pay the price.

You get free music now but your prospects to be a professional musician later are reduced. I’ve searched out every success story I can find online about a musician who’s doing well in our new environment, and there’s just a tiny token number. And the thing to realize is that this pattern will repeat again and again for every single industry.

So as an example, you get free music now but your prospects to be a professional musician later are reduced. And of course only a minority of people want to be professional musicians. But the thing to realize is that this pattern will repeat again and again for every single industry.

And by the way, some of your listeners are probably saying, “Wait, wait, wait, I thought that the ability to do free publicity and whatnot makes it great for musicians.” And I have to tell you, I so much wanted to believe that for so many years, but I’ve searched out every success story I can find online about a musician who’s doing well in our new environment, and there’s just a tiny token number. They exist, but there’s just a tiny token. Statistically, it basically doesn’t work.

Matt Miller: And one of your points is that as this kind of accelerating automation moves its way through from industry to industry and jobs are threatened or the wages for those jobs are threatened, that a lot of the value that’s created through the social networks or these new business models, the value created isn’t compensated by the people whose information collectively is creating – is permitting that creation of value, right? Is that what you’re saying?

Jaron Lanier: Yeah, well, you know, (sigh) um –

Matt Miller: You want Facebook to pay.

It’s not that Facebook should pay you. It’s that we should be paying each other so we have a real economy and we’re all first-class citizens. If it’s just Facebook paying us, we’re ultimately shopping in a company store. That’s not a real economy. If we’re going to have market economies at all, everyone needs to be a first-class citizen in them. We need to have something that’s building the middle class instead of destroying it.

Jaron Lanier: (laughs) I want Facebook – well, look, no, no. It’s not that Facebook should pay you. It’s that we should be paying each other so we have a real economy and we’re all first-class citizens. If it’s just Facebook paying us, we’re ultimately shopping in a company store, if you see what I mean. That’s not a real economy. We need to have a situation where if we’re going to have market economies at all, everyone needs to be a first-class citizen in them. And that has to be true even if it’s primarily an information economy, or else we’ll just create this new plutocracy that’ll be really extreme. And I know some of my lefty friends think that would be great because then it would get bad enough that we’d finally have our revolution or something, but honestly (laughs) I think the much better approach to the future is to incrementally try to approach something that’s really working, and recently we’ve been approaching a future that’s not working as we just see from the way the economy has responded to digital networking as we’ve construed it so far. So we just need to try to keep on improving it until we have something that’s building the middle class instead of destroying it.

Matt Miller: If your mind wandered for a second, we’re talking to Jaron Lanier, author of Who Owns the Future?, about where the internet is taking society. See, I can’t say, Jaron, “if you just tuned in,” because this is a podcast. You’re here already.

Jaron Lanier: Yeah, I mean the fact that their minds wander –

Matt Miller: But, but, yes, but they could have zoned out for a second, yet we’re still honoring the midshow reintroduction. Let me ask you this, because one of the things, there’s so many places here – this is a very meta conversation, you can see. I remember, your first book, which was called You Are Not A Widget? You Are Not A Gadget? Tell me again?

Jaron Lanier: You Are Not a Gadget. But you’re also not a widget.

Matt Miller: You’re also not a widget, but you are not a gadget, yeah, where you began to sound some of these themes only to develop them – and by the way, I have to tell folks that the book is so hyperarticulate, multifaceted – you know, it goes into all these meditations and it’s written in this very interesting way, so I really urge folks to read it, to buy it at least, and also to read it.

But one of the things that’s so interesting to me, I remember you said in your first book that in a way it was a way of, kind of an indirect way of sending a – you know, getting the attention of a thousand people in Silicon Valley. And when you said that, it struck me, it’s this whole idea that there is an elite corps of I guess it’s software engineers and other technologists who, it’s not 100,000 people, it’s a relatively small group of people whose choices, which don’t really get much public discussion or scrutiny, sets in motion a lot of the things that have you raising concerns. And you’re of that culture but also a critic of it. And I remember one of the things you said in the book, there’s a quote, this quote, “Belief in the specialness of people is a minority position in the tech world. I would like that to change.” What did you mean by that?

Jaron Lanier: Well, it’s easiest when you’re designing digital networks and services and products to think of people as information units. So you think of, you start to say, well, each of these people can perform this task, and the greater good that you’re working towards is the overall network performing better.

Automatic language translation is totally made of the work of other people, but we create this illusion that the other people don’t exist in order to create the other illusion that we have this electronic brain that knows anything. And so as long as our architectures are trying to create this illusion, we’re going to have to erase the contributions of people which is what actually creates the work and the value, and those two ideas are directly at odds with each other.

So one example I like to give is automatic language translation where now you can upload a document and have it translated to another language. And the thing about that is that, you know, the illusion that everybody wants to have is that there’s some supersmart artificial brain that’s learned to understand languages, but actually there’s nothing like that. All there is really is a crowd of real genuine human translators who translated examples, whose examples were gathered, sometimes through some transaction and sometimes just automatically by scraping the internet all the time, and those translations are matched up with your new example that you want to have translated, and correlations are found and then a pastiche or what we call a mashup these days is created of earlier translations, and that’s the thing that’s sent back to you. So it’s totally made of the work of other people, but we create this illusion that the other people don’t exist in order to create the other illusion that we have this electronic brain that knows anything. And so as long as our architectures are trying to create this illusion that we’re making this sort of hyperintelligent technology, we’re going to have to erase the contributions of people which is what actually creates the work and the value, and those two ideas are directly at odds with each other. We really can’t have them both.

Matt Miller: And that’s what seems so important, too, is that it’s because the work of all those whatever, thousands of translators, that end up being scraped in a nanosecond by, you know, by the intelligent machine today or the machine, those folks don’t get compensated, right? That’s your point for the new use.

If we knew for sure it was only going to be musicians and journalists and translators, we could come up with institutions to compensate for that or something. But it’s going to be everybody and everything except for the people who own the biggest computers. And this is what folks have to understand.

Jaron Lanier: Right, right. And the thing is, once again, for any particular example, like if we knew for sure it was only going to be musicians and journalists, or it was only going to be musicians and journalists and translators, or it was only going to be, you know, some set, we could come up with institutions to compensate for that or something. But it’s going to be everybody and everything except for the people who own the biggest computers. And this is what folks have to understand.

For instance, there’s a hobbyist craze now called 3-D printing where you have this thing that looks like a microwave and you download a file from the internet and then inside this box little spigots move around depositing tiny bits of material very carefully until a whole object is built up. So you can create objects straight off the internet, and it’s really cool, and I love this stuff, but you know at some point it’ll get good enough that factories will start to shut down and the printers will print each other so the whole thing will be viral, as we like to say, and so at that point where’s the economy?

You know, if it’s all a volunteer economy of people sharing files, you’ll have these giant spy services that become superpowerful from watching what people are doing and then being able to manipulate them. But the better idea is for people to be able to pay each other when they get good at designing these things because then you can still have a middle class even though the machines have gotten really good.

And if I sound a little exasperated when I say this, it’s because it seems like such a simple idea, but the orthodoxy that information should be free is so thick and it mixes with this other feeling of what I call nerd supremacy where, you know, it’s like, “Well, of course the people with the biggest computers should be superior, because we are, you know?”

Matt Miller: (laughs)

Jaron Lanier: And I just don’t want to live in that world, even though it benefits me personally. It creates an overall outcome, especially in this distorted, incredible concentration of power. It just doesn’t create the world I want.

Matt Miller: Now, when you talk about it in the kind of umbrella phrase you use in the book for the direction we need to move in, and obviously you’re trying to lay out, you know, a kind of set of themes you can’t sketch down to the last detail. You can’t write the code yet for the whole new Jaron Lanier benevolent dictator economy, but you call it a humanistic information economy, and one of the folks you say whose work we ought to draw on is a name that I think won’t be familiar to people. It’s Ted, Ted Nelson?

Jaron Lanier: Yeah, Ted Nelson. So, Ted’s a remarkable figure because he conceived of how digital networks could work before anyone had been able to build one yet, and so his work goes back to 1960, which is just remarkable, and he proposed digital networking and a fair amount of detail of what it would be like. He called the new medium that would result hypertext, which is where the HT in HTML comes from, and this was before anybody had actually figured out (laughs) how it could possibly be done, you know?

Instead of a socialist revolution or something like that, Ted Nelson saw the possibility that if people paid each other for information, all the information ultimately really comes from people. It’s just us, working with each other, and if we kept track of when somebody had done something and then it was re-used, mashed up or was useful to somebody else, and had universal micropayments, we would actually create a middle class naturally out of that. And he did actually express all this stuff as early as 1960.

