Jaron Lanier Interview

by Jessamyn West

I spoke with Jaron Lanier for an article I was writing for Library Journal. Due to space constraints, I could only use a fraction of the interview. Here is the rest of it. There may be some small transcription errors and I deleted some chatty blabla at the end of it and added some edits to make it readable.

Jaron Lanier has written a book called You Are Not a Gadget which is coming out this month [January 2010]. I enjoyed reading it and talking to Jaron about it. Jaron Lanier's website is here and he has a section for his book.

Jessamyn West (JW): I just have a few questions, it's kind of a shortish article. The editor at library journal likes [your book] because there are a lot of librarians who are really into the web 2.0... "How do we use these technologies to kind of interact with our patrons; be more transparent; more interactive?" and it's kind of gotten to this faddish level...

Jaron Lanier (JL): I would have to say, I don't know if this is in the book or not, but I would call it a Stockholm syndrome kind of a thing.

JW: It was in the book and it made me laugh, actually. I'm very familiar with Stockholm syndrome and how lots of our relationships with technology can seem like it. And so I think the editor there was really interested in the... I don't know if you'd call it contrary position but essentially taking an adversarial position and yet being someone who's into deep into tech not just somebody who's this pooh pooh luddite etc. and someone who knows the people and who's [been in] tech for years as opposed to someone who's "ahhh, I tried facebook once and I didn't like it" kind of thing...

JL: I'm not so sure how much this is made clear in the book, but I'm one of the core people who made up the stuff that I'm not criticizing. So how can I help you?

JW: I just wanted to rattle a couple of questions with you, get a couple of quotes; literally this going to be 1200 words so being brief is totally fine.

JL: Are you recording?

JW: I am recording if it's OK with you.

JL: yes that's my preference.

JW:Yea, yea. I don't want to be typing while I'm talking. I've shut down all the noisy beeps

Just wanted to ask you a few questions get a few answers then we'll talk to the librarians in Library Journal about it and I think they'll enjoy it. I think they'll like your book and I think it has a lot of questions that they'll think are worth answering.

So, moving forward, like I said, I'm a public librarian and I work with a lot of people in the public library world who are sort of dipping their toes into a lot of this Web 2.0 stuff, seeing it as a way to do outreach. A lot of them aren't even sort of full into it unlike a lot of the Bay Area silicon valley tech. people, I was wondering if, in your opinion, it's something that you need to fully understand before you back off from it or if it's sort of OK to "take my word for it facebook isn't the way forward" What would you tell someone asking that question?

JL:Well, I would say that if you're going to engage with this stuff at all, engage with it at a level that's deeper and broader than at the level that's presented to you by the vendor. So, sure, try facebook if you like, but remember that facebook itself is a recent design and a very small idea, in a way, in a long stream of ideas. What I'm much more concerned about is myopia where people try facebook and twitter and believe that that's universe and that that's the internet. And also the ideas that are embedded or implied about personhood, authorship, or communication within those designs is what technology means and that's all wrong. So, what I hope the book accomplishes is broadening those basic ideas so people don't have this myopia. By all means, try theses things, But just remember, they're small. Don't believe that they represent the whole thing to be evaluated or thought about. That's the danger here.

JW: Thanks. We have that sort of problem dealing with our online catalog vendors. I don't know if you're a big, heavy, public library user but the people who make software than run online catalogs -- there are only like three major vendors and their products are "meh." For a lot of librarians they feel like that's just what an online catalog is: it's not very good, it's very difficult to use, your vendors are not very responsive. So, I think that answer will resonate with them; We're familiar with the vendor problem. Just, the vendors are less visible in the web 2.0 ways

JL:Right, feel like the Wizard of Oz hiding behind the curtain.

JW: Exactly. I've used that metaphor. Moving forward. I sort of liked the fact that you weren't afraid to say "Hey, I actually have some ideas about how to make this better. I have solution ideas that I think are useful." Because a lot of people are like "Urrr. I don't know. Just leave it up to the hive and they'll fix it eventually."

One of the things you talked about was the idea of global micropayments. That everyone could receive compensation for their bits and compensate others for their bits. I sort of like the ISP-we-pay-for-bits model that we play as long as we pay or contribute content. Any ideas about how we move more toward that type of idea? It seems more like a sea change but I like the idea and I assume that it's something you thought about.

