Must every rebellion evolve into an evil empire?

Jaron Lanier is an insightful weirdo, and he shares his ideas about what went wrong with the internet.

I think the fundamental mistake we made is that we set up the wrong financial incentives, and that’s caused us to turn into jerks and screw around with people too much. Way back in the ’80s, we wanted everything to be free because we were hippie socialists. But we also loved entrepreneurs because we loved Steve Jobs. So you wanna be both a socialist and a libertarian at the same time, and it’s absurd. But that’s the kind of absurdity that Silicon Valley culture has to grapple with.

And there’s only one way to merge the two things, which is what we call the advertising model, where everything’s free but you pay for it by selling ads. But then because the technology gets better and better, the computers get bigger and cheaper, there’s more and more data — what started out as advertising morphed into continuous behavior modification on a mass basis, with everyone under surveillance by their devices and receiving calculated stimulus to modify them. So you end up with this mass behavior-modification empire, which is straight out of Philip K. Dick, or from earlier generations, from 1984.

I do mostly agree, I say as I look at the godawful smear of obnoxious ads that are currently fueling this site, many of which are totally inappropriate to our mission. But I didn’t see much of that hippie socialism in action. People wanted things for free…for me. Outsmart the Man and get free phone service, or free cable TV, or a pile of documents that they don’t want us to have. It was more of a Repo Man sensibility.

Few of the early hackers had any kind of social consciousness. Steve Wozniak was as pure as they come — he just wanted to make elegant gadgets, and once he got rich, he gave free concerts and tried to inspire better education, but his faith was in technology for technology’s sake, and he got left behind in the mad scramble for money. Bill Gates was in it for the cash: has everyone forgotten his petulant temper tantrums when people gave away copies of Microsoft BASIC for free? Steve Jobs wasn’t shy about trampling over anyone who got in the way of his ambitions. These kinds of people were the foundations of modern Silicon Valley, the Silicon Valley that is now a haven for conservative vampires like Peter Thiel. And seriously, Zuckerberg? You think there was ever a speck of human feeling in that android? It was never built on altruism. It was never about sharing the benefits and power of technology with the world.

Everyone tends to romanticize the early days and wonder how we got into this miserable situation now. I agree with Lanier that it certainly is a miserable situation…but think we also tend to see the 1970s and 1980s in a false light. Those dang mirrorshades put a rosy pink glow on the world.

As Lanier points out, it’s all about the concentration of power, and power corrupts.

But then there’s this other thing about the centralization of economic power. What happened with Maoists and with communists in general, and neo-Marxists and all kinds of similar movements, is that on the surface, you say everybody shares, everybody’s equal, we’re not gonna have this capitalist concentration. But then there’s some other entity that might not look like traditional capitalism, but is effectively some kind of robber baron that actually owns everything, some kind of Communist Party actually controls everything, and you have just a very small number of individuals who become hyperempowered and everybody else loses power.

And exactly the same thing has happened with the supposed openness of the internet, where you say, “Isn’t it wonderful, with Facebook and Twitter anybody can express themselves. Everybody’s an equal, everybody’s empowered.” But in fact, we’re in a period of time of extreme concentration of wealth and power, and it’s precisely around those who run the biggest computers. So the truth and the effect is just the opposite of what the rhetoric is and the immediate experience.


  1. llewelly says

    it’s funny how this is all depicted as “the mistakes we made”, but really, all the important decisions were made by a tiny number of guys who started out with a ton of money, and the rest of us were really just trapped on a roller coaster.

  2. llewelly says

    and I ought to have written “people”, but despite many contributions to science and engineering side of computing, women and non binary people ended up almost entirely left out of the business decisions that ended up mattering.

  3. ridleykemp says

    The “hippie socialists” from the era of Reagan and his ilk? That made my morning.

  4. khms says

    Maybe the confusion is with the software side, especially the FSF – but that is still going strong, and more importantly, so are the many projects that exist only because of rms’ ideas about freedom.
    On the other hand, while neither particularly hippie-like nor all that socialist, our government over here is actively trying to push for everyone having access to broadband – granted, not always with the best ideas on how to get there from here, but still.

  5. doublereed says

    It’s actually pretty weird to declare that the entrepreneurial spirit of libertarianism and the equal opportunity and openness of socialism are somehow at odds with each other.

    Those ideals are not the problem here.

  6. llewelly says

    for those mentioning the FSF (GNU) … note they have always criticized businesses like facebook, and also google, on the grounds that while such businesses do make use of and contribute to some free (“as in speech”) software, their search software, ad software, marketing software, etc, etc, remains concealed from users, and thus, users have no independent check on what such companies are doing on the inside. This is one of the fundamental divisions between “open source” and the FSF approach.

  7. chrislawson says


    You must be referring to a type of libertarian that I’ve never met. All the libertarians I’ve stumbled across think that distributing resources along even mildly socialist lines is the work of the devil.

