Jaron Lanier: 'Web 2.0 is utterly pathetic'

He pioneered virtual reality and is a leading light in digital culture. So why does Jaron Lanier believe that the internet is killing creativity? Clint Witchalls meets him

Jaron Lanier's book, You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto, has ruffled feathers in the US. The book takes a swipe at Web 2.0, accusing it of destroying individuality, destroying creativity and destroying middle-class professions. On the cover of the book are these portentous words:

"It's early in the twenty-first century, and that means that these words will mostly be read by nonpersons-automatons or numb mobs composed of people who are no longer acting as individuals. The words will be minced into atomised search-engine keywords within industrial cloud computing facilities located in remote, often secret locations around the world. The vast fanning out of the fates of these words will take place almost entirely in the lifeless world of pure information. Real human eyes will read these words in only a tiny minority of cases."

These are the sort of words you'd expect from a Luddite, not from the man who pioneered the development of virtual reality and continues to work at the bleeding edge of technology. But then Lanier is an oxymoron personified. He is a hippy, but he agrees with Rupert Murdoch that content should be paid for. He is one of the world's leading intellectuals – according to Prospect magazine's Top 100 Public Intellectuals Poll – yet he never managed to complete a university degree. He bashes big software firms, yet he provides consultancy services to them.

On the morning of my interview with Lanier, I enter the One Aldwych hotel lobby with some trepidation. The photograph on the dust jacket of his book shows a brooding man with a lion's mane of dreadlocks and a piercing stare. I'm quite unprepared for the animated, friendly person I meet. I'm instantly reminded of Professor Denzil Dexter, the hair-flicking Californian scientist from the Fast Show.

Lanier starts by ribbing me about journalists who automatically reach for Wikipedia as a first port of call. He wishes he could train journalists to be more sceptical.

I change the subject to Lanier's landmark birthday. "It's my 50th in May?" Lanier says. "Wow! I guess so."

"At least, that's what Wikipedia says," I add.

"In that case, I'm going to change my birthday."

In person, Lanier is a playful, upbeat person. It's hard to square this with the doom and gloom manifesto he has just published, even if Lanier insists that it is, overall, an optimistic book.

"Isn't Web 2.0 just a bit of harmless fun?" I ask.

Lanier looks bemused. He wants to know if I've read the book.

My question is only half in jest. Sometimes it's hard to get through the fog of Lanier's mystical denouncements of Web 2.0. About Wikipedia, he tells me: "It takes away from what it has given, so the usefulness and uselessness are interwoven." You're left to figure out the riddle for yourself.

I would agree that a lot of Web 2.0 is tedious piffle, but is it really a catalyst for the apocalypse?

"Web 2.0 ideas have a chirpy, cheerful rhetoric to them," says Lanier, "but I think they consistently express a profound pessimism about humans, human nature and the human future. Embedded in the Web 2.0 idea is a pessimism that people really could live off their brains. That's why it's OK for people to give their stuff away free because so few would have anything to offer that they'd have to have some other way to support themselves."

Lanier doesn't like the passivity of human nature that's implied by Web 2.0 – that people are mere receptacles for advertising. He is especially scornful of Facebook: "Lenin said, 'Property is theft.' [It was actually Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.] Facebook says, 'Privacy is theft,' because they're selling your lack of privacy to the advertisers who might show up one day."

There is an assumption that kids "get" Facebook and adults don't. But Lanier believes it's the opposite. Adults get it. Kids don't.

"If you're old enough to have a job and to have a life, you use Facebook exactly as advertised, you look up old friends," says Lanier. "I don't think you're doing anything wrong. If you're 17 you're caught up in reputation maintenance in a way that's really unhealthy. You have to constantly be on guard. It's like you're running for office. The degree to which you have to be on guard is so total and so clinically precise that you're not given any off-time to try another persona."

In order to create a persona, people need to be able to forget, but nothing is forgotten online. There is no space for young people to invent a new persona and try it out.

Lanier looks back fondly on the early days of the internet, when anything and everything seemed possible, not only in terms of the variety of technologies and architectures being explored, but also in terms of the variety of business models that were being discussed and tried out. It was a time of pioneers, mavericks and dodgy html. So where did all of the enthusiasm and idealism go?

Lanier writes: "Let's suppose that back in the 1980s I had said, 'In a quarter century, when the digital revolution has made great progress and computer chips are millions of times faster than they are now, humanity will finally win the prize of being able to write a new encyclopaedia and a new version of UNIX!' It would have sounded utterly pathetic."

Today, the web is a fairly bland place. It's all user-generated content – silly clips on YouTube, spiteful anonymous comments on blogs, endless photographs of people down the pub with their mates or up a mountain with an ironing board.

Despite the myth of the internet being a launch pad for aspiring musicians and journalists, it is actually killing music and killing newspapers. A couple of weeks ago, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) warned that countries like Spain could become cultural deserts because of rampant online file-sharing. Sales by Spain's local artists have fallen by an estimated 65 per cent between 2004 and 2009.

"Musicians and journalists are the canaries in the coalmine," says Lanier, "but, eventually, as computers get more and more powerful, it will kill off all middle-class professions."

Speaking at an earnings call last week, Rupert Murdoch said that e-readers and tablet computers are "empty vessels" without creative content. Murdoch is going to try and get people to pay for News Corp content, but it's difficult to convince people to pay for something they've been getting free for years. Newsday, a New York-area newspaper, with the 11th-highest circulation in the US, began charging for content in October 2009. According to the New York Times, by 26 January 2010 Newsday had 35 subscribers.

The fact that no one wants to pay for digital content these days is evidenced by the fact that most of the internet's bandwidth is taken up by copies of pirated music, games, films, books and TV shows. Lanier suggests they should go.

"There'd be far less waste and far less carbon spewed by massive data-centres doing nothing but moving illegal files around," he says. "The internet is a huge device and it's being wasted."

And when something new is created on the web, it's often a banal "mashup" of old culture. Lanier likens the people who create these mashups to salvagers picking over a garbage dump. It is only in the old-world economy – the world of books, films and newspapers – that original content is being created. But Web 2.0 is steadily undermining the old-world economy in favour of one based on free content and selling social graphs to advertisers.

Lanier's big question is: will we be able to live off our brains in the future, or will we just have to give our creative works away for free? If we can't live off our brains then we need a form of socialism in order to survive. But Lanier's worst-case scenario is where only the elite get to live off their brains in which case society eventually splits into two species, as in HG Wells's The Time Machine, with its Morlocks and Eloi.

It's a grim vision.

"I've occasionally been wrong about certain things," says Lanier, "which is in a way more delightful than being right." I truly hope that the next decade brings Lanier lots of delight.



You are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier is published by Allen Lane (£20). To order a copy for the special price of £18 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

Heal the world wide web: Lanier's expert advice

* Don't post anonymously unless you really might be in danger.



* If you put effort into Wikipedia articles, put even more effort into using your personal voice and expression outside of the wiki to help attract people who don't yet realise that they are interested in the topics you contributed to.



* Create a website that expresses something about who you are that won't fit into the template available to you on a social networking site.



* Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view.



* Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out.



* If you are Twittering, innovate in order to find a way to describe your internal state instead of trivial external events, to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would define a machine.



Extract printed with permission

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    SQL Developer (TSQL, SSRS, SSAS) Fund Manager - London

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer (TSQL, S...

    Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, Angular.JS)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, An...

    Front-End UI/UX Developer (HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, Ang

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End UI/U...

    Helpdesk Team Leader / Manager

    £45000 per annum + pension,medical: Ashdown Group: A successful & reputable gl...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition