Calling all fellow canaries . . .


You can find a few thoughts on how the Internet and technology are eroding the middle class–and democracy along with it, if you follow the logic–in this interview with Jaron Lanier from Salon. It offers musings from Lanier, an artist and musician and computer scientist, as well as a professional contrarian, on how the creative class is the canary in the digital coal mine. But he’s addressing every species of bird: “Because technology will get to everybody eventually.” (His thoughts on authorship and books is especially noteworthy, on how books, as a medium, are connected to “personhood” more than as a vehicle for imformation. Which for me is why a painting matters.)

All of this ought to be weighed against how much the Internet actually makes possible for an artist. For Lanier, who is interested primarily in musicians, the Internet offers a ton of exposure but doesn’t create an economic model to sustain the music. It’s a truism now that bands have to go on the road perpetually and live off gate receipts and t-shirt sales, rather than through sales of what they record in the studio. (There are always exceptions.)  I know some artists can actually make a steady income by selling work from their websites, though I doubt that the numbers are large. What the Internet does offer is a way to get one’s work out in front of people, even if it’s only as a reproduction. Yet it also helps enormously in getting the actual work onto walls where people can stand in front of it. Online you can find all sorts of opportunities for exhibitions, both domestic and international. I had a painting shown in London based on a call for entries I found online. This would never have happened without electronic media. Visual art has rarely been a sensible career path. The role of teaching has been crucial as a way to make art and make a living. Art school is as close as you can get to a sinecure that allows enough time to steadily produce art. The only drawback is that it’s incestuous, in a way–educators training future educators how to educate, with output that reaches a tiny circle of devotees, probably more future educators. But maybe that’s the story of most art since painting began, with very few household names emerging into the awareness of a general public.

The larger story here is how technology is undermining most of our assumptions about individual effort, in any field, and its connection to money. Lanier talks a lot about Eastman Kodak, here in my back yard, and how Instagram with its 13 employees isn’t exactly an adequate substitute for the 140,000 generously paid Kodak workers whose jobs will never come back. It’s interesting that Lanier picked Kodak because it was a purely capitalistic enterprise that cared, in a serious and tangible and institutional way, for it’s workers–partly to keep them from unionizing, but also because George Eastman created that kind of culture. He was among a number of CEOs who felt responsible to their communities and their employees, and they rewarded people accordingly. Frank Gannett, who ran Gannett Co., headquartered here for decades, was exactly that kind of CEO, as well, and Joe Wilson at Xerox, too, in the early years when it was based here. There are still CEOs like that around, John Mackey for example, but not enough. What’s interesting is how Lanier looks at how technology, and the economy it creates where money rises into a few pockets, has made subsistence harder, not easier, for lone artistic strivers. He tends to focus on musicians. For him, their current struggle is just a prelude to what everyone is going to be enduring as technology narrows the distribution of income and eliminates jobs. I liked his sardonic take on Google’s dictum that “information wants to be free”: which means my information, your information, and everyone else’s can be freely sold by Google, to advertisers–and Google’s few beneficiaries are the only ones getting wealthy in the process. Facebook: same thing. On the other hand, Facebook and Twitter foster democratic upheavals in the Middle East. They do what they are meant to do very effectively, but economically they’re parasitical. They just aren’t paying the producers, you and me, for what they make from our information. It’s, uh, free.

My apologies to Salon, and Lanier, for quoting so much of this out of its context. Right after he says information shouldn’t be free, I borrow some of his and pass it along, for free. And there you go . . .

From the interview:

In a raw kind of capitalism there tend to be unstable events that wipe away the middle and tend to separate people into rich and poor. So these mechanisms are undone by a particular kind of style that is called the digital open network.

Music is a great example where value is copied. And so once you have it, again it’s this winner-take-all thing where the people who really win are the people who run the biggest computers. And a few tokens, an incredibly tiny number of token people who will get very successful YouTube videos. Everybody else lives on hope or lives with their parents or something.

One of the things that really annoys me is the acceptance of lies that’s so common in the current orthodoxy. I guess all orthodoxies are built on lies. But there’s this idea that there must be tens of thousands of people who are making a great living as freelance musicians because you can market yourself on social media. And whenever I look for these people – I mean when I wrote “Gadget” I looked around and found a handful – and at this point three years later, I went around to everybody I could to get actual lists of people who are doing this and to verify them, and there are more now. But like in the hip-hop world I counted them all and I could find about 50. And I really talked to everybody I could. The reason I mention hip-hop is because that’s where it happens the most right now.

So when we’re talking about the whole of the business – and these are not 50 people who are doing great. Or here’s another example. Do you know who Jenna Marbles is? She’s a super-successful YouTube star. She’s the queen of self-help videos for young women. She’s kind of a cross between Snooki and Martha Stewart or something. And she’s cool. I mean, she kind of helps girls with how to do makeup, and she’s irreverent. She’s had a billion views.

The interesting thing about it is that people advertise, “Oh, what an incredible life. She’s this incredibly lucky person who’s worked really hard.” And that’s all true. She’s in her 20s, and it’s great that she’s found this success, but she makes maybe $250,000 a year, and she rents a house that’s worth $1.1 million in L.A.. And this is all breathlessly reported as this great success. And that’s good for a 20-year-old, but she’s at the very top of, I mean, the people at the very top of the game now and doing as well as what used to be considered good for a middle-class life. And I don’t want to dismiss that. That’s great for a 20-year-old, although in truth, in my world of engineers that wouldn’t be much. But for someone who’s out there, a star with a billion views, that’s a crazy low expectation. She’s not even in the 1 percent. For the tiny token number of people who make it to the top of YouTube, they’re not even making it into the 1 percent.

The issue is if we’re going to have a middle class anymore, and if that’s our expectation, we won’t. And then we won’t have democracy.

I have 14-year-old kids who come to my talks who say, “But isn’t open source software the best thing in life? Isn’t it the future?” It’s a perfect thought system. It reminds me of communists I knew when growing up or Ayn Rand libertarians. It’s one of these things where you have a simplistic model that suggests this perfect society so you just believe in it totally. These perfect societies don’t work. We’ve already seen hyper-communism come to tears. And hyper-capitalism come to tears. And I just don’t want to have to see that for cyber-hacker culture. We should have learned that these perfect simple systems are illusions.

For more along these lines, look here. His notion of micro-payments sounds interesting, but how would that work? I get a fraction of a penny for everyone who clicks on a hi-res JPEG of a painting I’ve done? It doesn’t seem like much of a substitute for an essentially tenured job at Kodak in the 60s and 70s.

The architecture of the internet must support a global, universal micropayments capability.  In this way, anyone could charge for information made available online, whether it is music or a program for a future robot.  A silly YouTube-like prank might generate a windfall for a silly teenager, while a scholar’s writing might be only occasionally accessed, but over a long period might still generate enough income to be of use.  People could then re-create the best social formula that has been achieved thus far in human experience.  Middle class people could own something- the information they produce- that would give them sustenance as they have children and age.

In order for this scheme to work, there would have to be some structural changes introduced gradually, as I explain in the book (You Are Not a Gadget).  This direction is the only way to create a human-centric internet, instead of one that serves the cultists who believe in information more than people.  It would not attempt to make information free, but instead make it affordable.  It is worth noting that this is exactly how the web would have developed if the initial design proposal for it, dating back to the 1960s, had been carried out. It is the obvious way to design the network if people are your top priority.

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