But in his initial conception, I think he benefited from the clear sight that the very first person on a scene can sometimes benefit from, and he saw that high technology could destroy middle classes because automation could result in a situation where only, you know, the owners of the top machines benefit. That’s been the nightmare since the nineteenth century. And the way out he saw, instead of a socialist revolution or something like that, he saw the possibility that if people paid each other for information, all the information ultimately really comes from people. There isn’t some artificial intelligence. There isn’t some sort of mystical nonhuman source of machine intelligence. It’s just us, working with each other, and if we kept track of when somebody had done something and then it was re-used, mashed up or was useful to somebody else, and had universal micropayments, we would actually create a middle class naturally out of that. And he proposed it all with, I should say, a sort of a countercultural zest that had a mixture of hippie and beatnik qualities that might have obscured it a bit, but he did actually express all this stuff as early as 1960.

Matt Miller: And so universal micropayments would mean – and one of the things he suggested, right, was that when links operate, they link back, is that it? So you always know the source of the information being drawn. And then that would be, what, there’d be some kind of Skynet that would administer tiny payments that would reflect the information contribution of the entire world value, right, that we’re headed for?

Jaron Lanier: No, Skynet is what happens when you don’t remember where information came from.

Matt Miller: (laughs) Sorry, wrong phrase.

Jaron Lanier: Yeah, no, no, yeah, because, no, Skynet is, you know, a fictional reference to what we’re actually doing here.

Matt Miller: So try and make it tangible for people.

Jaron Lanier: Yeah. So, okay. So right now the way computer architectures work, let’s say you have a mortgage and some bank looks at your mortgage and leverages it and bundles it into some security that somebody else is paying. And so you might say, “Well, who cares if some other part of the network is pointed at my mortgage? It doesn’t affect me. It’s somebody else’s problem.” But that’s never true. What happens is, on a macroeconomic level or in the big picture, if a lot of people are pointing at other people’s mortgages and those people don’t know, the risk involved in the mortgage gets amplified usually and eventually everybody has to pay for it, and that’s a summary of what happened in the recession.

Networking started out with this idea of remembering where information came from, and it was kind of taken out by young men for ideological reasons, not for technical reasons. But I should point out that many of the great fortunes today come from reconstituting those back links, the records of where information came from. For instance, Google. Facebook.

In the same way, if your music file is being copied, you might say, “Well, who cares? I still have the original. It doesn’t hurt me.” Except that overall it kills the music business. And in every case there’s a situation where if people are taking advantage of information without anyone knowing it, with this sort of anonymous point of reference, it ultimately does kill the economy. It’s a general principle, which I explain in detail in the book. And the thing about it is it was added artificially to the network. Because networking started out with this idea of remembering where information came from, and it was kind of taken out by young men who either – had ideologies, basically. It was taken out for ideological reasons, not for technical reasons. And so that’s a very interesting story.

But I should point out that many of the great fortunes today come from reconstituting those back links, as we call them, or the records of where information came from. For instance, Google has to scrape the whole internet constantly to figure out who’s pointing at who, because that information was discarded artificially to begin with. Similarly, Facebook keeps track of who’s interested in who, but that was artificially discarded.

So one architectural element that was missing was keeping track of where stuff came from. It’s only one of about three big ones that were lost, but it’s an element that we have to fix.

Matt Miller: And it was discarded – when you say it was for ideological reasons, what? That people shouldn’t be traceable? That somehow –

Jaron Lanier: Oh, God. (laughs)

Matt Miller: It’s a long story?

In the 1970s there were two kinds of people, mostly young men, who were working on getting networking to work. And one kind of young man was this sort of red state guy and he was working in a military lab, and the other was a blue state kind of guy and he was working in a university computer science department. And both of these people wanted to hide from the government for different reasons.

Jaron Lanier: No, no, no, it’s interesting. I don’t know how much – hey, listen, if you have the time. In the 1970s there were two kinds of people, mostly young men, who were working on getting networking to work, right? And one kind of young man was this sort of red state guy and he was working in a military lab, and the other was a blue state kind of guy and he was working in a university computer science department, and they were making the earliest experimental nodes to get networking to happen. And both of these people wanted to hide from the government for different reasons.

Matt Miller: (laughs)

Jaron Lanier: The red state guys were totally pissed off at Jimmy Carter because there was a 55 mph speed limit due to an Arab oil embargo, and there was this cultural craze at the time in red state America which was called CB radio.

