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Jaron Lanier, Digital Quixote

Jaron Lanier is one of the [venerable] not-so-old men of the digital age. I first learned of him during the fracas that arose over an essay entitled [Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism] that he published on a site for brainiacs called The Edge. In it, he dared to challenge the online status quo by raising questions about the social risks of the wisdom of crowds and the devaluation of meritocracy in favor of a techno-driven faux populism.

Wikipedia came in for special treatment but he also decried the rise of aggregators, like Google News (and, implicitly, sites like Techmeme that aggregate blog content) that in some cases are better funded than the sources they aggregate and fairly indiscriminate in the content they collect. In remarking on the declining value of our meta culture that ever more becomes an echo chamber of hastily produced barely attributable blog content that comments on other hastily produced commentary he wrote:

The question of new business models for content creators on the Internet is a profound and difficult topic in itself, but it must at least be pointed out that writing professionally and well takes time and that most authors need to be paid to take that time. In this regard, blogging is not writing. For example, it’s easy to be loved as a blogger. All you have to do is play to the crowd. Or you can flame the crowd to get attention. Nothing is wrong with either of those activities. What I think of as real writing, however, writing meant to last, is something else. It involves articulating a perspective that is not just reactive to yesterday’s moves in a conversation.

The issue of online economic models that can support quality content came up again in November in an op-ed he wrote for the New York Times entitled, [Pay Me for My Content]. Lanier, having reached a level of maturity where he foreswears earlier ideological adherence to crackpot theories of web economics (he once wrote a manifesto called Piracy Is Your Friend), calls on engineers to mend their ways and develop new technology that will allow compensation and protections for artists, writers and others who make a living producing the original creative content that our culture depends upon.

And, now Lanier tilts his lance at the stronghold of the new digital economy: open source. In an article posted to Discover magazine entitled, [Long Live Closed-Source Software], he utters the uncomfortable truth that free, collectively-produced software is rarely of the same quality — in originality or performance — of privately owned and funded products. He points up that there is a reason that the iPhone does not run on Linux — which is, itself, a copy of a privately-funded commercial product.

There is a common thread in all of Lanier’s recent polemics: quality inheres in the concentrated efforts of individuals or defined groups acting within a system of clear economic incentives and ownership who are accountable for what they do. The current fad of free, open collectivist culture that is (barely) sustained through advertising models is aberrant and, he believes, the fault of technologists who designed the internet that way. In the current ecosystem relatively few entities benefit from the tendency to aggregate devalued content and the rest of us pay the price through a general impoverishment of cultural products that we can consume.

Lanier calls on technologists to fix what they have broken, but where’s the incentive to do so? Lanier forgets his own thesis — people work to incentives. The reason engineers built the internet the way they did was because they had no dog in the fight about how (future) online content would be valued. They got paid no matter what they built, so they built something that made sense to them. I’m afraid there won’t be any significant changes until the current models fail utterly (a nice juicy recession should take care of that) and then business interests will be eager to develop new, more rational business models (that will probably look a lot like the time-tested models of old) and pay the technologists to develop the architecture to support them. Until that day comes, anyone with a brain — and especially those who create information for a living — should do everything they can to support offline “old media” businesses which, for all their problems, are still the best guarantors of cultural quality that we have.

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