JL: Well, yea, um. Getting from here to there is always the trickiest thing in any aspect of life and so I didn't go into that in great detail in the book. I can imagine various scenarios. For instance, at some point which is essentially now, China is going to be sick of the idea that we're the designers and they're the manufacturers and they'll start designing on their own, and then, before too long, some American manufacturer will rip off a Chinese designer and the Chinese will be upset about it.

The same sort of thing will happen for a lot of countries and then there might be enough international pressure for some sort of convention on intellectual property because this, what this is about is a social contract, a social contract will come about when enough people perceive self-interest in a system that defers gratification.

The reason we don't just go in and steal from every house or car or sleep in every house we come to even though it may be more convenient than make it home to our own house is that we've all bought into the idea that that bit of deferred gratification overall is better for us and that's what makes a social contract and enough people have to feel that they've been wronged by the system before there can be that perception--that accurate perception--of shared interest in a better system. Back to questions as to "How?" I'm suspecting that it'll be international.I'm suspecting that the United States will be dragged into it by international interests eventually.

JW: Because other people are like "Hey, you don't have the market dominance you used to have and we'd like to level the playing field so that everyone in the world gets to share."?

JL: "We'd still like to receive money from you if you steal our designs" That's one scenario. There are other scenarios. The alternative to this is as the robots get good, as the book describes, something has to happen. The alternatives are less attractive. The question is when and how and it could be a long time, you know. Maybe it's 100 years from now. I don't know. There are all kinds of scenarios that seem viable to me. But eventually something's going to happen

JW: One of the things I think about often in public library world is some people may live their entire lives before we get to whatever that utopia is at the end of the rainbow and so we have to make sure we're laying the groundwork so people have decent lives now in addition to preparing for whatever this future thing is.

JL: I think that's such a good point, The original version of book had the John Lennon quote in it "Life is what happens while you're making other plans." The notion that if we wait long enough writers will make a living in some untold way. Just wait, just wait, just wait. The problem is, we're human and we're not machines with immortality, even if we want to pretend we are. The only possible benefit we can hope to achieve is a transient temporary one. That's the only good that we have an ability to address. So I really agree with your point.

JW: I was really interested in what you were talking about in the chapter where you had a "show me the data" approach to people making money from the internet. There's the famous Kevin Kelly quote where "All you need is 1000 fans and $100 each, blah, blah, blah" which I've always looked at with the same raised eyebrow which you seem to do. Are people really doing this? I'm not talking about Jonathan Coulton and I'm not talking about Ze Frank.

Are there really thousands of people who can benefit from this sort of culture or are there really more like six? And I like that, of course you looked at musicians because you're a musician. I was sort of curious I see a lot of people kind of doing micropayment writing again for these sort of content aggregators who basically exist in order to sell places for advertising to appear next to. And I was wondering because this is sort of a reading/writing audience in Library Journal if people looking at text which is in a much more malleable and much more spreadable environment; musicians maybe could do it but if maybe writers, could?

JL: Well, I haven't done the same exercise for writers that I did for musicians, but I can tell you my impression because I was also in the net world the world of music and to give you an idea of how in the center I am, [Wired's] Chris Anderson, who's the principal promoter of this is also my neighbor. I see him every morning. So I'm not distanced from this world. Here's what I believe to be the case, but I haven't done the same level of investigation that I did for musicians.

If you want to know how many people are making a living by giving away things on the internet then making it up in lectures, there's an easy way to gauge this, because the people who hire lecturers are lecture agencies: I've never met anyone who earned a substantial living from lecturing who didn't have a lecture agent. So all you have to do is go to the major lecture agency within town and look up the number of clients who are doing this. I've done this casually, and I think the answer is under 100, probably under 50. Maybe between 50 and 100. So there are people who are doing it, and of those, I'd have to say the vast majority have day jobs.

So, Chris Anderson has done pretty well on the lecture circuit but he also has other gigs with Conde Nast and Wired, so he doesn't have to rely on it, which is a huge thing. Being able to make money is one thing. Being able to make reliable money is how you can have children. They're totally, totally different things. So, I don't think he would quit his wired job. So, if we subtract the people with day jobs, I think we end up with something similar to what's going on with musicians.

