Prodigal Common Sense

Bei diesem Beitrag handelt es sich um ein Blog aus der Freitag-Community

Jaron Lanier, nicknamed “The Prodigy” by other members of “edge” magazines’ illustrious “Reality Club”, has put out a book that dares to question the web’s much hyped open culture.

Jaron Lanier is a funny looking man. He is chubby, bordering on fat and wears his long blonde hair in dreadlocks which come down close to his ass. His speaks in a high-pitched voice and when he laughs, which he does frequently, his mouth doesn’t move, as if he had injected a local anesthetic. He is collector of rare instruments and likes to open his speeches by playing one of them, a huge Asian flute. On first sight, it is easy to mistake him for one of the countless middle-aged hippies, another piece of debris from the 70s. When he comes on stage, playing his strange flute, you expect him to start blubbering on about legalizing marijuana, the age of Aquarius and the energy of the universe which we can all access.

Funnily enough, this chubby, unlikely body harbors one of the sharpest, most fertile minds of our century. His recent book “You are not a gadget” is a wake up call for a time that is in love with childish illusions about the brave new online world. In his book, Mr. Lanier displays an amazing breadth of learning in fields as varied as philosophy, computer science, evolutionary biology and linguistics, to name just a few. The description of his experiments with virtual reality and the fascinating speculations about the potential of this technology to reveal more about the nature of consciousness alone certainly warrant the investment for the book. Similarly his excursions into evolutionary biology, linguistics and even the philosophy of religion render some real gems, like this one for example : “Those who enter the theater of computationalism are given all the mental solace that is usually associated with traditional religion. These include consolation for metaphysical yearnings, in the form of the race to climb to ever more meta or higher level states of digital representation and even a colourful eschatalogy, in the form of the singularity.”

At a later point, he gives a whole new perspective on the currently raging atheism debate, in just a couple of sentences: “While there is a lot of talk in the air whether to believe in God or not, I suspect that religious arguments are gradually encorporating debates about whether to even believe in people anymore. Are people just one form of information system, one form of gadget? The old debates about God are now also about us. For instance, when I suggest that we should act as if we were real – as if consciousness and experience exist, just in case we are real, I’m retooling Pascal’s famous wager about God, but in this case applied to people.”

The most remarkable feature of his book, however, are the parts in which he employs good old common sense. Lanier takes issue with the open culture trend on the internet and the idea of the “gift-economy”. He criticizes popular notions about the efficacy of the hive-mind and even dares to take on wikipedia. Jaron Lanier is in the perfect position to do that, since he is hailed as the inventor of the term virtual reality and one of the first scientists to seriously experiment with VR. In his talks, he likes to tell people that he has friends in Google, Microsoft and among the computer scientists who are harvesting exponentially growing hardware power to play the financial markets. Indeed, the man who looks as if he was playing his weird instrument for money outside a shopping mall, is a sought after consultant and project leader for top-universities and technology companies.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. This is the simple, well-known truth that Mr Lanier reminds of us of with regard to the online world. In a chapter titled “Peasants and Lords of Clouds” he says : “If some free video of a silly stunt draws as many eyeballs as the product of a professional film-maker any given day, then why pay the film-maker? If an algorithm can use cloud-based data to unite those eye-balls with the clip of the moment, then why pay editors or impresarios? In the new scheme, there is nothing but location, location, location. Rule the computing cloud that routes the thoughts of the hive mind and you’ll become infinitly wealthy.”

The idea of the gift economy, which this blog is an example of, is as pretty as it is silly. The most amazing feature of Mr. Lanier’s insight is its very simplicity. Under the headline “Accelerating a Vacuum” he writes: “If you want to know what’s going on in an ideology or a society, follow the money. If money is flowing into advertising instead of musicians, journalists and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than with truth and beauty. If content is worthless, then people will start to become empty- headed and contentless.” Those sentences could have been written by an aged conservative who only knows computers through his kids and equates the internet with millions of funny videos of babies and kittens – and pornography, of course. Coming from Lanier, no stranger to utopian visions of online eden, somebody who was actually involved with creating the tools we use today, they pack a different punch.

