What Turned Jaron Lanier Against the Web?
January 9, 2013 10:40 AM   Subscribe

“I’d had a career as a professional musician and what I started to see is that once we made information free, it wasn’t that we consigned all the big stars to the bread lines.” (They still had mega-concert tour profits.) “It was the middle-class people who were consigned to the bread lines. And that was a very large body of people. And all of a sudden there was this weekly ritual, sometimes even daily: ‘Oh, we need to organize a benefit because so and so who’d been a manager of this big studio that closed its doors has cancer and doesn’t have insurance. We need to raise money so he can have his operation.’ And I realized this was a hopeless, stupid design of society and that it was our fault. It really hit on a personal level—this isn’t working. And I think you can draw an analogy to what happened with communism, where at some point you just have to say there’s too much wrong with these experiments.”

Jaron Zepel Lanier (/ˈdʒɛərɨn lɨˈnɪər/, born 3 May 1960) is an American computer scientist, best known for popularizing the term virtual reality (VR).

Previously ...
posted by philip-random (105 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Evgeny Morozov is way better and more fun at being Jaron Lanier than Jaron Lanier.
posted by migurski at 10:52 AM on January 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


Is it bad to suggest that this might be something wrong with healthcare and not something wrong with the Internet?
posted by ntk at 10:54 AM on January 9, 2013 [45 favorites]


Lanier is an odd duck who has managed to think of many very important things first without ever actually doing anything about them. Anyway, utopian becomes disillusioned. Dismissive snark at 11.
posted by GuyZero at 10:56 AM on January 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's astonishing to me that this guy is still held out as some kind of visionary. His only marketable skill is predicting the early 1990s.
posted by Nahum Tate at 10:57 AM on January 9, 2013 [15 favorites]


Lanier is an odd duck who has managed to think of many very important things first without ever actually doing anything about them. Anyway, utopian becomes disillusioned. Dismissive snark at 11.

I'm confused, this comment was posted at 1:56, EST
posted by codacorolla at 10:57 AM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ah, the old "information wants to be free" canard. Most people don't know this, but there's a second half to that quote by Stewart Brand and that is that "information wants to be expensive." Brand was talking about how that dichotomy is really interesting, not creating a rallying cry.

Still, in this case, what ntk said above, and insert dismissive snark here.
posted by Inkoate at 10:59 AM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


.Oh, we need to organize a benefit because so and so who’d been a manager of this big studio that closed its doors has cancer and doesn’t have insurance. We need to raise money so he can have his operation.

This has nothing to do with the music industry, or the internet.
posted by empath at 11:00 AM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


So a manager of a big studio has nothing to do with the music industry?
posted by dabitch at 11:07 AM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Certainly, we can't let someone insult the internet.
posted by mobunited at 11:07 AM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Capitalism works because of scarcity, so the more something loses its scarcity, the less of a good business it becomes. It's going to be interesting to see if capitalism can still sustain society as resources and energy become more scarce while the things we currently call "work" become less scarce (as technology becomes more capable).
posted by the jam at 11:08 AM on January 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


Hmmmm Must be Clifford Stoll 2.0 nothing new here funny how he makes his way in the world embracing the technology he warns us of. The net is many things to many people nothing as popular as a cash cow.
posted by pdxpogo at 11:09 AM on January 9, 2013


Pour one out for the middle men.
posted by Space Coyote at 11:10 AM on January 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


So a manager of a big studio has nothing to do with the music industry?

The manager’s expensive cancer treatment has nothing to with the industry.
posted by migurski at 11:10 AM on January 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'm confused, this comment was posted at 1:56, EST

That was a sample. If you like what you read, come back later.


Anyway, the pullquote in the OP is misleading. That example is what first turned him against The Web, but the next example is more appropriate:
His explanation of the way Google translator works, for instance, is a graphic example of how a giant just takes (or “appropriates without compensation”) and monetizes the work of the crowd. “One of the magic services that’s available in our age is that you can upload a passage in English to your computer from Google and you get back the Spanish translation. And there’s two ways to think about that. The most common way is that there’s some magic artificial intelligence in the sky or in the cloud or something that knows how to translate, and what a wonderful thing that this is available for free.

“But there’s another way to look at it, which is the technically true way: You gather a ton of information from real live translators who have translated phrases, just an enormous body, and then when your example comes in, you search through that to find similar passages and you create a collage of previous translations.”

“So it’s a huge, brute-force operation?” “It’s huge but very much like Facebook, it’s selling people [their advertiser-targetable personal identities, buying habits, etc.] back to themselves. [With translation] you’re producing this result that looks magical but in the meantime, the original translators aren’t paid for their work—their work was just appropriated. So by taking value off the books, you’re actually shrinking the economy.”
Emphasis mine.

Here's a shorter quote that seems to be the core of this article:
“I think it’s the reason why the rise of networking has coincided with the loss of the middle class, instead of an expansion in general wealth, which is what should happen. But if you say we’re creating the information economy, except that we’re making information free, then what we’re saying is we’re destroying the economy.”

If you want to read Lanier's earlier Wired piece that was mentioned in this article, here it is: One-Half of a Manifesto (Issue 8.12 | Dec 2000; one-page print view)
posted by filthy light thief at 11:12 AM on January 9, 2013 [12 favorites]


And the fact that his studio closed it's doors before that cancer was discovered so that he now finds himself uninsured? That's not related either?
posted by dabitch at 11:12 AM on January 9, 2013


Businesses go out of business, it’s a common enough thing that shouldn’t ruin someone just because they contract an unrelated illness. Decoupling healthcare from employment is a much bigger and more interesting problem than Lanier getting paid for his boring content.
posted by migurski at 11:16 AM on January 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


The fact that insurance has anything to do with the provision of healthcare -- a basic human right in the civilized world outside the USA -- isn't related to the rights and wrongs of the internet or music distribution or copyright or much of anything else here.
posted by cstross at 11:17 AM on January 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


the original translators aren’t paid for their work—their work was just appropriated.

The majority of the Google Translate corpus are UN documents which paid their translators very well for their work and are now in the public domain since they was paid for with government money.

oh, fact, facts, facts, constantly messing up people's blind ideologies.
posted by GuyZero at 11:18 AM on January 9, 2013 [50 favorites]


There are other interesting ideas in the OP article.
As far back as the turn of the century, he singled out one standout aspect of the new web culture—the acceptance, the welcoming of anonymous commenters on websites—as a danger to political discourse and the polity itself. At the time, this objection seemed a bit extreme. But he saw anonymity as a poison seed. The way it didn’t hide, but, in fact, brandished the ugliness of human nature beneath the anonymous screen-name masks. An enabling and foreshadowing of mob rule, not a growth of democracy, but an accretion of tribalism.
He goes on to speak of a fear of "social lasers of cruelty," where economic fear is combined with "these instant twitchy social networks which are designed to create mass action," which he sees as leading to wide-spread lynch-mob mentality.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:20 AM on January 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


leading to wide-spread lynch-mob mentality.

