Are we better or worse off because of the digital age? Is the Internet ultimately creating problems or solving them? Let’s all share and let’s do it for free — what could possibly be wrong with that?
As the World Wide Web turns 25, we put these questions to a diverse group of big thinkers, and we got some different answers. But on one point they will all agree: Don’t blame the Internet.
It’s really all about how we are using the Internet, which may be a blessing or a curse.
“The Internet is a very neutral thing by itself... It is just there, like electricity,” says Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, musician, visual artist and author of Who Owns the Future?, who will be discussing the issue later this week at the Power of Design ideas festival in Miami. “It’s more about what you do with it and we’ve been using it really badly — it’s like we’ve been using electricity to electrify the bath water.”
Lanier, who coined the term “virtual reality” in his earlier days of game development, believes current Internet behavior is hurting our middle class because we are giving away far too much for free. In doing so, we are enriching a few but propelling the loss of millions of middle-class jobs. As economic evidence, he cites job and salary deterioration in the journalism and music industries, on which he has a ground-level view. If other industries follow suit in the next 20 to 30 years, he believes the overall economy will suffer.
“Back at the turn of the century —14 years ago — within the Silicon Valley community, there was a really strong belief that we are helping journalists, we are helping musicians. And it was easy to believe that. But since I was also a musician and I knew people in the industry, I could see we are deluding ourselves,” says Lanier, who also writes orchestral music and plays a large number of rare acoustic musical instruments.
“We are creating total rewards for people who don’t really do anything and then ruining job prospects for everyone else,” added Lanier. His topical example: WhatsApp, a 50-employee company that Facebook recently announced it was buying for $19 billion.
“It’s an app to send messages between phones and it is popular with young people... I have met the kids [who founded it] and they are nice kids, but it’s not really that there is any contribution to society there. There were hundreds of other similar schemes, and it was inevitable one would take off, and then we shower all our society’s wealth to whoever wins the lottery. It becomes a society based on nothing but manipulation, without any creativity or productivity.”
Take Kodak vs. Instagram. Say what you will about the technologies, but at its height Kodak provided 140,000 well-paying, middle-class jobs. You can’t say that about Instagram.
In his latest book and his other writings, Lanier proposes a total rethink and reset on the way we use the Internet. One possible solution, he suggests, is a micro-payments system so that we aren’t giving content away for free, not only to the people we share with, but perhaps more importantly, the middle-man companies who gather, use and sell our data, companies like Google, Facebook and Spotify.
Lanier doesn’t have all the answers, he acknowledges, but he hopes his book gets the conversation started.
At the other end of the argument is Clive Thompson, science and technology writer and blogger and author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better. Thompson believes the economy is undergoing a shift: “It’s a win-lose. Social networks win, individual publishers lose. That’s the economic harm. Models of media are evolving. The old advertising models are not holding up... But it is not because we are failing to monetize our conversation.”
Thompson, who writes for New York Times Magazine, Wired and other publications, was once skeptical that regular people weren’t smart enough to have the keys to cyberspace. Now, he’s a believer.
In his 20 years of reporting on new technologies like Hotmail, social media and photo-sharing sites, Thompson has explored how regular people use technology. “Every single time I discovered people were using it for more creative, interesting and provocative things than I would have ever thought sitting at my desk. ... I also realized we are terrible at predicting what people would do with these tools.”
Take text messaging. Originally developed as a simple tool to use to convey phone network problems, it exploded as a communications tool. “People love to communicate in short form messages and this culture of creativity and wittyness emerged around it... On a political level it becomes this enormously significant [social justice] tool.”
OK. But is this always-on, 24-7 sharing society a good thing? Ultimately, yes, he says.
“One of the big shifts in society in the last 10 years is we do a lot more of our thinking in front of other people. This has had fantastic, quite transformative effects on the quality and caliber of thinking. There has been this mass audience affect, that has improved and sharpened the way we think and decreased our intellectual isolation,” says Thompson, who has been blogging about technology since 2002.
Yet Thompson, who recently set up his own cloud service on a seven-year-old computer parked under his kitchen table and wrote about the experience in Wired, agrees with Lanier that the Internet age might be healthier if the information was distributed in a more decentralized way. We’re talking from one computer to another, without a Google or Facebook in the middle. “There are actually very cool nerds working on that,” he said.
What we also need is some cool nerds helping to divert the Internet’s power of distraction. Because many tools of the digital age are run by for-profit corporations, it is in their interest to interrupt us as often as they can.
Michael Chabon, author of books including The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and Telegraph Avenue, wrestles every day with some of the ramifications Lanier and Thompson discuss, particularly distraction — something we can all relate to.
“I do not want to even think about the time I have wasted,’’ said the Pulitzer Prize-winning author who was an early adopter of technology in his work. “I get distracted by one link that leads to another to another. Every time I discover that one link that is absolutely crucial to my work, there must be 75 times where I ended up at the complete Brady Bunch fan website.’’
As a father of four teens and pre-teens, Chabon also tries to keep up with the distractions of his kids’ world. “I am most worried about the 2.5 hours watching videos of pug-beagle mix puppies crawling around someone’s back yard instead of going out into our actual backyard with our actual dog.”
Although managing distraction is a 24-7 challenge — and the onus is on himself to control the urge to meander — the power to discover trumps, says Chabon. And as convenient as e-books may be, he fervently believes they will never replace the sensual experience of reading a real book. “It’s not an either-or — we need both,” says Chabon, who also is a fan of vinyl records and turntables.
Yet, the Internet allows Chabon, who began writing on a computer in 1983, to find out what he didn’t know he didn’t know. “I have no doubt in my mind the Internet is an incredible blessing.”
Ultimately, even Lanier is an optimist. Americans have come through difficult periods in history before, he notes, and we’ve always been able to figure it out.
“We are addicted to the easy buck right now,’’ he says. “Everybody wants that trick to get rich quickly, and as long as that is dangling no one wants to do real businesses.
“If you watch a few kids make $19 billion for kinda nothing, it’s hard to say ‘I have to go to work today.’ It’s this incredible fascination with lotteries that is killing us. We just have to grow out of it.”
Dahlberg writes about local technology companies and startups. Follow @ndahlberg on Twitter.