It is important to point out that Mr. Lanier is no Luddite and has not undergone a transformation from virtual alcoholism to angry abstinence. He is optimistic about the internet’s potential and continues to work in the field. Nevertheless, it seems as if somebody of his stature needs to come along to point out what instantly becomes glaringly obvious. Further explaining the accelerating vacuum he writes: “The combination of hive mind and advertising has resulted in a new social contract. The basic idea of this contract is that authors, journalists, musicians and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects as fragments to be given without pay to the hive-mind. Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion. Culture is to become nothing but precisely advertising.”

Open Culture doesn't lead to new creation, but endless recycling of old images and characters

The open culture faithful will of course start shouting:” And what about Justin Bieber and the other lucky few that have been able to make real money with online fame?” Lanier gives this answer: “It’s true that today the idea can work in some situations. There are a few widely celebrated, but exceptional, success stories that have taken on mythical qualities. These stories are only possible because we are in a transitional period, in which a lucky few can benefit from the best of old and the new media worlds at the same time and the fact of their unlikely origins can be spun into a still-novel marketing narrative.”

There is another aspect to the dreams of the open culture faithful which deserves attention and that Lanier doesn’t touch upon. There is a striking similarity between the ambitions of free content producers and musicians aspiring to be pop-stars. Like musicians in the old days would produce and send out free demos of their stuff to record companies, millions of people are now doing the same thing on with their blogs, myspace sites and youtube videos.

It is hard not see the parallel between our culture’s inane fascination with A, B and C celebrities and the dream of making it online. How many times have you heard somebody say : “I don’t like her music, but you gotta give it to Brittney, she made millions.”

Celebrity and success, not matter with what kind of content, have become goods cherished in themselves. This is certainly not a new situation : Fame, power and money have always been attractive to people. What’s new is the conscious dropping of standards, in an attempt to please the anonymous hive-mind. A conservative might call that rule of the mob.

I assume that not everybody who writes a blog is childish enough to believe that he or she will ever be able to live from that activity – but the fact remains that the chances of doing just that are as slim as becoming a pop-star one day. And if you do succeed, as a blogger, for example where does the money come from? From advertising, of course. Lanier puts it like this : “At the end of the rainbow of open culture lies an eternal spring of advertisements.”

“You are not a gadget” is not political book in the conventional sense. Even though the author defines himself as an ex “neo Marxist” in the afterword, he doesn’t stoop down to the realm of politics on a more concrete level. He is a visionary in the good sense, a powerful, original thinker confident enough to deal with complex topics like Marxism or the development of modern society in passing. He does point out one thing, though – that the common, often implicit assumptions of open culture will lead to an impoverishment of large parts of the middle class. If the content produced by directors, writers, journalists, musicians and artists loses all monetary value, what will those people do to make a living? It’s a simple question, yet not one that open culture proponents have even begun to address. Lanier, looking at the really big picture, has this to say : “In crowd-sourced world, the peasants of the noosphere will ride a dismal boomerang between gradual impoverishment under robot driven capitalism and a dangerously sudden, desperate socialism.”

This grand prediction might come true, but is worthwhile to do what Lanier avoids and look at the more concrete implications of the development that he is describing. If an eternal spring of advertising does lay at the end of the open-culture rainbow, what does this imply for the freedom of expression and the variety of perspectives in the public domain? If advertising is the only source of money for online content, what kind of content can we expect to get? If Google style popularity based algorithms govern the ranking of content, how many people will click their way through the lower-ranked pages, to actually encounter original, idiosyncratic content rather than what Lanier calls the “World Wide Mush” ? There is an old slogan you can still find on the walls of pubs in the alternative scene: “If elections could change something, they wouldn’t be allowed.”

Open culture on the internet takes this logic one step further – you can say whatever you want, because we know that nobody is going to listen. Ï’m sure there are many critical, thoughtful voices hidden away in the vastness of the net, but it’s unlikely that one of them will make it to online pop-stardom. And even if they do, their only chance to make money is to corner some advertising or become part of the old economy, i.e. publish a book or write for newspapers and magazines. The majority of successful online newspapers fall exactly into Lanier’s category of the lucky few that can get the best of both worlds, i.e. harvest consumer trust and reputation gained in the old economy and use the net to appeal to a new generation of consumers. And still, this is not good enough, all newspapers, even heavy hitters like the New York Times, are struggling.