I'm not sure whether he's connecting this to online comments in general or specifically to anonymous (or pseudonymous comments since there are really very few places with actually anonymous commenting). At any rate, for better or worse sites that require actual real names do not seem to be faring any better (specifically facebook). I'm not sure if social networks are really catalyzing the lynch-mob mentality or simply helping people communicate the existing feelings and thoughts more efficiently. it's entirely possible that people have been assholes since always.
posted by GuyZero at 11:24 AM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm very fond of the web and have invested a lot of my adult life in building it. And I'm not sure that preserving middle-class jobs in the old music industry is really an inherent good. And I *am* sure that if I managed to get my artistic crap together and produce more music, I'd be much better off trying to get it out to the widest possible audience with the help of the web of 2013 than I would with the help of the music industry of the second half of the 20th century.

But I kindof see his point; I do think we've ended up in this weird place where the expectation is that things will be free or ad supported, and it's not clear to me that this is a really good place to be. Incentives become screwy, data about us becomes the way to make money, we become the product that's developed, content gets produced to deliver us... or hey, sometimes *we* make the content, and others profit from our participation. Which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like the music industry of the second half of the 20th century.

The difference is that we know we're not getting paid, I suppose.
posted by weston at 11:24 AM on January 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


He is also spot on re: the neo-spiritual singularity movement, which has garnered legitimacy among the technological elite. The economic narratives that spiral out of that are not pretty..
posted by kuatto at 11:25 AM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't know that it's "Utopian becomes disillusioned". Seems like "Utopian becomes reactionary."

But I don't know enough about the ideology of Lanier & Co when they were young and inventing Web 2.0 to trace it. Maybe they were always reactionary (in the way that the cyborgs of what's-her-name's Cyborg Manifesto are reactionary expressions of post modern capitalism).

One insight from this that stood out:
“It’s huge but very much like Facebook, it’s selling people [their advertiser-targetable personal identities, buying habits, etc.] back to themselves. [With translation] you’re producing this result that looks magical but in the meantime, the original translators aren’t paid for their work—their work was just appropriated. So by taking value off the books, you’re actually shrinking the economy.”
This has been true of capitalism throughout, though, hasn't it? What's new is the machinery that enables it.
posted by notyou at 11:25 AM on January 9, 2013


The majority of the Google Translate corpus are UN documents which paid their translators very well for their work and are now in the public domain since they was paid for with government money.

Oh, fascinating! Here's a bit more on Google's use of United Nations and European Union documents as key sources.

Going beyond that bit of mis-truth, his concern seems to tie back to the "if you're not paying for it, you're the product" notion. Except there are significant good in the "free" resources that make money from our usage and search data. There is good in these "evil" systems.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:26 AM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


the jam Capitalism works because of scarcity, so the more something loses its scarcity, the less of a good business it becomes. It's going to be interesting to see if capitalism can still sustain society as resources and energy become more scarce while the things we currently call "work" become less scarce (as technology becomes more capable).

That's what the transition to a serivce economy is. "Scarcity" applies less to widgets and more to service and knowledge. The scarcity is people doing stuff for you and people knowing more than you.

If widgets are no longer meaningfully scarce, but energy to run the system is, basically you are talking about an ur-capitalist system with less friction. Units of energy are what's sold, and everything else becomes radically flattened. You're left with an energy/extraction economy being the foundation for a service economy. Which is what's been happening for a century, with the the split now being primarily geographic.
posted by spaltavian at 11:27 AM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Once the cool inspiring liberating future was on the internet.

Then everybody got on the internet, and it was neither cool, nor inspiring, nor liberating, nor in the future.

So if you want to be the guy with his eyes on the cool inspiring liberating future now, you have to HATE the internet.
posted by edheil at 11:28 AM on January 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


Lanier's right about digital piracy wiping out the content middle class. The internet has essentially turned the content industry into Wal-Mart, where those with the capital to aggregate get rich while those who merely produce the goods are relentlessly impoverished. It would be neat to see a more thorough analysis of why that seems to inevitable, but arguing that it's going to stop any minute now and we'll be in an anarchist collective where everyone produces for purest love is like arguing that Communism hasn't failed because it's never been tried.

For those of us who were inspired by the 90s predictions of a democratized media landscape, it's depressing to see what we ended up with: a world where megastars with corporate backing can thrive through high-priced tours and corporate-synergy endorsements, while those who simply make art have no more business model. Those who say it's simply a matter of scarcity or elimination of the middle man are confusing the work of distribution with the work of production; the former has been eliminated, but the latter hasn't, and neither are being compensated.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:30 AM on January 9, 2013 [15 favorites]


@filthy light thief:

I am sympathetic to Lanier's skepticism, but I think that there are counterpoints to this. For example: duolingo is the new hot thing to help translate the web. It uses human labor to do so, but is also teaching people how to speak French & Spanish. While it may be true that many translators will be losing their job thanks to increased web translation, surely more people knowing the languages being translated is a good thing. (Of course, this statement is complicated by the reality of out of work translators, that if they could get good results without teaching people the language they would, etc.)
posted by Going To Maine at 11:31 AM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


MIDI is a lot more than key down and key up (It's actually note on and note off). It definitely can describe a curve. Yamaha and Akai both make wind midi controllers. So that's about as far as I got.
posted by mike_bling at 11:32 AM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


The manager’s expensive cancer treatment has nothing to with the industry.

Not being able to pay for expensive health care isn't unique to the music industry.
posted by empath at 11:34 AM on January 9, 2013


While it may be true that many translators will be losing their job thanks to increased web translation

I'm not sure if this is true first of all, but in general this is what's called a "productivity improvement". We've put many farmers out of work, we've put auto assembly people out of work, we've put blacksmiths out of work... it's called progress.

Did anyone ever watch Star Trek and upon seeing the Universal Translators think, "wow, I bet that put a lot of people out of work"?

it's depressing to see what we ended up with: a world where megastars with corporate backing can thrive through high-priced tours and corporate-synergy endorsements, while those who simply make art have no more business model.

Wait, are you describing the 80's or now? I don't agree. It seems like there's never been a better time for small, independent creators to do creative work. That you may not become a millionaire doing so isn't very new nor is it due to technology.
posted by GuyZero at 11:36 AM on January 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Not becoming a millionaire is live-with-able. Not getting paid a single red cent, no matter how many people consume what you've produced, is not so great. The difference between the 80s and now is that now it's impossible for an SST, or a Touch & Go, or an ROIR to exist.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:46 AM on January 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


I feel like Jaron Lanier is a bit like Neal Cassidy and Truman Capote, in that everyone writes about what a big part they played in their particular "scene", even though they didn't really produce a whole lot of work.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:46 AM on January 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's interesting that the death of the music industry is what finally soured him on technology, when apparently the demise of any number of other industries over the past few decades, employing far more people, didn't cause him to realize that technology is a double-edged sword.

There are whole cities that got economically decimated by technological / political developments, generally stuff less sexy than the Web (e.g. advances in supply chain management which made possible various outsourcing schemes), but just as disastrous for those on the receiving end. And those people didn't get benefit concerts when they lost their health insurance.

