To virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, nothing less than our culture and highest moral values are at stake thanks to the World Wide Web and certain destructive online behavior it facilitates. As evidence, he points out that during the 17 years since the Web took off, those who live off their brains—most writers, illustrators and musicians, for example—have experienced a worsening economic situation. In Lanier's view, content originators are only the first to feel the pain—their plight eventually will afflict everyone in the middle class, hampering their ability to earn money.
"Since more livelihoods should depend on brainpower as technology gets better, the direction we're going in is universal impoverishment," he tells Scientific American.
The disenchanted Lanier presents his views on Web-induced intellectual poverty, weighs in on whether information on the Web should be free (it shouldn't, he thinks), identifies several more areas of the Web that he believes are deficient, and explores what it means to be a person in the digital age in his new book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Knopf, 2010). He is hardly a Luddite and is renowned for creating innovative interfaces, including head-mounted displays that extended virtual reality's use in medicine, physics and neuroscience. Lanier is still a big fan of the Internet; it is the way Web technology is designed and being used that dismays him.
Lanier claims ideology and the Web's design—user interfaces and logins for example—marginalize individuals as "sources of fragments to be exploited by others." Of particular concern is "hive thinking," whereby personal expression counts for little and the creative process is harmed. Instead, he wrote, the hive mind esteems networked technologies and holds information stored in those networks—often referred to as "the cloud"—in higher regard than the people who create the information. Lanier worries that valuing the aggregate more than individuals will "leach" people of empathy and humanity.
Lanier, who is also a musician, is, for example, highly critical of "mashups," montages of borrowed bits of works by musicians, artists and journalists. Mashers (the people who create mashups) ultimately do broad damage because they rarely understand the originators' intents, according to Lanier; meanwhile artists can barely survive because they get no residuals for their work. In this way little original material is created and, consequently, our culture stagnates, Lanier wrote. "We can make culture and journalism into second-rate activities and spend centuries remixing the detritus of the 1960s and other eras from before individual creativity went out of fashion," he wrote, "or we can believe in ourselves."
"Information wants to be free," the unofficial motto of the free content movement, anthropomorphizes data and leads people to believe the cloud is an intelligent, evolving life-form, even a "superhuman creature," Lanier argued in his book. He characterizes "the Singularity"—a hypothesis posed by futurist and author Ray Kurzweil and others that technology will advance to the point that humans and machines essentially become one—as a new religion, and objects to its position that people will become immortal by uploading their thoughts and memories into a computer. He claims that the Singularity's adherents and "cybernetic totalists," who mistakenly apply computer science metaphors to people and reality, have lowered their standards for what counts as intelligence. When Lanier wrote that "information doesn't deserve to be free," he was emphasizing his counterclaim that information is not something to which human traits such as wants and needs should be attributed.
A staunch defender of the Singularity, Kurzweil insists that he is not underestimating the brain's capabilities, but rather that Lanier underestimates the amount of progress technology has enabled and will enable people to make. Kurzweil is satisfied that open-source and proprietary information will continue to coexist. And he contends that the open commons allows owners of information and intellectual property to license their contributions in different ways, and that people are free to develop their own pricing methods for the content they produce.