Matt Miller: Yeah!

Jaron Lanier: Which was actually more present and a bigger deal than Twitter is today, although young people don’t believe me when I tell them that but it’s true. There used to be popular country songs about it, and it was just completely everywhere in the culture. And what happened with CB radio is you’d have this little radio in your car and you’d make up a fake name for yourself and then people would warn each other about where the police were hiding so that they could speed. You know? That’s what it was about. So there was this idea that you have more personal freedom and more personal liberty if you can be anonymous and hidden, right?

And then on the left side, or the blue side of America, it was the same story for different reasons. The Selective Service system was still operating and so people were scared of the draft. Nobody knew what was going to happen in Southeast Asia. Could the war start up again? Also, you know, the drug laws had a pretty big effect. And I (laughs) tell this story, but I won’t reveal the details, but one of the early university labs where an internet – what we come to call later an internet node was being prototyped, the waste heat from the computer was being used for a grow farm illicitly (laughs) that was never discovered.

There has to be a balance of mutuality as well as an ability to be left alone. You know? I mean we have to strike that balance. And this is totally yielding power to whoever can encrypt the best, whoever’s the best hacker.

And so you have this environment where all of the young men for different reasons feel that the coolest thing is the world is to be hidden and to be able to do things without being traced. And of course you do get certain freedoms from doing that. Those freedoms accrue mostly to sort of techies more than ordinary people, so it does create this nerd supremacy outcome. But, you know, that can’t be the whole of society. Like there has to be a balance of mutuality as well as an ability to be left alone. You know? I mean we have to strike that balance. And this is totally yielding power to whoever can, you know, encrypt the best, whoever’s the best hacker.

Matt Miller: And what I take away from that now is that because of the serendipity of these cultural influences or sentiments among young men at a certain period in the evolution of technology, the middle class is now doomed in the next few decades. Is that the – ?

No, the middle class is not doomed. If I were pessimistic, I wouldn’t bother. This is actually an important point for me. Because complacency is pessimism. A passion to improve is optimism, and that’s what I have.

Jaron Lanier: (laughs) No, the middle class is not doomed. If I were pessimistic, I wouldn’t bother. I mean, this is actually a kind of an important point for me. Because, you know, complacency is pessimism. A passion to improve is optimism, and that’s what I have. I am totally optimistic, and that’s precisely why I work so hard on these things. Why would I tell my friends that I think we’re making a mistake unless I was totally optimistic that it would make a difference?

Captain Kirk's wager

Matt Miller: I love that you’ve made that point. And you also, you talk in the book about something you call Pascal’s wager, or Captain Kirk’s wager, which relates to –

Jaron Lanier: (laughs)

Matt Miller: – the, I guess the innate optimism of the technologist. Talk about that a little bit.

We have this endless parade of the machines taking over, The Terminator and The Matrix and Battlestar Galactica. But with Star Trek, the old Star Trek anyway, Kirk’s in the center of the bridge. Like there’s all this tech, but there’s a person in the middle.

Jaron Lanier: Yeah, sure. Well, I talk a lot about the history and culture of science fiction in the book because it did start in the nineteenth century precisely in response to this stirring of a fear that humans would become obsolete. And I mean you can go back to Mary Shelley if you want to to find this, but in the nineteenth century with H.G. Wells and also the early writing of Mark Twain and many others, you have this sense that either superior aliens once in a while, but mostly it’s our own machines, will eventually overtake us. And in Star Trek you have a very rare example of a kind of an optimistic science fiction which just hasn’t been happening a lot lately. Instead we have this endless parade of the machines taking over, The Terminator and The Matrix and Battlestar Galactica and blah blah blah. But with Star Trek, the old Star Trek anyway, Kirk’s in the center of the bridge. Like there’s all this tech, but there’s a person in the middle. And I relate it to Pascal’s wager.

There’s no way to prove that people are different than computers, there’s no way to prove that any individual is anything other than a machine, but we’re better off believing that we’re special. It gives us a chance to build a compassionate society. It gives us a chance to build a fair economy. It gives us a chance to give ourselves credit and maybe discover there’s more to us than we think.

Pascal’s wager is one of the tropes of philosophy, and the notion is that Pascal is saying, “You know, I don’t know ultimately if God is real or not, but it’s a better bet to believe in God because if God’s not real and I believed in God, so what, I had a belief. But if God’s real and I failed to believe, then I lose eternal – ” you know, whatever one believes. And I think it’s a bit of a – in its classical form, it’s a bit simplistic, but the point is there’s no way to prove that people are different than computers, there’s no way to prove that any individual is anything other than a machine, but we’re better off believing in it, we’re better off believing that we’re special. It gives us a chance to build a compassionate society. It gives us a chance to build a fair economy. It gives us a chance to give ourselves credit and maybe discover there’s more to us than we think, and it’s just – you know, it just gives us the space to possibly be something beyond a machine and we should at least give ourselves that space. Even if we are ultimately machines, what will have been lost?

Matt Miller: Just a couple of minutes left with Jaron Lanier. In that spirit, there was one line you had I think that kind of echoed the humanism at the heart of your book where you talked about, even though everyone kind of extolled the promise of artificial intelligence, you observe at one point, Apple wouldn’t leave the design choices for its products to an algorithm as opposed to Steve Jobs, and that’s another way you have of sort of putting the human at the heart of things, isn’t it?

Jaron Lanier: Well, this is a sort of nerd supremacy problem, because we’re all asked, and we agree, to let algorithms choose what music we listen to, who we date, all these pretty personal decisions that have to do with who we are, what movies we see. But Silicon Valley isn’t going to believe that stuff. We know it’s crap. And so for our stuff, you know –

Matt Miller: (laughs)

Jaron Lanier: You know, I mean it’s like we’re not going to live by that because we know better. We know that these algorithms don’t actually do anything and so we don’t live by them ourselves, and that’s something that’s worth noticing.

Matt Miller: Another thing you observe at one point which struck me is that if Facebook failed today, or let’s say went bankrupt as a business, you said this would be in essence a global emergency. Talk about that.

Jaron Lanier: Well, you know, it depends on who we’re talking about, but for people in certain ages and classes and regions of the world, they’ve kind of built their lives around the structure of Facebook, and if it suddenly went away I think they’d be rather lost. And I think that’s true for a lot of institutions as well, healthcare institutions and whatnot. And so, yes, it would be serious.

Facebook is a public company controlled by one person, which is an oddity in itself. But for an infrastructure company to be like that is exceptionally odd.

And so, you know, you have these companies that are sort of infrastructure companies but are based on a business plan of manipulation instead of being an honest broker of infrastructure needs. And I think that that’s problematic. And they’re also volatile organizations that could die. And they’re also very insanely tightly controlled organizations. I mean, Facebook is a public company controlled by one person, which is an oddity in itself. But for an infrastructure company to be like that is exceptionally odd.

Matt Miller: It almost makes you think this would be like a regulated utility one day if, you know, if a billion people and two billion people eventually and more are dependent on it.

I don’t think it should be a regulated utility, I think it should be a person-to-person switchboard where people are growing an economy by getting better and better at doing things of use for each other. I’m not advocating that Facebook become a utility. I’m holding that up as a warning.

Jaron Lanier: Well, that’s what I’m trying to say to my – I mean, I don’t think it should be a regulated utility, I think it should be a person-to-person switchboard where people are growing an economy by getting better and better at doing things of use to each other. I mean, for each other. (laughs) Or to each other, you know, depending on taste. But the thing is, I’m not advocating that Facebook become a utility. I’m holding that up as a warning. I’m saying that’s our fate if we don’t fix this. I’m trying to say to my Silicon Valley friends that while this stuff is great for us right now, we have to start steering it or we’re going to end up in a place that we really don’t like.

Matt Miller: Now, a last dumb question now on the economics of the potential humanistic vision, which is, if Facebook – and I think just your response to this will help tease out why my understanding of what you’re talking about is imperfect, but if Facebook has a market value of, you know, let’s say it’s a hundred billion dollars, and they have a billion users, doesn’t that mean that everyone sort of has, if their value was distributed to everybody, everybody’s got a hundred bucks. That doesn’t sound like a middle class solution. What am I missing when I reason that way?

Jaron Lanier: Well, you’re missing that Facebook isn’t the only story. I mean, in an information economy, there’ll be a thousand things like Facebook, and so it’s a hundred thousand dollars. And that’s the key idea. So if you want to get a sense for how much your information is worth right now, and we’re still at a very early phase of the information revolution, start looking at the difference between what you’d spend if you joined somebody’s frequent whatever club versus doing it.