I'm not meaning to pick exclusively on Lanier, because it's kind of a common trope. Technology seems to be suspiciously fine and dandy when the "creative destruction" is raining down on anonymous factory workers in flyover states somewhere, and getting you cheap iPods at the same time. But when it starts to hurt fellow members of the bourgeois intelligentsia, well maybe we'd better rethink this!

I fail to see why musicians should be a protected class, kept away from the harsh economic realities of the day, when so many other jobs have been happily sacrificed at the altar of progress already. Why are we expected to call a halt for the musicians, if we didn't think twice when the CD pressing plant, or the distributor, or the music store was shut down? No, I think it's a bit late for that.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:46 AM on January 9, 2013 [33 favorites]


I got a secret for ya, even "successful" musicians had shit or no healthcare and were having benefits to pay for their cancer or what have you all the damn time, long before The Internets. The standard musician health insurance plan remains what it has always been; die young or marry someone with benefits.
posted by emjaybee at 11:48 AM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


it's called progress

For some definitions of "progress", maybe. Mostly those having to do with larger profits for owners of capital. Farm consolidation, in particular, has been particularly odious.
posted by junco at 11:48 AM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Farm consolidation, in particular, has been particularly odious.

meh. It's had its problems, but it still beats impoverished tenant farmers or other straw-man models of agriculture. It certainly beats the Malthusian collapse everyone predicted in the 60's.

Complaining about progress is complaining about change and that's basically like complaining about the weather. Lanier was marginally more interesting as an utopian.
posted by GuyZero at 11:55 AM on January 9, 2013


Here's the live link to my upthread comment: Here's a bit more on Google's use of United Nations and European Union documents as key sources.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:06 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


meh. It's had its problems, but it still beats impoverished tenant farmers or other straw-man models of agriculture. It certainly beats the Malthusian collapse everyone predicted in the 60's.

What about the moderately-well-off farms that were forced to sell to huge conglomerates? And that's not even starting to address the systemic ills that industrial agriculture has granted us. But at least it worked around the calorie constraint on the way to producing another 5+ billion Homo sapiens, I guess.

Complaining about progress is complaining about change and that's basically like complaining about the weather.

You're literally conflating "change" with "progress". Change that serves primarily to take money and control (and farms, or relatively- well-paying skilled-labor jobs absent any alternative societal structure to support the displaced) away from the masses and consolidate it among the capitalist class is not really "progress".
posted by junco at 12:08 PM on January 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


I read this article yesterday and thought he had some interesting points, and I should read it more closely.

Then I thought, nah. MetaFilter will let me know me what to think of it.

For free.
posted by rainbaby at 12:09 PM on January 9, 2013 [12 favorites]


For those of us who were inspired by the 90s predictions of a democratized media landscape, it's depressing to see what we ended up with: a world where megastars with corporate backing can thrive through high-priced tours and corporate-synergy endorsements, while those who simply make art have no more business model.

Tired of seeing this line of thinking. When was it ever even remotely lucrative to be a struggling indie artist? In fact, how long has "struggling indie artist" even been part of our cultural lexicon? The rise of indie-as-mainstream seems to have coincided rather neatly with the rise of the web.

I think we've been sold on a lie by an industry desperately trying to protect itself. In the pre-Internet music industry, only the biggest names made a lot of money, and even then, it was less money than you'd think. Countless others wound up in debt to their labels, or else trapped in unreasonable contracts they couldn't escape. Bands would break up and artists would stop producing because of intolerable contracts. (e.g. a label would sign a band then refuse to promote them, etc.) Bands were left to make the lion's share of their income from concert tickets and merch, just like they do now.

Don't believe the lie. For a struggling contemporary artist, the world is a much better place for the existence of services like Pandora, Spotify, and yes, even YouTube, that make music discovery effortless and fun.
posted by Afroblanco at 12:11 PM on January 9, 2013 [11 favorites]


For anyone who wants to train their own statistical machine learning system: http://www.uncorpora.org/
posted by GuyZero at 12:13 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


GuyZero, isn't that just a trick? Possibly you're talking about the fallacy of the startup: "You too can become the next Google Translate"...
posted by kuatto at 12:16 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


The difference between the 80s and now is that now it's impossible for an SST, or a Touch & Go, or an ROIR to exist.

This is something that many people (including myself) have said, but I'd like to see some evidence. Kill Rock Stars & Sub Pop seem to be doing okay (I think? KRS migrated their catalog to bandcamp, so are at least working with it.) You've also got oodles of netlabels, the weird bubble of small labels selling cassette tapes... I'd really like to know what the indie label perspective on music is right now.
posted by Going To Maine at 12:16 PM on January 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


kuatto, not entirely sure why you'd call it a trick - it's just a data resource. To build statistical machine learning algorithms, you HAVE to have data, and lots of it.

That being said, the UN parallel corpora does not begin to scratch the surface of what's in a modern statistical machine translation system, unless all you want is a marginally-performing system that works well on rather stilted legalese.
posted by scolbath at 12:22 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's not a trick, but yes, it does presuppose writing a machine learning system. Not sure whether or not that's considered a "trick".
posted by GuyZero at 12:26 PM on January 9, 2013


I'm missing the point re. the fpp
posted by kuatto at 12:29 PM on January 9, 2013


Also, back to Lanier's original comment on translation... is the existence of that site somehow theft from the translators who did the translation work? His argument is that everyone who access that data should each pay for it. Even if it wasn't in the public domain, what's the basis of his argument? That intellectual work is the same as industrial work where everyone pays? That seems excessively simplistic.
posted by GuyZero at 12:29 PM on January 9, 2013


I'm desperately trying to restrain myself from responding to every comment in this thread, because this is a topic that really intrigues me .... I may fail.


Ah, the old "information wants to be free" canard. Most people don't know this, but there's a second half to that quote by Stewart Brand

I don't think that matters, really. Brand may have intended something else in his original formulation, but it's the first part that stuck because that's what resonated with people.

I'm not sure that preserving middle-class jobs in the old music industry is really an inherent good.

Does your feeling change if I switch the phrase "the old music" with the word "every"? How about "any"?What industry is not susceptible to disintermediation through automation, if what is automated is intelligence?

I'm not sure if this is true first of all, but in general this is what's called a "productivity improvement". We've put many farmers out of work, we've put auto assembly people out of work, we've put blacksmiths out of work... it's called progress.

I said this in the Japan thread last week, but here's the thing I wonder: we called it progress because we took jobs that required muscle and built machines to do them, freeing people up to do more jobs that required mind. What happens when we replace mind? Back in 1500, clerks and lawyers and merchants got paid a lot more than peasants and labourers. Freeing labourers up to become clerks is moving them up. Here in 2013, service industry jobs get paid a lot less than information workers. It is not obvious to me that freeing up people to do more service industry jobs will result in better pay for the humans who labor. It may well result in a more productive economy by most measures of productivity, but that's going to turn out to be an important distinction...
posted by Diablevert at 12:29 PM on January 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


I read this article yesterday and thought he had some interesting points, and I should read it more closely.

Then I thought, nah. MetaFilter will let me know me what to think of it.

For free.


