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.