  8. mikehuben says

    I can think of three major early hippie socialism efforts that have succeeded wildly. You mentioned GNU/FSF. But there was also Wikipedia and the Internet Archive.

    Unfortunately, they are dwarfed by the commercial things.

  9. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    I’ll default to paradox of tolerance being a big part of “why we can’t have nice things”, which has become a ubiquitous meme. Being fully open allows the mongers enough space to overtake

  10. doublereed says

    @8 chrislawson

    I mean there is literally a ideology called Libertarian Socialism which probably most people here agree with.

    The general philosophy of libertarianism is pretty far from the usual strain of Ayn Rand acolytes and deranged hypercapitalists. Like the ACLU is a civil libertarian organization.

  11. doublereed says

    But my point was more that the entrepreneurial go-out-and-make-stuff attitude is not at all in conflict with a sort of equality of opportunity. They’re pretty inter-related.

  12. says

    I mostly disagree with this analysis.

    The real problem is anonymity. Free people from social pressures, and they start to behave like wild jungle apes.

    In real life (as distinct from the Internet), anonymity doesn’t get you very far unless you have a person (non anonymous) who will sponsor you or otherwise act as your agent.

    The way anonymity works on the Internet, is about the same as if everybody could buy their own AR15, set up their own pill box, start shooting and feel assured that they would never be caught.

  13. devnll says

    Well I think he’s looking at it from a very narrow point-of-view – talking about what he, and a small group of people around him were doing at the time. But I met Lanier once back in the Long Ago, and while I’d hardly say that I knew him well, I recall him being very much in the Wozniak mold. Fascinated by the technology and excited about what he thought we’d do with it (with a sizable dollop of naiveté about what we’d _actually_ do with it…)

    But yeah, the rest of the industry never had any such pretension to philanthropy. Silicon Valley growing up was just the Mecca of a religion that worshiped Jobs’ and Gates’ ability to print money.

  14. consciousness razor says


    But my point was more that the entrepreneurial go-out-and-make-stuff attitude is not at all in conflict with a sort of equality of opportunity. They’re pretty inter-related.

    That’s just wrong. This entrepreneurial idea is “go-out-and-make-money,” not stuff, first of all. There is no need to produce things that are tangible or abstract or whatever else, only to make a profit from others somehow. Even if in fact they get nothing and just send you rent checks in the mail every month. (Sorry… I’m suddenly feeling some pent-up rage for shitty old landlords, but you get the point I hope.) Gobble up some money for yourself; that’s the goal, it’s what you should do, perhaps at the expense of anyone or anything else. There is no instruction to do anything else other than that, and the standard you walk past is the standard you accept, as the saying goes.

    You may act as if you are risking something, and your reward (or loss) is then supposed to be deserved: you worked for it, earned it, etc. But the obvious questions about what happens to other people are not even part of this story. Maybe you believe that last fact is what makes these two compatible or not necessarily in conflict, but this is not so. What risks these other people take on and what losses they incur (monetary or otherwise), due to your actions … those are not what you worry about when you’re worrying about sucessfully carrying out your enterprising ideas. That’s a problematic attitude right there: “I’ve got mine, I’m in the process of getting mine, and any given moment I’ve only got to worry about #1, so by the way, fuck you. But in fact I don’t even give enough of a shit about you to ackowledge that you’re getting fucked over, to tell you to your face to go fuck yourself, because that doesn’t earn me anything.”

    So if this is supposed to be a political philosophy of some kind, then it fails miserably, because its standards are not nearly high enough to do anything good for society. It does not provide a framework for giving a shit about other people, which of course is something you ought to do. You should not merely grab lots of money or power or success for yourself. It should’ve told you something else entirely; but it didn’t do that, which more or less immediately leads you off in the wrong direction, if you seriously believe it’s giving you any sort of guidance that’s worth following. Conflicts of this sort don’t get a whole lot more obvious than that.

    Neil Rickert:

    The real problem is anonymity. Free people from social pressures, and they start to behave like wild jungle apes.

    I find it strange that people think our behavior was much better before the internet came along. I won’t make fun of cranky old-fashioned types, because I fit the bill too often…. But I really don’t get how I’m supposed to make sense of the idea that there aren’t social pressures (people are “free from” them) with the rise of things like social media, all while obviously continuing to exist in the very society which is what created this phenomenon in the first place … but it probably doesn’t matter how I should make sense of such statements.

    Why not? Because we were probably always this bad (or worse). The difference is that now you just happen to know about more of it. You merely have more information. It’s as if you thought that, as we kept making bigger and bigger telescopes, that telescope-building process is what caused the universe to become larger. No, that’s silly. What happened is that we could see more and more of this stupidly-big universe that was already there all along. Telling me exactly how this procedure of building the telescopes increases universe-bigness would be a start (if that is something really happened), but I’d still want to have some idea of what the baseline was when we started out. We simply don’t have that, in the case at hand. So it doesn’t seem like we’re ready to say much about it.

