Note from Bill: this post is a Q&A between two college roommates, yours truly, and Professor Mark Byrnes, a historian who teaches at Wofford College in South Carolina and blogs at The Past Isn't Past. Mark visited me and my wife in Seattle this month, and while he was here, read my copy of Jaron Lanier's critique of the direction of the digital economy,
Who Owns the Future. Mark's take on the book is more informed, politically and historically, than mine, so I asked him to entertain some questions.
Lanier's argument, that the internet is being used to shrink the economy and destroy the middle class, you said in conversation that this was essentially a Marxist critique. Can you expound on that?
MB: It seems to me that Lanier's analysis echoes much of what Marx had to say about the dynamics of early industrial capitalism, in particular when Lanier focuses on the tendency for the market to produce "winner take all" results. Marx believed that market forces would eventually lead to greater and greater concentrations of wealth, leading to a very small ownership class, a virtually non-existent middle class, and a massive working class that would then rise up and overthrow the system.
Lanier applies that same insight to the modern information economy--in his formulation, the "means of production" have become the "Siren Servers."
Is Lanier a communist, then?
MB: No, not at all. He makes that very clear. His goal is not to overthrow capitalism, but to save it from itself--the position of most American progressive reformers since Theodore Roosevelt.
One of the few unfortunate consequences of the fall of the Soviet bloc and the collapse of communism as a governing philosophy is that it has, for most people, discredited *every* aspect of Marx's thought. I'd argue that Marx was (inadvertently) one of the best friends capitalism ever had. By diagnosing the self-destructive tendencies of capitalism, he alerted capitalists to them. The most enlightened capitalists recognized the validity of Marx's diagnosis and then worked to mitigate the worst aspects of the system. They thereby helped it survive, reforming the system in ways Marx never believed it could be. He scared capitalists into saving capitalism.
That's the role I see Lanier playing. He sees his fellow technologists pursuing what will eventually be a self-destructive path, and is warning them (and the rest of us) of the pitfalls that lie ahead, ones that are for the moment obscured by the hype, the messianic vision, and especially the short-term profits.
Marx was misled by his economic determinism. Lanier, by contrast, applies a humanistic belief in our agency as individuals and groups in society, and believes we can choose a different path. That puts him in the category of enlightened reformer.
What is a "levee," in political terms?
MB: I find this to be one of Lanier's more useful ideas. To doctrinaire free-market ideologues, these "levees" (such as labor unions) are unjustifiable and artificial impediments that distort the market and reduce its efficiency. Lanier understands that an apparent short-run inefficiency can in fact produce greater long-term efficiencies. That has been the underlying premise of the regulatory checks on capitalism that have emerged over the last 150 or so years.
You said during one of our conversations that Lanier's solutions are less important than his critique, his analysis of what is wrong. What do you think of his stated hope that some real smart, real powerful people can sit around a table and reverse the course that commerce is now on?
MB: My understanding of American political history tells me that it will never be that simple. Unfortunately, our political system seems to need periodic shocks to produce substantive change. It took the depression of the 1890s to give rise to the Progressive movement; it took the Great Depression to give rise to the New Deal. Ironically, the 2008 financial crisis may have been prevented from providing such a shock, because government intervention saved the economy from the worst potential consequences of the economic meltdown.
The current kerfuffle over the NSA surveillance has, I suspect, alerted many people for the first time to how pervasive big data is, but it is an open question whether the unease many of us feel over that will bleed over into concern for the big data collected by private concerns.
Does Lanier lend you any new arguments in your crusade against popular infatuation with MOOCs?
MB: It certainly gave me a new way of understanding the driving force behind the MOOC movement. I had previously viewed MOOCs primarily from my perspective as a professor and educator, and bemoaned what I saw as the inevitable decline in education quality if MOOCs were to become widely used and accepted for academic credit in higher education.
What Lanier helped me see is the way the MOOC model fits the larger paradigm of the information economy: a business gains attention with the promise of providing an ostensibly "free" product to the public, while trying to monetize the data collected by their servers from those who avail themselves of the "free" product.
Quite coincidentally, you introduced me to Lanier's book just as I received from a colleague a link to the contract between the University of Michigan and Coursera. One of the ways in which the company foresees monetizing its MOOCs is to sell information about student performance to prospective employers. It had not occurred to me that a MOOC would also serve as a way of accumulating data on students which could then be converted into profit.
As with the trade-offs Lanier describes in his discussion of Facebook, the initial appeal is obvious: the student is offered "free" help with job placement, but at the price of ceding privacy about course performance. Imagine if a college or university offered to sell a prospective employer the right to not only see a student's grade in a particular course, but all the tests and papers submitted!
Will you still use Facebook after reading this book?
MB: Probably, in part because of the power of its "too big to quit" status. But Lanier has certainly made me more conscious of the trade-offs involved in continuing to use it, and I suspect I will approach it with a somewhat different mindset in the future.