“You are not a gadget” constantly hammers points home which should have been obvious from the outset. It’s slightly embarrassing for the powers of the hive mind that it took this chubby kid to point out that the emperor is wearing no clothes. The vast majority of the money made online is made through advertising or models of the old economy, i.e. proprietary hard and software, Apple being the most popular example for the latter.

There is no such thing as a free lunch, a free article, or a free movie – we pay for it by impoverishing one of our most valuable resources, the creative middle class. But this is just one way in which we pay – in the long run we will pay for it by crippling the quality of our cultural output.

Lanier writes : “If we choose to pry culture away from capitalism while the rest of the life is still capitalistic, culture will become a slum. In fact, online culture increasingly resembles a slum in disturbing ways. Slums have more advertising than wealthy neighborhoods, for instance. People are meaner in slums, mob rule and vigilantism are commonplace. If there is a trace of slumming in the way that many privileged young people embrace the internet it is perhaps an echo of 1960s counterculture.”

This is a pretty bleak picture – so does Lanier, the one man who really deserves the description internet guru offer a solution? He points to a scheme thought up in the heady, early days of the internet by his co-worker Ted Nelson. Lanier describes it like this :”He (Nelson) proposed that instead of copying digital media we should effectively just keep one copy of each cultural expression – as with a book or a song – and pay the author of that expression a small, affordable sum whenever it is accessed. “ The author does point out that literally one copy wouldn’t be enough for engineering reasons, but the idea remains the untouched by that. In true American fashion, Lanier is critical without being “’negative”. He leaves the reader with this silver lining : “Someday I hope there will be a genuinely universal system along the lines proposed by Nelson. I think most people would embrace a social contract in which bits have value instead of being free. Everyone would have easy access to everyone else’s creative bits at reasonable prices and everyone would get paid for their bits. This arrangement would celebrate personhood in full, because personal expression would be valued.”

This is certainly a dream to cherish- however I have to confess to being somewhat more sceptical, you might even call it negative. What I see as the more likely scenario is this – the hype about the possibilities of open culture will blow over and the market place will look pretty much the same. A tiny group of key players will exploit people’s creativity like facebook and Google, through youtube, do already.

The general quality level of cultural output will fall due to lack of possibilities of acquiring real skill. Whatever skill I have as a writer I did not acquire writing blogs, the equivalent of sending a message in bottle on its way into the ocean of free bits. The skills I have, I acquired writing for traditional magazines and newspapers. Writing for an organization like that puts constraints on you – and it is by creatively adapting to those constraints that you build skill. The complete freedom of the blogosphere is the very reason for its often low quality – being able to do whatever you want, the lack of constraints, in most cases does not spark genius creativity, but the production of superficial, second rate stuff.

The same is true for every other creative activity – you learn the craft, the skill, by adapting to constraints. Only when you have learned the craft in that way, you can proceed to play with the constraints, go beyond them. Complete lack of constraints does not lead to enhanced creativity, but to people putting their favorite song over a collection of pictures they really like on youtube and thinking themselves artists.

There is nothing wrong with people doing that and in some cases people do produce interesting stuff. But if this kind of mash-up is the promised land of open culture, we have a real problem.

What Lanier does not touch on are some basics of human psychology that heavily impact his argument– one of them being the difficulty of foregoing short term for long term gains. The problem that Lanier exposes is similar to climate change in the way it affects human psychology. To actively seek for change, an imminent, clear and present danger seems to be necessary as a motivating force. Just focussing on prevention of something that might happen ist something humans are not very good at and less so , when the solution to the problem seems to lie far beyond the individual level.

Like in the case of climate change, things get more difficult if there are seducitve short terms gains to be made from inaction. In the case of climate change it’s the short-term profit of key industries as well as conservative customers. In the case of the open culture, it’s all the free, instantly accesible stuff for users. It’s hard to imagine a popular movement with slogans like :”Only buy from i-tunes and never use bit torrents!”

Hopefully, people like Lanier will come up with a better solution and a more attractive slogan.

14:04 15.05.2011
Dieser Beitrag gibt die Meinung des Autors wieder, nicht notwendigerweise die der Redaktion des Freitag.
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