Gadget Part III: The Problem of Linear Extrapolation

ThumbnailPart II of Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto discusses what he considers to be the economic failures of the web 2.0 paradigm, and the first of these failures is what he refers to as “free culture”: the cultural expectation that digital content, regardless of quality, should be free, both in terms of cost, and copyright.

Lanier likens this to a kind of digital Marxism, where individual property rights are ignored, and all creative production is assumed to belong automatically to the “hive mind.” His primary offender is YouTube, a site which makes it very easy to share videos, many of which are mashups of copyrighted content used without permission, that are freely viewable by anyone with an Internet connection.

Of course, Google does not operate YouTube just for the benefit of humanity. The economic model of free culture rests upon the familiar foundation of advertising, and those content creators who build the largest audiences often get a small share of the spoils. But if most content creators receive nothing for their work, what motivates them to contribute? Lanier thinks that it is ultimately about self-promotion:

The combination of hive mind and advertising has resulted in a new kind of social contract. The basic idea of this contract is that authors, journalists, musicians, and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind. Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion. Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising (83).

Lanier goes on to argue that this self-promotion is sometimes getting rewarded by old-style media: take for example the blogger who builds a large-enough audience to get a book contract, which then turns into a movie deal (e.g., Juno; Julie & Julia). These artists receive significant compensation for their work, but that compensation doesn’t come from the web 2.0 crowd–it comes from those of us who still buy books and pay to watch movies.

Lanier’s concern is that as soon as these old-style media are subsumed by the web 2.0 free culture, there will no longer be an incentive for artists to produce anything that takes significant time or effort. If a spontaneous video of a cute cat can receive millions of views, why go through the trouble to write a new story and produce a well-done film? Why spend time writing a new song when a mashup of old material, or an illegal copy of an old music video, becomes an instant hit?

Lanier ends this train of thought by wondering if artists of the future, like the great artists of the Renaissance, will be forced to find patrons in order to survive. If that happens, he reasons, art will become a handmaiden to institutions that will suppress the more daring and critical works.

I think Lanier has a legitimate concern about copyright in the digital era, but I think he is also making a mistake that is very common amongst futurists: he is assuming that the future will be a linear extrapolation of present trends. That is to say, he is assuming that the social order of the future will be much like that of the present, only more extreme.

I disagree with Lanier in that I see our current situation as a transitional one. We are in the process of working out a new economic model that is appropriate for a digital age, and it is highly unlikely that the model we eventually arrive at will bear much resemblance to the transitionary model we know now.

File:Copyright.svgThe adoption of digital computers and telecommunication networks most certainly challenged our traditional techniques for enforcing copyright. Although it was always possible to copy a record to a cassette tape and give it to your friend, the physicality of the medium and the loss of quality during copying tended to limit the extent to which this posed a serious threat to copyright. Now that one can rip a CD into a digital file, with very little noticeable loss of quality, and send it to millions of people around the world in a few seconds, artists (and their distributors) are scrambling to develop a new model where they can get their art out to the largest possible audience, but still also make some money from it.

There are several different models being tested now, and it is probably too early to tell which one might succeed, or if the model of the future will be something completely different. The iTunes store and CD Baby are two interesting models that so far have seemed to be successful. These systems allow both signed and independent musicians to sell their songs to a wide audience, and that audience seems to be very willing to pay for them. Both systems take a substantial cut of the revenues, and each no doubt hopes to cement itself at the center of all economic/artistic exchange.

But the future is not yet written, and I would not be surprised to see iTunes toppled by another network setup by artists, for artists. Digital technologies have made obsolete most of what record producers and distributors do, so a model like iTunes, that simply replaces those entities with a new one, need not be the final solution. New technologies always enable social change, but often the final extent of that change is beyond our current imaginations.

But to give Lanier credit where credit is due, here’s a video of a cat “playing” piano that has been viewed over 21 million times! Will this be the standard of “art” in the future? I certainly hope not.


3 thoughts on “Gadget Part III: The Problem of Linear Extrapolation

  1. Rosie Perera

    I haven’t read Lanier’s book yet (thought it’s on my technology shelf to read one of these days), but it sounds like I agree with a lot of what he says, as you explain it. However he is (or you are) overlooking the fact that viral videos, which become part of our collective cultural conscious, can (though do not necessarily always) become the inspiration for real art that people pay to see or hear: A Look at the Catcerto for Nora The Piano Cat and Orchestra. Here’s the YouTube video of that live performance.

    Also, the notion that “compensation doesn’t come from the web 2.0 crowd–it comes from those of us who still buy books and pay to watch movies” misses the point that we are one and the same. I still buy books and CDs and I pay to watch movies but I also enjoy passing free viral videos around, and I suspect you do too or you wouldn’t have shared the Nora video with us. Just today I created a YouTube playlist for myself of Saint-Saëns Symphony No.3 (“Organ”), as performed at the BBC Proms by Radio France Philharmonic under the direction of Myung-Whun Chung, at Royal Albert Hall, London – Jul, 23, 2008. The videos of these four movements were put up on YouTube by Vivus Musica, the Korean classical music recording label that represents Mr. Chung. I suspect they want as many people as possible to be able to see that performance for free, and a fine performance it was.

  2. David Stearns Post author

    Thanks for the comments!
    Matt: I’m not sure what influence Wark’s book has had on Lanier. He hasn’t mentioned Wark in the text yet, but it’s important to realize that Lanier is not at all in favor of what he calls the “free culture.”

    Rosie: thanks as always for your insights. I was mostly trying to summarize Lanier in that first part of the post. He doesn’t acknowledge cases where viral videos inspire more serious cultural products, and he doesn’t typically acknowledge counter examples in any of his other chapters either. He also tends to portray an us-vs-them kind of thinking when it comes to proponents of web 2.0 technology. I think he’s fought a number of very personal battles.

    I hope I made it clear that I don’t agree with his assessment of the current situation. I do expect that web 2.0 systems will have a significant disruptive and reshaping effect on society, but I don’t think those effects are inevitable, nor do I think they will be a linear extrapolation of what we are experiencing now. Throughout the book, Lanier keeps making rather dire predictions that I find hard to believe, but he also has some very insightful things to say.


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