I should say, there's one exception, which is in the technology world specifically, there's a set of web sites mostly based in silicon valley but a few in New York, such as Gizmodo and techcrunch [JW: the Gawker media empire]. That sort of world does pay people to write. And so there is a little bit of paid writing going on. Not a lot. Once again, I think we're talking about dozens, not hundreds. Maybe hundreds. So, it's this very small community, but they're very vocal and very influential. And that's sort of like a little micro version of traditional publishing. And so that's online but it's very specialized world in a geek way and I think would be very hard to replicate elsewhere.

JW: It's my understanding that it's based very much on eyeballs, too. That you have to have this sort of edgy, eyeball-attracting writing in order to keep your numbers up in order to sort of stay within that so it caters to a very specific sort of writer at the same time.

JL: To a degree. I think a lot of it is essentially an extended paid P.R. thing. There are certain sorts of magazines that are enthusiasts' magazines and those in another area that are almost entirely vendor-supported and don't really have a journalistic identity [JW: Like MacWorld or something like that. More trade-ish publications] Yea. Or maybe some car magazines. There might be one article about driving safety or a new engine almost all of it is advertisements and there's nothing wrong with that.

I'm an enthusiast for the music magazines. I like instruments. So I'm not criticizing that but I'm saying in the digital world, there's a mini version of that. There's nothing wrong with that, but it just doesn't scale. I think that the situation for writers is not quite as bleak as the situation for musicians but it's in the same zone. It's got the same prospects. The situation isn't different enough to be a difference in kind. [JW: and it still doesn't support a whole bunch more people, say, for example].

I should mention, I blogged, for awhile, for Arianna Huffington's Huffington post and I was very successful by the standards of that world. I was always on the front page and I was always one of the most popular bloggers with the most comments and the most page views and I was frequently syndicated blah blah blah, and I did it for awhile and I know how to do that I'm not speaking about this theoretically and you have to beat the damn thing with a stick every single day.

It's like being in a soap opera. You have to engage the readers in a constant melodrama that changes every day. Like Talk Radio or Talk TV you have to just engage people constantly. My own experience as a writer is that I felt degraded by it, I won't speak for my readers, but I felt that I became a lesser writer, crankier and less careful as a thinker and I have done it and I could do it and I'm sure I could have used that to get lecture gigs. I dropped it. I didn't pursue a full career in that way. I but I have no reason to believe that I would have been able to do it like a few other people [have].

JW: Yes, to of all the things you write about in your book, you're like "Look, I've done this. I've been there. And I use an iPhone. Y'know, and I'm on the web and I interact with people online in a music forum and I take advantage but I'm not, uh, closed-eyed to the problems that are inherent in exactly the same stuff. Nobody lives on a mountain-top."

JL: It's very important to me that people realize that I'm pro-technology in any general sense. I mean, I think I'm pro-internet. I always look forward to being summarized by internet critics, which couldn't be farther from the truth. Web 2.0 critic, perhaps.

JW: Because we're librarians, one of the things we're interested in is technology and books. You're reading this on a piece of paper even though this is sort of an outmoded way of getting information across. And some of the other stuff you've written, I've read online. I read Digital Maoism. I got to read through edit wars on Wikipedia which was actually kind of interesting. And I was just curious as far as the print-adoring public goes ...

JL: [interrupting]. OK. When you say that, are you saying that ... did I write something called edit wars or [JW: No, I read the edit wars on Wikipedia. Like the comments made on your own articles and how the community responded to it and you referred to it and I was just curious what the ...] You know. I haven't really. I am. I actually just stopped reading anything I've written myself on Wikipedia years ago.

JW: I think a lot of people do that.[JL: So, you were saying ...] For people who are still at least really into the notion of print, the fact that we actually read words on pages we ... from your sort of "in tech but also tech critique" perspective, what do you think is coming down the road for publishing generally speaking the idea of words on a page and how can people who are information managers in a library environment help? Either help influence public opinion or help content creators who are writing either for print or online? What advice would you give to those people?