Which is pretty much my impetus for posting it. Speaking of which, filthy light thief is right above. I did a sloppy job choosing my pull-quote. If you haven't read the full article, please do, because Mr. Lanier is not only concerned about filesharing etc.
posted by philip-random at 12:34 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


To me it seems that the analytical machinery that google has built up re: translations fit's Lanier's thesis pretty well. Google has capitalized upon their technology and they have derived a audience for their translations. If you're saying that "you too, in the spirit of innovation, can create a product that can compete with google", I'd say that this is an intellectual trick. Yes there are many groups and individuals trying to do many things on the Internet, but there are only a few like Google, Facebook, Apple etc. These are the players that have carved up fiefdoms and have cunningly yoked the social mule.

GuyZero, so I'm wondering why you linked to the translation corpus viz the technological and historical inevitability that is upsetting our economy?
posted by kuatto at 12:41 PM on January 9, 2013


It's worth noting that comparing the effects of filesharing to factory farming or supply chain efficiency isn't really accurate, because in the case of filesharing, the work of production is still being done by the same people, except they go from being barely compensated to being totally uncompensated. It's not so much like going from small farms to industrial farms, more like going from small farms to tenant farming.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 12:46 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


If nearly everyone is literate, then who is going to hire a scribe?

STOP MASS LITERACY NOW!
posted by b1tr0t at 12:48 PM on January 9, 2013 [10 favorites]


I don't actually see machine translation as some insurmountable problem. It requires specialized knowledge and a bunch of computers, but a pretty small amount of the latter by modern standards. I just linked to it as a sidenote to the conversation about machine translation. Do I think it's a viable business? No, not really, but who knows. People have made viable businesses out of all sorts of things. I didn't really have a point other than pointing to the actual data that Lanier was talking about.
posted by GuyZero at 12:53 PM on January 9, 2013


Isn't economic progress inherently about making jobs unnecessary? It's inherently good to reduce the amount of work that needs to be done. It's inequality that screws your economy by reducing aggregate demand and opportunity, but that inequality comes entirely from governmental policies, including the lack of them.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:21 PM on January 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Not getting paid a single red cent, no matter how many people consume what you've produced, is not so great.

People who did stuff "before the web" already have that happen. The guy who was in the Darth Vader suit - has he gotten paid?

How about the lawsuits over non-payment of royalties that happen in the music industry?
posted by rough ashlar at 1:37 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's not inherently good to reduce the amount of work that needs to be done when the only transactional method in existence at any kind of scale is exchanging what we've all agreed upon are little pieces of paper (or increasingly, ever nebulous zeros and ones) representing what someone else thinks our work is worth for them.

I can't pay rent, get cancer treatments or feed my family on the basis that Google Translate in its glorious efficiency eliminated the work I was doing.
posted by softlord at 1:37 PM on January 9, 2013


On the other hand, I would entirely in favor of returning to some kind of barter economy.

Hmm, what do you get the computer who knows everything?
posted by softlord at 1:40 PM on January 9, 2013


I can't pay rent, get cancer treatments or feed my family on the basis that Google Translate in its glorious efficiency eliminated the work I was doing.

is this literal or rhetorical? Google translate isn't anywhere close to a professional translator. it's fun for normal folks, but has it actually put anyone out of business?

Anyway, the issue of people getting put out of work by changes to labour demand goes back to Adam Smith. Lanier's observations on the topic are pretty simplistic really.
posted by GuyZero at 1:42 PM on January 9, 2013


Sorry, to clarify: My intent was to convey "Google Translate may, in its glorious efficiency, eliminate the work I (hypothetically) was doing, but the effect of that is not a net positive for me or inherently good for an economy that depends on me buying stuff."
posted by softlord at 1:47 PM on January 9, 2013


The idea that (D)ARPANET was going to usher in a new era of peace and freedom was always laughable and self-servingly naive. Virtual reality was a crackpot idea by people who didn't really pay attention to what P K Dick was saying, himself a crackpot. This was then picked up and sold to a mass audience as part of a retread of the technofuturism of the 50's.

The Walmartization of everything is independent of the technological choices made. The technological choices haven't been but they never are... but more importantly, the regulatory changes certainly weren't: in summary, I blame Al Gore.
posted by ennui.bz at 1:55 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


The guy who was in the Darth Vader suit - has he gotten paid?

Well, he was a union employee in a Hollywood production, who probably contracted for a flat fee rather than royalties. So, yes.

How about the lawsuits over non-payment of royalties that happen in the music industry?

What about them?
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 1:56 PM on January 9, 2013


I think the ultimate question that has to be answered is whether or not work, as we understand it, and money, as we understand it, will remain necessary in order to secure assets and have your physical needs met. In other words, what do we do with people who are, in most practical senses, useless to capitalism?

The internet is one of many factors today working to force an answer from us. We'll probably just ignore it at the macro level, like climate change, until catastrophes strike.
posted by jsturgill at 1:56 PM on January 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


Jaron Zepel Lanier [...] best known for popularizing the term virtual reality (VR).

So does that mean we can blame him for The Lawnmower Man?
posted by Afroblanco at 2:14 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anyway, the issue of people getting put out of work by changes to labour demand goes back to Adam Smith. Lanier's observations on the topic are pretty simplistic really.

Since Adam Smith. How about before him?

Two revolutions created the world as we know it today: the scientific and the industrial. It is from them that we get our very notion of Progress, it's because of the changes they wrought that we decided that human civilisation was something that would, basically, continually improve. Before that there was no such notion. Someone made a crack about scribes up thread; I've heard, though I'm having a helluva time citing it, that historians think literacy was more widespread in the ancient roman and Greek world than during the Middle Ages.

So we're a couple years into another revolution. Barely begun. If this really is a revolution, might it have the power to destroy capitalism as the industrial revolution destroyed feudalism? Economics is a social science, not a natural one.
posted by Diablevert at 2:15 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


So does that mean we can blame him for The Lawnmower Man?

uh, from Lanier's own biography on his website:

"The 1992 movie Lawnmower Man was in part based on him and his early laboratory- he was played by Piers Brosnan."
posted by GuyZero at 2:15 PM on January 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Technology does not put people out of work. Society does. We could have 20 hour work weeks and full employment and the kind of demand that would increase worker rights (think health care and such). We as a society have deliberately chosen instead to have a system of systematic un- and under-employment where anywhere from 10-20% of the working age population is out of work and most of the remaining workers are overworked.

This isn't because of the mechanical loom, the printing press, the Internet or iTunes. It's because we choose to structure our society this way.
posted by srboisvert at 2:28 PM on January 9, 2013 [18 favorites]


In other words, what do we do with people who are, in most practical senses, useless to capitalism?

Douglas Adams had the answer: send them to another planet.
posted by tuesdayschild at 2:45 PM on January 9, 2013


uh, from Lanier's own biography on his website:

"The 1992 movie Lawnmower Man was in part based on him and his early laboratory- he was played by Piers Brosnan."


Holy crap. Turns out we can!

Good. I thought it terribly unfair how they tried to pin that one on Stephen King. Good thing he sued (and won!) to have his name taken off that monstrosity.
posted by Afroblanco at 2:47 PM on January 9, 2013


It's worth noting that comparing the effects of filesharing to factory farming or supply chain efficiency isn't really accurate

Well it's the same from the consumer's end, in that they have a choice between two acquisition channels, one of which results in the elimination of middle-class jobs.