  15. latveriandiplomat says

    Jobs, Wozniak, and Gates didn’t build the internet though.

    It was built by a whole bunch of people, and many of them working in universities far from silicon valley and fitting the mold of hippie socialist as well as anyone not actually dropping out and moving to a commune. There are many aspects of the basic internet protocols that undercut the sort of short term money grubbing that would have prevented it from ever being a success.

    There were also people who just wanted to make money, of course, but they were largely hardware manufacturers and service providers who were convinced to implement the open, idealistic protocols developed by the IETF. With network neutrality and other changes, we may be seeing that undermined more recently.

    The problems with the internet as a social medium were spotted in the early days of the Usenet, and no complete solutions were found then either.

    IMHO, it’s going to take a while for social institutions to catch up. Until then, it’s going to be painful. That’s not an excuse to ignore the problems or the bad actors, of course.

  16. nomuse says


    I don’t disagree there are problems that come with anonymity. But otherwise; apes a social species, and so are we. Sure, I can plop out a temporary handle and act out with it, but to gain anything of social (or “real”) value I have to invest in an identity. When it is that identity that has followers, trusted status, access, that identity is vulnerable to social control.

  17. Zeppelin says


    Your objection seems to boil down to a word game. Libertarian Socialists are Libertarian Socialists, the ACLU are Civil Libertarians. There’s a reason neither ever call themselves just “libertarian”: the term “Libertarian” is already taken and means “Ayn Rand acolytes and deranged hypercapitalists”, which is how Lanier was using it.
    If you think this usage is misleading or whatever that’s fair enough (I may even agree). But it’s kind of silly to object to someone’s argument on the grounds that it stops making sense if you insert your preferred definition of a term instead of what they actually meant by it.

  18. consciousness razor says

    If you think this usage is misleading or whatever that’s fair enough (I may even agree).

    It’s extremely misleading to say the civil rights/liberties the ACLU fights for are somehow equivalent to entrepreneurialism. Your 1st amendment rights, for example, are not an important thing society should protect, merely so that you may generate a profit for your business. You may have no business at all, or it may have no impact on any economic enterprise whatsoever that you’re free (or not) to express or believe something (e.g.), yet we should nonetheless protect such freedoms for you, simply because you’re a person. So they are not at all the same thing, no matter how any particular words get used. The ACLU is definitely not what comes to mind when I read phrases like “entrepreneurial go-out-and-make-stuff attitude.” If somebody genuinely got those things mixed up in their head, after having thought about it for more than a second, it’s not the fault of one word.

  19. monad says

    @13: That anonymity makes people awful is an old explanation. Bet when things like Facebook and Youtube tried preventing people from being anonymous, it doesn’t seem to have prevented the toxicity. It turns out the people who are worst to others don’t much mind that you know who they are.

  20. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re 21:
    agreement, that it’s not anonymity itself that is the root of the “issue” its being given the distribution mechanism to publish ones opinions to get the widespread. plus the mirror-effect effect of expanding our sources so more people see a wider range of opinions from people they normally wouldn’t associate with, whether from prejudice or good sense.
    Similar to the “grandpa complaints” in the ’60s about news telling us only the bad things happening, and the 70s telling us that [pick your crime] only appears to be on the rise cuz the news reports on that crime more frequently.
    too much infomation

  21. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    The general philosophy of libertarianism is pretty far from the usual strain of Ayn Rand acolytes and deranged hypercapitalists. Like the ACLU is a civil libertarian organization.

    Unfortunately the Narcisso-Capitalists successfully hijacked the term “L/libertarian” used without qualifiers, like, longer than most of us have been alive ago.

  22. anchor says

    Bingo PZ. Exactly my take.

    People don’t like to see themselves for what they actually are or were.

    Some of us could see the shit coming, but its also always been fashionable to ignore them. In time the rest wonder and complain bitterly why they ‘suddenly’ find themselves standing neck-deep in the stinking doo-doo.

    Disavowing responsibility has also always been fashionable. As if they didn’t notice they were walking straight into it. As if somebody played a nasty trick on them. As if what happens to the foolish and stupid is somehow unfair.

  23. Dunc says

    In the absence of concerted social and / or political efforts to prevent it, the development and deployment of new technology almost always serves to exacerbate existing inequalities, for the simple reason that the people involved in designing, developing, and deploying it are inevitably drawn from the most highly advantaged sections of society. Anybody who tries to tell you that some new technology will solve some complex social problem in and of itself should be regarded with deep suspicion – at best, they’re a hopelessly naive optimist with no understanding of history. More likely, they’re running a con and you’re the mark.