'Why the Hell Did We Do That to Ourselves?' Jaron Lanier on the Digital Economy

Computer scientist and writer Jaron Lanier on why he thinks our digital economy is screwed -- and how he proposes to fix it.
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Computer scientist and writer Jaron Lanier on why he thinks our digital economy is screwed -- and how he proposes to fix it.

Jaron Lanier, the father of virtual reality, has become Silicon Valley's ranking internal affairs cop. In a series of writings -- including his 2006 essay "Digital Maoism" and his 2010 book You Are Not A Gadget -- he has delved deeply into what he believes has gone wrong with the technology that underpins the modern economy, and how to fix it. His latest book, Who Owns The Future?, released May 7th, is about how the information economy has decimated the middle class -- and how to re-engineer it. He will be talking about the book at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center on May 16th, and City Lights Books on May 21st. He recently spoke to Scott Lucas about the financial collapse, two-way links, a new middle class, and the specter of revolution.

It seems like between this book and Evgeny Morozov's To Save Everything Click Here, there's been an explosion in these kinds of book that try to critique the way technology affects our society. Do you consider yourself part of that counteroffensive?
When I started writing about digital culture and economics it was well over a decade ago, maybe longer. It was pretty lonely. I wrote One Half of A Manifesto and Digital Maoism at a time when there wasn't a literature of criticism yet. Now there's a whole genre -- one that I don't feel like I'm part of. I'm a practitioner first and foremost. I only criticize to figure out how to improve. A lot of people, who only want to read about negativity, can feel betrayed. They think I'm becoming one of those techie idealists again. But I've always been one. That's the whole point.

The central villain in your story is not really any person or corporation. It's a piece of technology you call a Siren Server. What is that?
A siren server is the biggest and best computer on a network. Whoever has the most powerful computer would be the most powerful person, whether they plan to be or not. That's the weird thing. I'll give you a great San Francisco example -- Craigslist. Craig is a genuinely sweet guy. He could easily have been bigger than ebay, but instead decided to go this modest route. But even so, they're still destroying newspaper revenues and harming local journalism. I called it a siren server because there's no plan to be evil. A siren server seduces you. The most damaging ones are the ones to do with money. So when you cross the siren server with finance, you get the meltdown of the market, too big to fail, austerity, and the jobless recoveries. These things are really not sustainable if you are going to have capitalism as your organizing principle. They give all wealth and influence to whoever has the biggest computer on the financial network.

It seems natural to extend these concerns to something like Facebook.
There's some very good things about Facebook. I'm not down on everything. People are exposed to diversity. If monetized, that diversity could turn into an online middle class, which is why I think it's such a crime it goes un-monetized. If you de-monetize information you're destroying the middle class, and democracy with it. So that's the big argument. Right now, Facebook knows more about you than you know about it or other people. It's an out of balance system...

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