E.g., if I want a wrench, I could potentially choose between going to the hardware store and getting one made by union workers in a local, or at least domestically-located factory. Or I could go to WalMart and get the cheapest thing on the shelf. The second choice is cheaper, but results inevitably in the loss of solid middle-class jobs at the hardware store, wrench factory, and all along the supply chain feeding the wrench plant. Some new jobs at WalMart are probably created, but not nearly as many, because WalMart is a hell of a lot more efficient.

Similarly, if I want a music album, I could (until recently) go to the music store and buy it on a CD, or I could go online and just download the thing. The second choice is cheaper, but results in the loss of solid middle-class jobs for the musician, label, disc manufacturer, music store, etc. Some new jobs are created at my ISP, but not nearly as many — it's a lot more efficient. (And suddenly there are lots of opportunities for hobbyist musicians doing it for fun, but not a lot of money in it.)

From the perspective of the great many people in the middle of either chain who suddenly get "disintermediated," the two scenarios are exactly the same. Either way, they're all out of work.

Preventing either one from taking place involves putting limits on the activities of marketplace participants: the trade barriers that would have been necessary to prevent the first scenario from playing to its conclusion are analogous to the copyright laws which create the artificial scarcity in the second. Both have consequences and costs.

What I find interesting are the number of people who have no problem advocating for the first scenario as a necessary-if-distasteful step on the way to a glorious, globalized future, but abhor the second as a destruction of valuable jobs. The only difference between the two, it seems to me, are that the people whose middle-class jobs and health insurance are being taken away by the WalMart-ization of the economy probably didn't have college degrees.

Sorry, but my sympathy for Lanier and his friends is tempered by my suspicion that he's exactly the sort of person who probably thought that free trade and MFN status for China were really great ideas back in the day.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:13 PM on January 9, 2013


Sorry, but my sympathy for Lanier and his friends is tempered by my suspicion that he's exactly the sort of person who probably thought that free trade and MFN status for China were really great ideas back in the day.

Hehehehehe. You know, I'm almost tempted to go back through my comment history and pick out all the times someone flat-out called me a racist for advocating anything other than unfettered free trade. Came up a lot during outsourcing debates as well.

My how a recession changes things.
posted by Afroblanco at 3:42 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


> is this literal or rhetorical? Google translate isn't anywhere close to a professional translator. it's fun for normal folks, but has it actually put anyone out of business?

Polyglot with many linguist friends here - absolutely it has put people out of work.

There are two reasons to get a translation. One is because you have work of your own in one language and you wish to publish it in another language - for this you still need a human translator.

But there's a second use case where you have someone else's work in another language and you wish to read it in your own. For this case, Google Translate works really quite well - while it's a little garbled, you get an excellent idea of what's going on nearly all the time.

Overall, it seems like few people actually read the article.

For example, he's not complaining about health care - he's pointing out that this idea that "information should want to be free" didn't actually derail the big stars, but sent a lot of middle-class people to the breadlines (and then we have to do benefits for some of them when they get subsequently get sick).

His point seems to be the same point I've made here repeatedly - which is that all the good jobs that aren't superstar jobs are just going away because of the internet and automation. Work in a bookstore? A record store? Are you a studio musician? A translator? Work in a music studio? Write for a newspaper? Do you color correct video (well, most of those video jobs died a decade ago but were killed by the same forces)? The chances are that your job is going away and will be replaced by nothing at all. A few of these people made redundant will start cupcake stores and make a living, but most of them will be on Jaron Lanier's breadlines.

People have been put out of work by technology before - but before, the people who were once making buggy whips went on to make automobiles or transistor radios, but now the people who lose their job as an audio engineer or junior reporter go on to do nothing at all.

This idea that this is "progress" is laughable. Taking all sorts of middle-class jobs, jobs where you could hope to raise a family and have a stable life, and replacing them by partial employment in menial dead-end positions and penury, this is not progress, even if you do have a Blu-Ray player in your living room.

This whole thing works out extremely well for the rich, who own all this automation - it works out well for a few workers such as myself who program all these toys - for 90% of humans, it's a disaster with no end in sight.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:43 PM on January 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


I never understood why this guy was famous, and was never impressed by his interviews. But chances are that may have been my shortcoming, not his. This interview made me view him in a new light, and have a lot more respect for him. Maybe that’s because he agrees with me.
posted by bongo_x at 3:44 PM on January 9, 2013


I should add that Lanier is also an excellent and interesting musician, and a surprisingly unpretentious individual to hang out with (I sat next to him at a dinner once and he seemed extremely interested in what other people had to say).
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:46 PM on January 9, 2013


Overall, it seems like few people actually read the article.

It seems like a few people read the article the first time it was written, when Adam Smith called it "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations". Lanier's just substituted technology for trade. And Lanier's wrong and Smith is still right.

And I'm sure Lanier is very nice in person. Certainly that's more than can be said of me.
posted by GuyZero at 3:54 PM on January 9, 2013


People have been put out of work by technology before - but before, the people who were once making buggy whips went on to make automobiles or transistor radios, but now the people who lose their job as an audio engineer or junior reporter go on to do nothing at all.

You know, I feel ya here, but there's a big implicit "what then" that's missing from your comment. Okay, yeah, it sucks when people lose their jobs and there's no job to take its place. But what are we to do? Stop innovating? Expect people to mold their behavior to a previous century's expectations, based on production and distribution models that don't exist anymore?

Really, the solution is to provide people with educational resources and a social safety net. It has nothing to do with Jaron Lanier, the web, or virtual reality, whatever the hell that was supposed to be.
posted by Afroblanco at 3:58 PM on January 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


Our technology is drastically lowering the amount of work which is necessary to sustain us at a high standard of living, but our society is ensuring that all the benefits accrue to the fabulously wealthy. Calling for the obvious solution makes one an unamerican communist fascist thief.
posted by Pope Guilty at 4:34 PM on January 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


And the fact that his studio closed it's doors before that cancer was discovered so that he now finds himself uninsured?

aside from the obvious lack of a real national health care system, there's another reason this is a fallacious point

studios haven't gone out of business because of piracy - they've gone out of business because for the price of a few hours in a major recording studio you can buy your own computer based recording studio

and before anyone says, but it takes expertise and decent rooms, microphones, etc, etc to make a professional recording, consider this - the majority of an average recording studio's business was from advertising, media and business clients - when they figured out they could get it done a lot cheaper with in house equipment - or with freelancers with small computer based operations - or just from mixing together stuff from sound libraries and sample cd roms and talking over it - the recording studios lost their bread and butter business

it's not like you need the same level of professional recording to sell stuff on the radio

of course, it didn't help that many musicians of the middle class variety have done the same thing

it's not piracy that killed off recording studios - it's their customers figuring out cheaper ways to do things
posted by pyramid termite at 4:41 PM on January 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


> Lanier's just substituted technology for trade. And Lanier's wrong and Smith is still right.