So, look at the differential when you shop between being part of the shopping, you know, having a special shopper’s card or not at Safeway or whatever. When you fly, think about the free flights you get if you’re willing to be part of the frequent flyer thing. Add up all that stuff, and add up the valuation divided by the user base of all the services you use, and you’ll already get to a number that’s well into the thousands and perhaps even into the low tens for a lot of people. And a lot of stuff isn’t automated yet. And the point is that this number is going to go up and up.

So you’re absolutely correct that any particular one of those is not something that’s going to make a living for an average person. For a person who’s particularly good at that thing it might, but not for the average person. But I think overall people offer incredible value online and there’s enough to go around and create a new kind of middle class.

If somebody is skeptical that most people would provide value if it was honestly accounted for, you really need to reexamine your own internal elitism. It’s false.

I sometimes run into this kind of weird skepticism that people offer anything of value. And they say, “Oh, no, nobody’s going to be worth anything. Only a few special people.” And every empirical bit of information we have is contrary to that. I really have faith that most people are providing value. If somebody is skeptical that most people would provide value if it was honestly accounted for, you really need to reexamine your own internal elitism. It’s false.

Matt Miller: And the last nanosecond here. Jaron Lanier is optimistic because – why?

Jaron Lanier: Oh! Why? Because of so many things. Because in the future people have somehow made life better. We make our world better, repeatedly, in the big picture. The further back you go in time, the more you see infant mortality and reduced lifespans and plagues and horrible things. We have figured out how to improve our lives, and the politics, you know, has always been horrible. We’ve always been nasty to each other. And yet we’ve found a way. And so empirically, completely aside from anything else – not theoretically, empirically I’m an optimist because I’ve seen what humanity has been able to do in the past.

Matt Miller: Jaron Lanier, we’re going to have to leave it there. The book is Who Owns the Future? Very interesting, Jaron. I’m really glad you came by to take the time today.

Jaron Lanier: It’s always a delight to talk to you.

Matt Miller: Gary Scott and Laura Dine Million produced today’s podcast. Our technical director is Melissa Morton. Let us know what you found interesting at KCRW.com/interesting. I’m Matt Miller. Thanks for listening, and tune in again next time for another riveting episode of This...Is Interesting.

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jo6pac's picture
Submitted by jo6pac on

WOW but will be back tomorrow Calli time to finish

I tell my peers exactly what I think, which is this stuff

Caught my eye but at the same time he's doing time at ms

transcriber's picture
Submitted by transcriber on

Hi jo6pac, thanks, I've been thinking about this podcast for quite a while. I wanted to jumble and contrast it with ideas I've heard in some other podcasts I've heard lately -- I think it was Eben Moglen and Bruce Schneier in particular, but also stray comments in others -- but if I waited to get it all together I'd never get anything out.

The book review quotes and links given here are good, and I read The New Republic review and thought its criticism was good.

In a way I think Lanier's micropayment plan is like the admin bods/bots in Russell Brand's revolution -- that little detail that makes it all work that no one's really figured out yet. Like all we need now is angels. I think he's right in looking at internet architecture and about the systemic repeating fails, and we should learn, but if bank and money architecture isn't addressed too, won't we all still owe our souls to that company store, and won't we all still not be citizens worth speaking of?

And if the fail is all about the evils of Google/Facebook/NSA supercomputers vacuuming up our information against our interests and to our impoverishment, won't disabling anonymity and making us dependent on trackable insecure online micropayments just play into that? King Paypal, who could have foreseen? I don't get it but I think I'm back with the red state-blue state guys in the 70s. Is the fail really theirs for stripping out tracking, or is the fail Google's and Facebook's for putting it back in? I never know, I just wonder around.

Thanks.

V. Arnold's picture
Submitted by V. Arnold on

...and I really enjoyed Lanier. I'd never heard of him.
He's got quite the laugh, a very enthusiastic guy. Cheers

Don't believe them, don't fear them, don't ask anything of them.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.
Frederick Douglass

transcriber's picture
Submitted by transcriber on

I know, that's one of the frustrations of transcribing, whatever the laugh it always comes out just: (laughs), if it gets noted at all, and sometimes it's worse to note it, thud. (Happy giggling), (chuckle), (belly laugh), (hoot), (snort), doesn't happen. Richness lost. Glad you listened.