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The Internet Is Slaying the Middle Class

In "Who Owns the Future?" Jaron Lanier examines how the Web eliminates employment and job security, along with revenues that give the economic middle stability.

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But the benefits are really huge, which is you get a middle-class distribution of wealth and clout so the mass of people can outspend the top, and if you don’t have that you can’t really have democracy. Democracy is destabilized if there isn’t a broad distribution of wealth.

And then the other thing is that if you like market capitalism, if you’re an Ayn Rand person, you have to admit that markets can only function if there are customers and customers can only come if there’s a middle hump. So you have to have a broad distribution of wealth. So there’s no reason technically for any technology to ever create a job. In other words, we could have had motor vehicles, and we could have had film cameras, we could have had all these technologies without any formal jobs. We just had a social contract in which we decided that we’d allow formal jobs in factories and in drivers and in users of cameras and creators of cameras and film.

It was all a social construct to begin with, so what changed, to get to your question, is that at the turn of the [21st] century it was really Sergey Brin at Google who just had the thought of, well, if we give away all the information services, but we make money from advertising, we can make information free and still have capitalism. But the problem with that is it reneges on the social contract where people still participate in the formal economy. And it’s a kind of capitalism that’s totally self-defeating because it’s so narrow. It’s a winner-take-all capitalism that’s not sustaining.

Well, a lot of your book is about the survival of the middle class in the digital age, the importance of a broad middle class as we move forward. You argue that the middle class, unlike the rich and the poor, is not a natural class but was built and sustained through some kind of intervention. Has that changed in the last decade or two as the digital world has grown?

Well, there’s a lot of ways. I mean, one of the issues is that in a market society, a middle class has always required some little artificial help to keep going. There’s always academic tenure, or a taxi medallion, or a cosmetology license, or a pension. There’s often some kind of license or some kind of ratcheting scheme that allows people to keep their middle-class status.

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, and 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.

 
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