Perhaps my memory is faulty, but I don't remember how the Wealth of Nations said that at all.

And I don't see how this is a refutation - "A famous book refutes this but I shan't tell you how."

> they've gone out of business because for the price of a few hours in a major recording studio you can buy your own computer based recording studio

That's one of the reasons, along with the collapse of the music industry - but again, it's high technology rendering people's professions obsolete, isn't it?

I used to play with a band. We had drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, vocals. You just can't record that in someone's home studio - not really even in your basement - you need the real mics, the real vocal booths and drum isolation.

There are certainly still bands - but I don't play in a band any more - too expensive, and you make so little that no one makes money. I play by myself with live sequences, or I play perhaps with another musician. Heck, I'm going out to do exactly that tonight, my drum sequences and wind instrument accompanying a singer/guitarist.

I personally think the music has suffered but people don't seem to listen mind drum machines any more. Heck, I saw Animal Collective play the other day - they're a four-piece and yet used pre-recorded drum tracks, percussion tracks, guitar tracks and even vocal backing tracks, whereas in an earlier age they would have either have learned to play their material (come on, guys, your stuff is pretty easy) or hired professional musicians to play the parts (or if you're Amanda Copulating Palmer, you can try to convince semi-pros to do the job for free).

But the details are unimportant. Technology replaces jobs, and only a tiny number of jobs are created in their place, and it's just going to get worse. Those guys loading the boxes in the Amazon warehouse will be replaced by robots within five years - those guys working in fast food places will be replaced by a machine within the decade (they'll be the last to go, simply because they're so cheap, but then the machines will just do a better job than resentful workers in dead-end jobs paid minimum wage).
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 5:21 PM on January 9, 2013


> You know, I feel ya here, but there's a big implicit "what then" that's missing from your comment.

Not at all. The jobs are gone, they aren't coming back, a lot of people are going to be permanently poor, and the "middle" class is going away. There is no "what then" unless there's some dramatic change which I do not see happening in any gradual way.

> Really, the solution is to provide people with educational resources

That isn't going to help. The jobs are simply gone - only a tiny number of new jobs are created.

> and a social safety net.

Unfortunately, the tiny number of people benefiting from this whole process, the ones with the most leverage, are the ones who are trying to tear down the limited social safety net that the United States has at this time - and succeeding extremely well.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 5:27 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Technology replaces jobs, and only a tiny number of jobs are created in their place, and it's just going to get worse.

Except for the fact that this has been going on for 2,000 years and in that same time the population of the earth has grown by 6 billion-ish, a lot of whom have jobs. Even inside the US your argument doesn't hold up - in 1900 the total US population was 76 million. There are more people than that working in the US today.

Empirically it's just not true. Displacement of workers is always painful in the short-term but in the long term it makes everyone better off. This is the exact same argument Smith made about losing jobs to more efficient competitors via trade.
posted by GuyZero at 5:28 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


As for the middle class I agree there are some serious issues there, but again, we're probably better today than we were in 1900. We're not necessarily better than 1970, but it's hard to say whether that can be reversed or whether this is the "new normal".
posted by GuyZero at 5:29 PM on January 9, 2013


> Except for the fact that this has been going on for 2,000 years

NOTHING in economics has been "going on for 2000 years". The modern world of the last century or two since industrialization is completely different in each and every way.

As I mentioned above, in previous technological advances, the jobs were replaced by other jobs. A lot more Americans were employed by the car industry than were employed by the horse transportation industry. Yes, a lot of jobs like ostler vanished - but they were replaced by endless gas jockeys, taxi drivers, chauffeurs, detailing specialists, and of course autoworkers, because there is simply a lot more transportation now then there was in 1850.

This is a completely different change - the jobs are replaced by nothing at all. Amazon replaced all these counter guys and floor salesmen in Sears or similar stores by a big computer program called Obidos (now Gurupa). Soon Amazon will replace the few people left who are still packing things in boxes with machines. Some small number of jobs will be created in the companies that make those machines - but they will soon be making their machines with machines. Programmers like me will do fine - and let me tell you, it grates on me badly that I'm doing well while almost everyone else I know is struggling - but the middle class as a whole will go into, well, a hole.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 5:43 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yes, it's all completely hopeless and there's nothing we can do. Time to stock up on canned goods, hunker down in the basement and try to wait out the rats and riots.
posted by Afroblanco at 5:53 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the best thing about Lanier is that he truly is a class warrior. The moment he saw which way the web was going -- the instant he saw the great unwashed masses rise up and free and create deeply extraordinary things like Wikipedia and mp3 blogs -- he freaked the fuck out. Shut it down! Shut it all down!

Of course now he plays the boring old class warrior schtick. There's this cheap attempt to universalize the "cons" while carefully enjoying the pros. Oh, yes, weep for the overpaid studio producer. He's ]a very nice middle aged white man and he's lost his job! What is the world coming to?! Really, people like him and Nick Carr are so deeply entertwined with the media and so very privileged that you get the sense that they couldn't turn it off now even if they really wanted to. Not even for a moment.

The thing is, the web never posed a direct threat to the guys witi the guns and money. TCP/IP does not change the fact that there are those who rule, those who fight, those who pray, and those who suffer. The great lie of capitalism is that it killed feudalism. Anybody who takes even a moment to appreciate modern America should understand that feudalism -- right down to all the senseless little wars that kill a bunch of farmers everyday for no good reason -- is still the operative logic of the times.

But here's the thing that Lanier clearly does not understand. The web is not a wealth redistribution machine. The wealth of all the translators and the musicians was not transferred from these individual large corporations. There was no robbing Peter to pay Paul. The wealth was liberated. It was given slick wheels and a jetpack. It was made more accessible and opened up for everybody and anybody. It was literally made free. This was not an enclosure operation where public wealth was seized by private operators, instead it was something very much like a revolution where the public decided it didn't need private operators anymore and that it could do well off enough on its own, thankyouverymuch.

To really grasp how wealth is flowing in today's society you would need to see that the surveillance platforms like Google and Facebook are very much a transitory thing. They are needed now to make the logic work for investors but they have no compelling lock on their wealth. They have no real moat. In some way, even, they invite their own destruction. There's very little to stop the masses from waking up tomorrow and going back to Myspace or, heck, realizing they have better things to do than managing their photos. (I have to admit it I do find it so... poignant how much time and energy goes into managing photos these days.) But the point is that the real wealth is not being caught up in the broker accounts and stock options. The real wealth is being transferred to real people who are creating connections to other real people and changing their understanding and expectations of the world.

BTW, as for Lanier's sneaky little "pogrom bugaboo", please. Real pogroms are always top-down affairs carefully orchestrated by the powers that be. This is really the most very irritating thing about all conservatives: they are worthless because they know absolutely nothing about history.
posted by nixerman at 6:40 PM on January 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


Empirically it's just not true. Displacement of workers is always painful in the short-term but in the long term it makes everyone better off. This is the exact same argument Smith made about losing jobs to more efficient competitors via trade.

