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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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So what we have to demand of digital technology is that it not try to be a perfect system that takes over everything. That it balances the excess of the other magisteria. And that is doesn’t concentrate power too much, and if we can just get to that point, then we’ll really be fine. I’m actually modest. People have been accusing me of being super-ambitious lately, but I feel like in a way I’m the most modest person in the conversation. I’m just trying to avoid total dysfunction.

Let’s stick with politics for one more. Is there something dissonant about the fact that the greatest fortunes in human history have been created with a system developed largely by taxpayers dollars? Military research and labs at public universities. And many of the people whom the Internet has enriched have become libertarians who earnestly tell you that they are “socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” and resist progressive taxation because of it.

Yeah, no kidding. I was there. I gotta say, every little step of this thing was really funded by either the military or public research agencies. If you look at something like Facebook, Facebook is adding the tiniest little rind of value over the basic structure that’s there anyway. In fact, it’s even worse than that. The original designs for networking, going back to Ted Nelson, kept track of everything everybody was pointing at so that you would know who was pointing at your website. In a way Facebook is just recovering information that was deliberately lost because of the fetish for being anonymous. That’s also true of Google.

Near the end of the book you talk about the changes in the book business. It doesn’t sound pretty. What’s going on there and what have you learned as someone who has now written several books?

I don’t hate anything about e-books or e-book readers or tablets. There’s a lot of discussion about that, and I think it’s misplaced. The problem I have is whether we believe in the book itself.

To me a book is not just a particular file. It’s connected with personhood. Books are really, really hard to write. They represent a kind of a summit of grappling with what one really has to say. And what I’m concerned with is when Silicon Valley looks at books, they often think of them as really differently as just data points that you can mush together. They’re divorcing books from their role in personhood.

I’m quite concerned that in the future someone might not know what author they’re reading. You see that with music. You would think in the information age it would be the easiest thing to know what you’re listening to. That you could look up instantly the music upon hearing it so you know what you’re listening to, but in truth it’s hard to get to those services.

I was in a cafe this morning where I heard some stuff I was interested in, and nobody could figure out. It was Spotify or one of these … so they knew what stream they were getting, but they didn’t know what music it was. Then it changed to other music, and they didn’t know what that was. And I tried to use one of the services that determines what music you’re listening to, but it was a noisy place and that didn’t work. So what’s supposed to be an open information system serves to obscure the source of the musician. It serves as a closed information system. It actually loses the information.

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