The Geek Freaks
Why Jaron Lanier rants against what the Web has become.
In addition to the general standardization and corporatization of the Web, Lanier sees the Web's "open culture" as a failure. Instead of creating new songs or videos, we just steal from the previous decades of pop culture and create parodies and mashups. Instead of writing brilliant new computer programs, computer jocks toil at improving the free, open-source Linux, which offers no real innovation over the decades-old Unix. His best and most comprehensible critique of how the Web has smothered creativity involves what you could call the Ani DiFranco problem:
In the old days—when I myself was signed to a label—there were a few major artists who made it on their own, like Ani DiFranco. She became a millionaire by selling her own CDs while they still were a high-margin product people were used to buying, back before the era of file sharing. Has a new army of Ani DiFrancos started to appear?
In Lanier's eyes, there is no longer a middle realm in which musicians can make music according to their own standards, sell it directly to fans, and not starve. Musicians are either kids in vans making just enough money for the next gig or dilettantes with a vanity career. The Facebook generation gets its music for free and doesn't expect to pay for it, and this has helped bring about a musical Dark Age. That's not a crazy idea, but it's just Lanier's hunch. When you start to poke around for data, you get a sense of the landscape. According to this U.K. study, artists now make the majority of their money doing live performances, and the total revenue accrued by artists has increased. Today's theoretical middle-class musician would probably have to travel more, but he or she could still make a living.
There's also the problem of the counterexample: What great artist has been left unrecognized by the Internet? Who hasn't found a niche? Lanier, to his credit, is not a simple pessimist. He does propose a solution to the difficulty of how to compensate artists, artisans, and programmers in a digital era: a content database that would be run by some kind of government organization: "We should effectively keep only one copy of each cultural expression—as with a book or song—and pay the author of that expression a small, affordable amount whenever it's accessed." Again, not a bad concept, but a platonic idea that sounds great in theory. I don't see the government opening an iTunes store anytime soon.
Lanier is a survivor and has good instincts: We need to be wary of joining in the wisdom of the crowds, of trusting that open collaboration always produces the best results, of embracing the growing orthodoxy that making cultural products free will benefit the actual producers of those cultural products. But his critique is ultimately just a particular brand of snobbery. Lanier is a Romantic snob. He believes in individual genius and creativity, whether it's Steve Jobs driving a company to create the iPhone or a girl in a basement composing a song on an unusual musical instrument.
The problem is that the Web is much bigger now, and both Jobs and the bedroom oud player must, in their own ways, strive for attention from the hive mind. And the results can arrive like lightning: Just a few weeks ago, a man in Uruguay was given a $30 million dollar movie deal after posting a sci-fi short on YouTube. No one likes to become obsolete or cranky, but my sense is that Lanier doesn't want to play on this new field. The talents and insights of Lanier and his peers were aimed at a tech-savvy elite whose impact will never be the same again. The innovative momentum is now about democratizing the Web and its uses—Flickr, Twitter, and, yes, Facebook. It was a lot of fun at the beginning, but virtual reality has moved on. It's time to take off the goggles and gloves, and join us here on Earth.
Corrections, Jan. 4, 2009: This article originally stated incorrectly that Samuel Johnson wrote the quoted phrase about London. In fact he spoke the quoted phrase in conversation with his biographer, James Boswell. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)
The article originally suggested that there were "forums" on Pitchfork. While Pitchfork reviews and articles are linked to and debated around the Internet, the site itself does not host user forums. (Return to the corrected sentence.)