GuyZero, inductive reasoning won't prove your point there. and even if your analysis of Smith is correct, the current historical epoch is such a complete transfiguration, how can we be sure that Smith's analysis isn't hopelessly out of date?
posted by kuatto at 6:41 PM on January 9, 2013


This is a completely different change - the jobs are replaced by nothing at all. Amazon replaced all these counter guys and floor salesmen in Sears or similar stores by a big computer program called Obidos (now Gurupa). Soon Amazon will replace the few people left who are still packing things in boxes with machines. Some small number of jobs will be created in the companies that make those machines - but they will soon be making their machines with machines. Programmers like me will do fine - and let me tell you, it grates on me badly that I'm doing well while almost everyone else I know is struggling - but the middle class as a whole will go into, well, a hole.

What's really misguided about statements like this is that you think it was the jobs that were valuable. It was never about the jobs. It's the people. The people are the real value, they are the real wealth, and the jobs were never anything more than a way to get people out of the house. The jobs are gone yes -- but all of the wealth they conferred upon the people is still here because the people are still here. The only tragedy here is that Americans -- being, perhaps, the most selfish people on the planet -- would prefer to see that real wealth -- in the form of real people -- destroyed, rather than leveraged for the benefit of people who are potentially not them.

Look it's important to understand that there are always winners and losers. Fortune is a fickle bitch. But it is very rarely the case that any loss is some kind of overwhelming defeat, that is a total loss that nobody can ever recover from, that such losses cannot be overcome. This is the way politicians and feminists think. In reality the very real losses Amazon is imposing on the system can, in fact, be mitigated. In some sense they are an opportunity. The only total loss are the losses that kill people. The war machine that drops bombs on people, the healthcare machine that also all but murders people, and the racism machine that imprisons and abuses 3 out of 4 black males in the country. These are real losses because they destroy human beings. When Amazon lays off a bunch of all-too-shady retail guys who work on commission this is not a irrecoverable loss. This is something a brave and just society would be able to accept and deal with all too easily.
posted by nixerman at 7:00 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


We are in a long strange transition. Certainly none of these newer age doom and gloom folks could make a case for shutting down the internet, but none really have any ability to predict the state of the world in a year let alone twenty. History is not measured in twenty year increments, and the rate of change and newness is something only pre-teens will appreciate...

I heard a bit of some NPR show tonight about post-bieber music, there didn't seem to be any shortage of folks wanting to be creative and new. How do we keep them fed? Do they need the lottery promise of stardom? Doesn't seem like it.

On the other side of the transition will google's robots take over the entire economy? If so perhaps they will subsidize our searches so we can indulge ourselves in putting up blogs with our tunes so there is something to be searched.
posted by sammyo at 7:01 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh and what ever happened to VRML?
posted by sammyo at 7:03 PM on January 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Some small number of jobs will be created in the companies that make those machines - but they will soon be making their machines with machines

One of the questions I'm holding my breath on is whether something (say, 3d printers) is going to distribute the means of production the way affordable desktop computers have done for software, or whether machines making machines is going to remain fairly capital intensive and only competitive by economies of scale.

If it's the former, the general labor market might still shake out and decline as a reliable way of participating in the economy, but maybe something like a middle class can exist making things for one another.

If it's the later, I don't know what societies with stronger work-is-worth values are going to do.

(*Particularly* if we ever get strong ai capable of doing the automation part.)
posted by weston at 7:05 PM on January 9, 2013


Oh and what ever happened to VRML?

There used to be a really great Shadowrun fansite called Shadowland; it boasted a remarkable file-tree interface run in Java and was just about the most remarkable thing I've ever seen. Page creators had nigh-complete control over the structure of their pages, and you had to know some basic HTML to post. The whole thing was coded by Dave Hyatt, who wrote some of the code that runs the browser you're probably using right now.

One of the filetypes you could upload and embed was VRML worlds; it was felt that, given that it was a Shadowrun site, the creation of low-res VR worlds was right up our alley. Sadly, I don't remember the feature ever being used.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:10 PM on January 9, 2013


Here's a better Jaron Lanier piece: The local-global flip at Edge.org. It's much longer, so there is some fluff, but there is also more real meat. One of the things I'd like to quote:

If we enter into the kind of world that Google likes, the world that Google wants, it's a world where information is copied so much on the Internet that nobody knows where it came from anymore, so there can't be any rights of authorship. However, you need a big search engine to even figure out what it is or find it. They want a lot of chaos that they can have an ability to undo.
posted by Termite at 11:46 PM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


You gather a ton of information from real live translators who have translated phrases, just an enormous body, and then when your example comes in, you search through that to find similar passages and you create a collage of previous translations … you’re producing this result that looks magical but in the meantime, the original translators aren’t paid for their work—their work was just appropriated. So by taking value off the books, you’re actually shrinking the economy.
I'm very sympathetic to the sentiment that technology often gets applied in ways that cause a lot of pain and hardship, eliminating positions that were thought of as skilled and safe. I'm also sympathetic to the objection that the benefits are disproportionately harvested by the already-rich and already-powerful, like Google.

But the idea that a free translation service that creates new value from static (and long since paid-for) translations is somehow “taking value off the books” or “shrinking the economy” is madness. If I find a new way to leach gold from mine tailings, would Lanier accuse me of “taking value off the books?” Would he insist that I owed the original miners (who were paid to dig up the stuff that became tailings) a cut of my profits?

Cory Doctorrow recently addressed this point quite directly, and I think he makes a better argument.
posted by Western Infidels at 6:56 AM on January 10, 2013


... If we enter into the kind of world that Google likes, the world that Google wants, it's a world where information is copied so much on the Internet that nobody knows where it came from anymore, so there can't be any rights of authorship. However, you need a big search engine to even figure out what it is or find it. They want a lot of chaos that they can have an ability to undo.
Huh? Chaos was what we had in the 1990s, when we had human-curated "web indexes" and terrible, useless, SEO-gamed machine indexes like Alta Vista. Google succeeded by bringing a very large dose of order to the web, and it did it merely by finding that point of view from which the web appeared to order itself. That is, Google did not impose order on anyone or anything, Google simply found the natural order that so many others had been fruitlessly seeking. That's really an extremely clever and positive development. Google is highly thought of for good reason.

By indexing so much information, Google makes it easier than ever to find the true author of things. Teachers will tell you that it's now one of the most basic plagiarism detectors. I would expect highly effective searching tools to reduce the amount of copying that happens on-line, both because it's now so easy to find, and link to, original sources, and because rip-offs are so easily detected.

Mind you, I'm at least as nervous as the average web user about allowing massive companies like Facebook and Google to store and sift through all our personal stuff. I deleted my Facebook account, I eschew my Gmail account in favor of a commercial email account that I have to pay for.

But to suppose that the core competencies of services like Google and Facebook don't also have huge, popular upsides, to suppose that they are actually run by mustache-twirling villains hell-bent on destroying the web itself is quite an eccentric view.
posted by Western Infidels at 7:24 AM on January 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Empirically it's just not true. Displacement of workers is always painful in the short-term but in the long term it makes everyone better off. This is the exact same argument Smith made about losing jobs to more efficient competitors via trade.