JL: If I were a librarian now, I would attempt to conceive of the library from an experiential point of view. I would say: "What is the experience that is missing from the Agora?" out there? From the private home? What is the experience that's missing? That we need in order to be human? [laughs]. In order to think, in order to consider. My own take on that would be that information availability in some sort of raw form is not a problem anymore. Because of the internet. It is for some people, as you know, not everyone has internet access or equal internet access.[JW: Sure, in central VT, the library brings the internet to a lot of people because many people don't have it where they live but generally speaking.] Acknowledging all of that and just speaking in a very crude way that ignores reality for a moment [JW: I'm the digital divide commentator, you're the sort of futurist commentator]

So let's ignore the digital divide for a moment and assume we're on the digital side. If somebody has broadband at home and all that, if they're affluent it, doesn't mean the have all they need right now. They're still, in many cases, lacking the time and space to think in their lives. And I think gradually, the libraries will take on the role in civilization of providing that space. I don't think the home will [do that] anymore. [JW:: Thinking space where people can get to know themselves and get their ideas cogently arranged or what have you] So the cliche of the librarian going "Shhhhhhhhh"

JW: Oh, are we tired of that!

JL: I'm sure you are, but in a way, that is going to become something that is so desperately desired that I have a feeling there'll be a new life for the library to provide the thinking space for civilization. For instance, my book, you might not know this, but I at one point had the most overdue book contract in New York publishing [JW: I read that in the New York Times actually]. OK yea, so it's over 20 years, or something. And the reason is I have such a crazy, busy life and I have so many things going on.

I was actually in London some years, not that long ago and a friend of mine, who's a writer, said "the only way you're going to write a book is in a library" and sat me down in the wonderful, big library, The British Library. It has an amazing incunabula collection suspended in this glass cube inside the foyer and you can see scholars wandering around inside the stacks. I sat down in that place and actually had the quietude to actually sit down and write a book. So this book wouldn't exist without a library.

Even though I have extraordinary resources because I am sort of an elite person within this world of ours because I have better internet access than most people. God, we must have 10,000 or 15,000 books in our house. We have one room that's become basically a mountain of books. It's become impassable. So we have no lack of access to material and yet I didn't have access to my own head until I went to the library.

To me there's clearly something missing in the formula that we're developing for civilization. There's something missing and I think that the library will naturally come to fill that gap. And making the library into some sort of alternate facebook access point is exactly the wrong way to achieve that.

JW: The thing that I'm really interested in that you were talking about in your book is the omnipresent idea of the singularity in terms of all the futurists being like "we're all going to come together ...˜til there's this giant noossphere brain that's going to unite all of us and we're all going to contribute to it and accede to its every whim because it's smarter than us etc." I've always sort of felt in terms of the singularity because I've heard local people around here talking about it because they've read about it in a magazine sort of thing that the thing that keeps that away, the thing that keeps that from happening is almost sort of a market force situation because companies are so busy fighting with each other that they can't get together to agree on standards that would allow us to have one type of computer that the giant brain would live inside? Do you know what I mean? I'm familiar with the cloud idea but you know what I mean I always feel like coke and Pepsi are not going to allow there to be like a Coke/Pepsi soda that everybody... I mean I'm over generalizing but I often feel that the market protects us from that, not that I'm any big fan of the market.

But it seems like one of the things you're talking about is that our relationship to the market has to change in order for us to not be passive receptors of advertising and not to have them be taking all the money to no end and I was just wondering if you thought that changing our relationship to the market actually changes our relation to the ...˜choose your own adventure' model of the singularity that people talk about now. It's sort of a wonky question, but I'm literally curious what you think about it because that's what I was thinking about.

JL: The very first thing that has to be said is that the whole singularity thing isn't real, so there's nothing to be saved from. It's a fantasy on the same order of Marxist utopia or the Day Zero in Cambodia [JW: that it's a convenient construction for exploiting things, but ...] It's a fantasy. There's nothing to be protected from. It's stupid. The only thing we need to be protected from is our propensity to join into stupid fantasies with each other than can be destructive. So there's sort of a Marxist or fascist danger, but not a technological one. Your point is an interesting one. I do tend to agree with you that there is something desirable about having a degree of fragmentation. At the moment, the main threat to losing that would be Google, but as time goes on there'll always be somebody because that's how things go in the digital world. There'll be somebody who's on the verge of some monopoly of something.

JW: But you don't feel necessarily that... I mean some people look at Google and say "what could be bigger and better than Google? And by the same token, we said the same thing about Friendster and we said the same thing about Alta Vista 8 years ago and I think some people don't understand the technical arena. They just sort of look at whatever's big and think there could not be anything bigger than that and it's almost a question of empire...

