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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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Jaron Lanier is a computer science pioneer who has grown gradually disenchanted with the online world since his early days popularizing the idea of virtual reality. “Lanier is often described as ‘visionary,’ ” Jennifer Kahn wrote in a 2011 New Yorker profile, “a word that manages to convey both a capacity for mercurial insight and a lack of practical job skills.”

Raised mostly in Texas and New Mexico by bohemian parents who’d escaped anti-Semitic violence in Europe, he’s been a young disciple of Richard Feynman, an employee at Atari, a scholar at Columbia, a visiting artist at New York University, and a columnist for Discover magazine. He’s also a longtime composer and musician, and a collector of antique and archaic instruments, many of them Asian.

His book continues his war on digital utopianism and his assertion of humanist and individualistic values in a hive-mind world. But Lanier still sees potential in digital technology: He just wants it reoriented away from its main role so far, which involves “spying” on citizens, creating a winner-take-all society, eroding professions and, in exchange, throwing bonbons to the crowd.

This week sees the publication of “Who Owns the Future?,” which digs into technology, economics and culture in unconventional ways. (How is a pirated music file like a 21st century mortgage?) Lanier argues that there is little essential difference between Facebook and a digital trading company, or Amazon and an enormous bank. (“Stanford sometimes seems like one of the Silicon Valley companies.”)

Much of the book looks at the way Internet technology threatens to destroy the middle class by first eroding employment and job security, along with various “levees” that give the economic middle stability.

“Here’s a current example of the challenge we face,” he writes in the book’s prelude: “At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only 13 people. Where did all those jobs disappear? And what happened to the wealth that all those middle-class jobs created?”

“Future” also looks at the way the creative class – especially musicians, journalists and photographers — has borne the brunt of disruptive technology.

The new book – which has drawn a rave in the New York Times — has already received a serious challenge from Evgeny Morozov in the Washington Post. The Internet-skeptic author of “To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism” challenges Lanier’s proposed solution that regular people be rewarded in micropayments when their data enriches a digital network.

But more important than Lanier’s hopes for a cure is his diagnosis of the digital disease. Eccentric as it is, “Future” is one of the best skeptical books about the online world, alongside Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows,” Robert Levine’s “Free Ride” and Lanier’s own “You Are Not a Gadget.”

We spoke to the dreadlocked, Berkeley-based author from the road, where he’s on a massive book tour.

You talk early in “Who Owns the Future?” about Kodak — about thousand of jobs being destroyed, and Instagram picking up the slack — but with almost no jobs produced. So give us a sense of how that happens and what the result is. It seems like the seed of your book in a way.

Right. Well, I think what’s been happening is a shift from the formal to the informal economy for most people. So that’s to say if you use Instagram to show pictures to your friends and relatives, or whatever service it is, there are a couple of things that are still the same as they were in the times of Kodak. One is that the number of people who are contributing to the system to make it viable is probably the same. Instagram wouldn’t work if there weren’t many millions of people using it. And furthermore, many people kind of have to use social networks for them to be functional besides being valuable. People have to, there’s a constant tending that’s done on a volunteer basis so that people can find each other and whatnot.

 
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