The bifurcation of humanity could be
sustained only so long as those on the
receiving end have money to spend.
But as more things become free in
order to support advertising, fewer of
us will be making money. The dénoue-ment would probably be some sort of
violent swing toward socialism.
This might sound like an extreme
scenario, but consider how much
more difficult it is for certain creative
people to earn a living today than they
did before the public Internet became
a global social phenomenon. The
most tormented examples are probably recording musicians and investigative journalists.
Alas, it is now common to hear
suggestions that people in this predicament should revert to retro (
inevitably more physical) strategies of
sustenance, like selling branded T-shirts and other merchandise. This
is a sad reversal of what had been one
of the brightest aspects of technological progress. Prior to the centrality of
“open culture” and the rise of online
collectivization, technological progress generally supported ever more
cerebral, creative, and comfortable
means of making a living.
Now extrapolate: How long will it
be before cheap fabricating robots are
able to download T-shirt designs from
the cloud and automatically manufacture customized clothing as easily as
one downloads music today? And how
long after that will it be before personal robots are able to build copies
of the latest medical implant or other
gadgets from an online design? The
answers are likely to be measured in
decades, not centuries. If robotics is
eventually good enough to harvest the
garbage dumps of the world for materials and transform them into manufactured products, then a plateau will
have been reached. At that time, all
consumer technology will become
media technology. Even those who
hoped to make a living from T-shirts
will join the investigative journalist
and recording musician in poverty.
How far back in history toward the
stone age will people have to devolve
in order to find a way to make a living
[ContinUEd FroM p. 112]
how long will
it be before cheap
are able to download
from the cloud
as easily as one
when fabricating robots are that good?
Will people be forced by the marketplace to work the fields, as academics did under various Maoist-type regimes? Not with good robots around.
Surely, robots will eventually also do a
better job tending the crops.
If you go back to some of the earliest thinking about how information technology might interact with
the patterns of human life, you’ll
find examples of people who thought
ahead to this potential dilemma. For
instance, Ted Nelson, probably the
first person to really think through
how something like the Web might be
built and how it would influence human society, proposed in the 1960s
a design in which each copy of a file
existed, from a logical point of view,
in only one instance. Any user could
make micropayments to gain access.
The conflict between file sharing and
DRM would be defused because there
would be little motivation to make
copies. Accessing files would be enticingly cheap, but everyone would make
some incremental amount of money
from sharing files with everyone else.
A new social contract would emerge
based on self-interest. This was not
just a proposal to extend capitalism,
but to broaden its benefits to a greater variety of people, since all would
be able to upload interesting bits as
A popular objection when Nelson
proposed this design was that few
people had anything of interest or
value to say, and if they tried to say
what they could, no one else would be
interested. Fortunately, the rise of social networking has proved these objections unfounded.
I directly experienced a later period, in the 1970s and 1980s, when Nelson was no longer a solitary pioneer.
Much of the underlying architecture
and ideology that guides the public
Internet today appeared in rough cut
during those years. The ideas had
shifted. Nelson was attacked by the
campus left of the time over his willingness to imagine a future in which
money continued to be important.
Meanwhile, the culture of AI fascinated engineers, drawing their attention away from the problem of how to
reward human creativity that had so
We ended up with an Internet and
Web that is, for the moment, a sort of
cross between mass collective implementation of a Turing Test, through
designs like Twitter, and the clumsy
fantasy of armchair pseudo-Maoists. I
realize these words could strike many
as alarmist. If this is the case for you,
please look into the history of collectivist design in human affairs. Such
designs often appear enlightened at
first, with a special way of enchanting
idealistic young people. But they have
also engendered the worst social disasters of the past century.
That’s why I reject the idea that a
collective or emergent intelligence
is appearing through the computing
clouds. We’ll never know if it’s really
there, or if we have collectively become idiots.
Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist interested in
interpersonal perception, biomimetic computing, and new
displays and sensors. He received a Career Award from
the IEEE in 2009 for his lifetime contributions to virtual
reality research and is presently working at Microsoft on
intriguing unannounced projects.