Jaron Lanier’s technologist myopia

Jaron Lanier is at it again.  Two weeks ago, at Personal Democracy Forum, Lanier unveiled the central thesis of his next book: computer networks are causing the demise of the American middle class, threatening Democracy as we know it.  New information technology has exacerbated the distribution of wealth.  The Internet has undermined a set of “levees,” including academic tenure, copyright, and taxi medallions (???).  All sorts of social problems — from Wall Street shenanigans to the decline of unions — can be laid at the feet of technologists.  And, in Lanier’s eyes, these technological problems have technological solutions.  We simply have to rewrite the entire Internet, embrace Ted Nelson’s failed Project Xanadu and rebuild from the hyperlinks on up.

If that sounds extreme, don’t worry.  It’s supposed to be.  Jaron Lanier is the Great Curmudgeon of the Internet Community.  An influential technologist in the 1980s and 1990s, Lanier later began to ask “what hath our efforts wrought” sorts of questions.  He thinks on a grand and abstract scale, he does not like what he sees, and the Internet Community regularly provides a platform for him to voice his objections.  Among my friends and colleagues in the Internet research community, everyone either loves or hates what Lanier has to say.  But he is always provocative, and that indeed is largely the point.

We need good curmudgeons (or skeptics, at least) in the world.  Particularly in the technology & society community, which has a habit of falling into boundless optimism.  Good curmudgeons force smart optimists to engage in healthy self-reflection.  For that, if nothing else, they should be thanked.  My problem with Lanier, however, is that I don’t think he’s a particularly good curmudgeon.

As usual, there’s a kernel of truth in his work.  Technologists ought to be mindful of the values that they encode in software.  The individuals who construct our digital environment make up an increasingly important social elite.  Facebook and Google are, indeed, monetizing our every action – we create value, they harvest that value and turn a profit.  We ought to think through the social consequences of technology-driven disruptions.

But, as with his last book, the power of his critique evaporates due to a pair of gaping flaws.  The first is a problem of style, the second an error of analysis.

Stylistically, Lanier writes the way he talks — stream of consciousness, hoping from one example to another.  If you have trouble following his argument in the book or in the video, that isn’t because he’s just so brilliant.  Like many technologists, he likes to begin from first principles, designing his arguments basically from scratch.  That’s a fine method for create operating systems.  It’s a poor tool for social analysis though.  There are too many complicated moving parts, too much that cannot be simplified or assumed away.

His haphazard style exacerbates a habit of treating correlations as causation.  Lanier sees the rise of computer networks and the decline of unions in America and thinks “this is all connected!”  Yet unions began their decline well in advance of personal computing.   He sees computer networks driving wealth creation, but seems to forget that past advances in technology drove wealth creation as well.  History cannot be neatly divided into “pre-Internet” and “post-Internet” categories.  In doing so, he fails to take history seriously.

The bigger problem is Lanier’s error of analysis: Technologists are an elite, not The Elite.   The decline of unions (particularly the recent union fights in Wisconsin and Ohio) is not caused by the new information environment.  It is caused by motivated political elites, enacting policies that favor their own narrow interests.  The Wall Street crash was orchestrated by “quants” using computer networks, but it was made possible by the repeal of Glass-Steagall.   The decline of the American middle class has not been caused by technology.  The solutions to that decline lie not in the realm of bits and bytes, but in the realm of policies and votes.

A better skeptic would take other social forces into account.  To borrow from Larry Lessig, the information environment is shaped by four forces: laws, norms, markets, and architecture.  Indeed, one of the lessons from SOPA was that, if internet architects don’t exert political pressure, then Hollywood will reforge the internet.  Lanier looks at the Internet and sees the rise of a digital elite.  He then makes the moral argument that they should give up their power, creating an egalitarian internet along the lines of Ted Nelson’s original vision instead. Better skeptics, like Siva Vaidhyanathan, also see the rise of a digital elite.  But instead, Siva concludes that we should think of companies like Google and Facebook as though they were utilities, and regulate them accordingly.  Siva’s perspective is not just more realistic, it’s also more nuanced and accurate.

We dealt with the old robber barons (eventually) by regulating their influence.   Even if you agree with Lanier’s claim that technology is undermining the old “middle class levees,” the solution is to create new ones through public policy.  Blaming Facebook and Google for our social problems may be gratifying, but it lets the real culprits off the hook.

For Jaron Lanier, All Roads Lead to Code.  That perspective has made him the most popular internet curmudgeon.  Lanier has the ears of the entire tech community.  He occupies a space in a network – the space reserved for the critic.  With that role comes the responsibility to use it well!  Sloppiness either in thought or execution makes it too easy for his audience to dismiss all such criticism.  I can only hope that, as he transforms his PDF talk into his next book, he takes this responsibility seriously.  Technologists are not the only architects of our society.  We should be mindful of the values encoded in our technologies, but just as mindful of the values embraced by our public policies.



2 thoughts on “Jaron Lanier’s technologist myopia

  1. I think you’ve got Lanier’s argument a little off. He is not claiming that changes in society can be made *exclusively* at the level of code, but that society can be changed by code and we need to bring *a range of forces* to bear (public pressure, tech company policy, law, etc.) in order to achieve those changes.

    In other words, code change (of the type he’s suggesting) is a social good, but it takes a variety of factors to see those code changes implemented.

  2. If that’s the case, then I have less of a problem with his analytic error, but even more of a my stylistic concern. I’ve now read You Are Not a Gadget twice, and listened to his PDF talk a few times. I just don’t see that interpretation. Seems to me he’s talking as a technologist, to technologists, with little sense of the other forces at play.

    I’ll grant that his thinking might be more complex, but that means his writing is just too muddy…

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