Smith may still be right. I'm not going to sit here and say I know better than Adam Smith. The sabotuers were wrong, after all. What I am going to say is the changes that are happening now are so profound that I think it's at least worth thinking about whether Smith (and other economic thinkers) may be wrong.

The mechanism, the presumption that you're alluding to is that when a technology or a competitor comes along and puts people out of work, that creates a surplus of unused labor which then finds an outlet in other endeavours. Result: old work still getting done (by machine or competitor) new work also getting done (by formerly unemployed worker) = economic growth.

This is the Iron Law of Econ, yeah? The e=mc^2 of it, the "things that go up must come down." It is what is. So how can it change?

Well, what if human labor itself becomes an inferior good? Or to put it another way, what if it was possible for capital to acquire cheap infinite slaves? So that every time an owner of capital considered launching a new venture she was faced with the choice of human or slave labor. Why would you pay a human more than a slave costs to run, if the quality of work is the same? You wouldn't. We have seen how slave societies work --- they can create incredible wealth, but tend to concentrate it in the hands of very few, and they calcify and rot, because it's hard for free workers to compete with slave labor. What is a robot but a slave?
posted by Diablevert at 7:31 AM on January 10, 2013


...it's entirely possible that people have been assholes since always.
posted by GuyZero


That, and these kids wandering around with their faces stuck in their papyrus scrolls, who won't even learn proper rhetorical skills.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:31 AM on January 10, 2013


If we enter into the kind of world that Google likes, the world that Google wants, it's a world where information is copied so much on the Internet that nobody knows where it came from anymore, so there can't be any rights of authorship. However, you need a big search engine to even figure out what it is or find it. They want a lot of chaos that they can have an ability to undo.

What Western Infidels just said, and also a fond memory of that moment in springtime 1999 when someone pointed me to Google to the first time. Holy shit, a search engine that actually posted the most relevant stuff first, not what some advertiser paid for! I'm not saying it's incorruptible. I'm not saying it hasn't already been corrupted. But it was definitely a big bright breath of fresh air moment that removed all manner of distortion and occlusion from my sights and gave a glimpse of an online future that might actually work.
posted by philip-random at 9:47 AM on January 10, 2013


Adam Smith, writing in 1776, was writing at the beginning of what was and probably will be the most sudden and largest period of technological, industrial, and population growth since the advent of agriculture. It's entirely possible that he correctly understood how wealth is generated under such conditions, but that such conditions break down when you don't have constant growth.

I don't think it's exactly controversial, among reasonable people anyway, that the growth patterns that we've enjoyed as a species since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution aren't sustainable. For starters, they're based on the more and more rapid extraction of nonrenewable resources; not just the extraction of more and more resources, but increases in the rate of extraction. It's frankly pretty amazing that we've been able to keep it going as long as we have.

So, for starters, there's no reason to believe that high-level economic principles like those in The Wealth of Nations necessarily hold true when the underlying premises change dramatically. Like classical Newtonian mechanics, what seems to be universally true may in fact only be true within certain limits, and the behavior outside those limits may be surprisingly different. (And I'm giving economics a lot of credit by even comparing it to physics.)

The second problem is that people find things to do when they aren't employed. Not all of those things are necessarily useful. Societies with high unemployment tend to have other problems as well: crime, violence, unintended or inadvisable pregnancies, substance abuse, etc. And the longer people stay out of the workforce, the more difficult it is for them to re-enter it. Worker retraining, which was the putative solution to the pillaging of the US manufacturing sector in the 70s and 80s, largely failed at preventing displaced workers from sliding down the socioeconomic ladder. There's real pain associated with displacing workers, and particularly if it's to a lot of workers or for a long time, the pain may be much worse than the eventual gain, and not just limited to the displaced workers themselves.

So you have, on one hand, little reason to believe that the unbridled growth of the Industrial Revolution (which really ought to be called the "Fossil Carbon Revolution" after about 1800) will necessarily continue. While Ned Ludd's weavers could reasonably be expected to find new jobs in an expanding economy, as could the displaced wheelwrights and blacksmiths and buggy-whip makers, those who suddenly find themselves economically redundant as their economies are turning the corner from expansion to (hopefully) steady-state sustainability or (perhaps more likely) contraction may find themselves S.O.L.

But it's not as though everyone is just going to sit around and quietly drink themselves to death. (People who drink themselves to death rarely do so quietly, for starters.) There is a maximum number of permanently unemployed people that the economy can carry. Either we can redistribute wealth, which has the net effect of letting people do whatever they want for 'work', or we can redistribute work itself such that there are fewer unemployed people. It's my opinion that there is such resistance to the former, and that in the extremes it also carries with it the risk of creating a Eloi/Morlocks situation (without, one hopes, quite so much cannibalism), that we are probably better off doing the latter before there's a huge problem. That is to say, we might decide to sacrifice some economic productivity gained via free trade or some other means, in order to remain at full employment, or at least bring the pace of change down to one which is more in step with natural training/working/retirement patterns.

tl;dr: Even if old Mr Smith is absolutely right in the long run (and I'm not convinced of that), it might be better to pay more for things and have a fully-employed workforce, than have lots of cheap consumer goods and widespread unemployment.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:03 PM on January 10, 2013


Of course ... at this point it's probably far too late; a better time for that particular decision would have been in, oh, around 1970 or so. Pity about that.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:07 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't get the basis of this counterargument - why is is so much harder to change jobs now than it was a hundred or two hundred years ago? Yes, there is a pain to displaced workers. But even if they never get a new job, the problem is self-correcting - eventually they die as we all do. Unless you displace everyone all at once it's not a long-term issue. And it's pretty much a given that new entrants to the job market chose jobs that exist as opposed to jobs that no longer exist.

Sure, everything could be different this time. Give me a reason why you think so. Otherwise it's just Malthusian pessimism that we're on the cusp of the end of the world.

(now eventually some doomsday predictor will be right, but so far they've all been wrong)
posted by GuyZero at 3:17 PM on January 10, 2013


We should "redistribute work" by reducing the legal workweek, and tightening the overtime rules, not just make busy work by "paying more for things".
posted by jeffburdges at 5:05 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's called "France".
posted by GuyZero at 5:42 PM on January 10, 2013


Some of the directions this thread has taken are pretty awesome, especially those parts debating how automation affects labor and how information affects wealth (super-shorthand, sorry).

Thanks, Pope Guilty, for mentioning that beautiful unused feature. I fondly remember the future I thought VRML might yield.

The only small thing I'll add is EDUCATION ALWAYS PAYS OFF.

An educated population creates people (not all, but a fuck of a lot more than an uneducated population) who know how to generate wealth by leveraging data, deploying systems, designing infrastructure, shipping product, etc.

I suppose this ignores all those educated platinum collar criminals running our global banking and financial industry.

I'll shut up now.
posted by mistersquid at 7:49 PM on January 10, 2013


P K Dick was saying, himself a crackpot
those are some fucking fighting words
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 9:47 PM on January 10, 2013


Dick was a rare combination of crackpot and awesome. Well, actually... among science fiction writers, maybe it's not that rare.
posted by GuyZero at 9:36 AM on January 11, 2013


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