JL:Oh, there'll be something much bigger than Google. As soon as digital stuff starts to reach into health care and biology there'll be something massively bigger than Google

JW: Because there'll have to be ...˜cause Google's a private company, y'think?

JL: No, because they'll be a new niche? Google might win aspects of that. 23 and Me is Google's genome-aligned company. They were able to knock out their major European competitor for their personal niche, which is personal genome mapping. But their business plan is to get everybody's information and use it to route presumably pharmaceutical advertisements or referrals and that sort of thing. That would be something bigger than Google presently. Whether they'll be the particular entity that wins it, I don't know.

JW: ...and people would contribute because they would want their personal information and wouldn't much care about the aggregate, but it would be very valuable to the marketers and advertisers.

JL: I don't know. No, no. You're not being nearly dark enough here. The reason people would do it is just out of habit. This movement established, this idea of so-called sharing is the civil thing to do [JW:and normal, normal. That normal people share]. When in fact, it isn't. I mean, it might be normal now, but it isn't beneficial to the person. It's people entering into a bargain that's actually bad for them because they're deceived. To be fair all this has happened so quickly the people doing the deceiving sort of didn't know what they were doing at the start and maybe fully still don't and once again, I'm not a distant observer, I see Sergei and Larry who started Google and Eric who's running Google now fairly often so I know I'm going to have to face them and it's a little bit of an odd thing for me, but I want to describe the degree of barbarity without [JW: without there being Barbarians in your story] having the sense that they are particular villains. It's really something that happened very quickly. It's confusing. People continue to make mistakes. I certainly did

JW: And that's always been sort of the Chomskian bit about Empire anyhow. These aren't people making bad decisions, these are a people making a lot of self-serving decisions that turns into something that has this negative effect down the line for the world, but it's not that anyone person said "I think I'll screw over another country today." They just made decisions that made sense within their tiny niche and they repurcussed down the line to have these negative long-term consequences

JL: Although it's interesting you bring up Chomsky because that actually sounds another cautionary note for me that is very important to avoid falling into a paranoid style which Chomsky unfortunately does too often. I hope the tone I've achieved in the book avoids that.

JW: I think it does. I saw him speak recently on Gaza and Israel and obviously he's sort of involved and really cares about it and yet at the same time he's another one of those people who's out there on the fringe. It's good that he exists, so that other people can be more centrist in contrast to him, and it's not that I don't sort of agree with him but he's a very hard

I mean one of the things that I thought was at the center of your book was: look, people do these things because they care about each other and want to connect with each other. And you had a big thing towards the end about this is how people show they love each other. My favorite quote from it is how "love shows itself through the constraints of civilization because humans are imperfect but we agree to get along so as a result we do these things because we care about each other." And that's the message that I took, not "GRAR! The corporations! Whatever!"

JL: OK, well, that's good. I hope that that's the case for other readers, too. This was a hard book for me to write because there are so many ways for the message to be taken wrong. It's complicated. It's got a lot of moving parts. So I hope it works.

JW: You gave people a lot of stuff to think about. You gave people a lot of jumping-off points to go find out more about particular topics. It's the first book I've read in a long time that I've actually written in. Y'know star "Look this up. Who's that guy? Blah Blah Blah" which I always think is a good sign.

But for librarians: "what about books, what about the library, what about privacy, what about freedom of information?" and I feel it'll be a useful book for them. So, wrapping up, the only other thing I just wanted to pass on. This sounds really stupid, but I really like that you used the female pronoun for your occasional random-this or random-that person. You'd say "the scientist, she does this. The musician, she does this." I'm amazed how few people do that and it was refreshing.

JL: I don't know any other solution for this than to go randomly back and forth. That's the only choice English gives us.

JW: That's the way I feel too but it's surprising how few people do this. So I'll hack this down into a very few words. I really appreciate you for taking the time; I know you've been busy.

JL:Can I thank you for something? I won't mention names, but a lot of the people calling from major-name publications have not read the book. In fact, I think the majority have not read it when they call me. It's so frustrating. So I really appreciate your reading it.

JW: Yea, I read it cover to cover it's the first book I finished this year. I'm glad to have gotten it, frankly. So I think it's win-win-win.