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221 pages, Hardcover
First published January 12, 2010
certain specific, popular internet designs of the moment—not the internet as a whole—tend to pull us into life patterns that gradually degrade the ways in which each of us exists as individuals. These unfortunate designs are more oriented toward treating people as relays in a global brain.
the idea that information should be “free” sounds good at first. But the unintended result is that all the clout and money generated online has begun to accumulate around people close to only certain highly secretive computers, many of which are essentially spying operations designed to sell advertising and access or to pull money out of a marketplace as if by black magic. The motives of the people who comprise the online elites aren’t necessarily bad…but nevertheless the structure of the online economy as it has developed is hurting the middle class, and the viability of capitalism for everyone in the long term.He points out that those who make their living from creativity, writers, artists, photographers, designers, are under an all out assault by on-line providers eager to deliver art only as a means of generating ad revenue, to themselves, not the creatives who actually produce content. Lanier sees the rise of what he calls “digital serfdom,” yet another attack on the middle class. With the bi-polar tax code in the US that punishes actual work, the demise of support for working people by a viable, liberal Democratic Party, and the off-shoring of as much work as possible by capital that encounters fewer and fewer limitations on trans-national transit, the middle class does not need yet another drain on our resources and ability to earn a living, yet here it is. Lanier makes a compelling case that value, in the form of dollars, accumulates increasingly in the pockets of internet giants like Google and Amazon, and the ability for individual content-producers to make a living from their creative product is declining. And further that any economic gains we might see from technological advances will be swallowed up by the really big fish, leaving us, ultimately, worse off.
the notion that cheaper computers, smartphones, etc., will compensate for the growing economic gap is just not true. Ultimately mounting poverty will outpace cost savings and everyone will suffer. We can’t count on anything but a strong middle class to maintain many things dear to us: widespread self-determination and liberty, a dynamic commercial market filled with surprises, and a democracy that can’t be bought because ordinary people have enough clout to stand up for themselves. Some of the current popular online designs , as appealing as they might seem at first, are leading us away from these wonderful things.The rest is details. But the details are pretty interesting. Lanier goes into specifics re how users are being sliced, diced and re-sold like toxic assets, as the extant interfaces rely increasingly on our giving up more and more of ourselves.
what computerized analysis of all the country’s school tests has done to education is exactly what Facebook has done to friendships. In both cases, life is turned into a databaseLanier offers a wealth of intriguing ideas in this relatively small volume. I was most fascinated with what he had to say about cephalopods and a possible source for our species’ appreciation of metaphor.
”Take a look at one of the big cultural blogs like Boing Boing, or the endless stream of mashups that appear on YouTube. It’s as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump. This is embarrassing.” (p. 131)
Like Andrew Keen in “The Cult of the Amateur,” Mr. Lanier is most eloquent on how intellectual property is threatened by the economics of free Internet content, crowd dynamics and the popularity of aggregator sites. “An impenetrable tone deafness rules Silicon Valley when it comes to the idea of authorship,” he writes, recalling the Wired editor Kevin Kelly’s 2006 prediction that the mass scanning of books would one day create a universal library in which no book would be an island — in effect, one humongous text, made searchable and remixable on the Web.
Mr. Lanier, a pioneer in the development of virtual reality and a Silicon Valley veteran, is hardly a Luddite, as some of his critics have suggested. Rather he is a digital-world insider who wants to make the case for “a new digital humanism” before software engineers’ design decisions, which he says fundamentally shape users’ behavior, become “frozen into place by a process known as lock-in.” Just as decisions about the dimensions of railroad tracks determined the size and velocity of trains for decades to come, he argues, so choices made about software design now may yield “defining, unchangeable rules” for generations to come.
If the books in the cloud are accessed via user interfaces that encourage mashups of fragments that obscure the context and authorship of each fragment, there will be only one book. This is what happens today with a lot of content; often you don’t know where a quoted fragment from a news story came from, who wrote a comment, or who shot a video.”
Decisions made in the formative years of computer networking, for instance, promoted online anonymity, and over the years, as millions upon millions of people began using the Web, Mr. Lanier says, anonymity has helped enable the dark side of human nature. Nasty, anonymous attacks on individuals and institutions have flourished, and what Mr. Lanier calls a “culture of sadism” has gone mainstream. In some countries anonymity and mob behavior have resulted in actual witch hunts. “In 2007,” Mr. Lanier reports, “a series of ‘Scarlet Letter’ postings in China incited online throngs to hunt down accused adulterers. In 2008, the focus shifted to Tibet sympathizers.”
If we continue where we’re going, with users giving away the products of their online labor for the benefit of spying/advertising empires, then obviously those empires will accumulate wealth and power to effectively lobby for privileged internet service and make deals with other powerful forces. This will disadvantage all the people who were acting purely as consumers or volunteers, or attempting to conduct business outside these large services.
It is astonishing how much of the chatter online is driven by fan responses to expression that was originally created within the sphere of old media and that is now being destroyed by the net. Comments about TV shows, major movies, commercial music releases, and video games must be responsible for almost as much traffic as porn...
Take a look at one of the big cultural blogs like Boing Boing, or the endless stream of mashups that appear on YouTube. It’s as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump.
This is embarrassing. The whole point of connected media technologies was that we were supposed to come up with new, amazing cultural expression. No, more than that—we were supposed to invent better fundamental types of expression: not just movies, but interactive virtual worlds; not just games, but simulations with moral and aesthetic profundity.
Don’t post anonymously unless you really might be in danger.
If you put effort into Wikipedia articles, put even more effort into using your personal voice and expression outside of the wiki to help attract people who don’t yet realize that they are interested in the topics you contributed to.
Create a website that expresses something about who you are that won’t fit into the template available to you on a social networking site.
Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view.
Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out.
If you are twittering, innovate in order to find a way to describe your internal state instead of trivial exernal events, to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would define a machine.