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

Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Arts and Entertainment
Al Pacino in ‘The Humbling’, as an ageing actor
filmHam among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
News
Fifi Trixibelle Geldof with her mother, Paula Yates, in 1985
people
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
Sport
Mario Balotelli in action during his Liverpool debut
football ...but he can't get on the scoresheet in impressive debut
Environment
Pigeons have been found with traces of cocaine and painkillers in their system
environmentCan species be 'de-extincted'?
Arts and Entertainment
booksExclusive extract from Howard Jacobson’s acclaimed new novel
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
A Pilgrim’s Progress is described by its publisher as “the one-and-only definitive record” of David Hockney's life and works
people
Sport
Loic Remy signs for Chelsea
footballBlues wrap up deal on the eve of the transfer window
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker
TV
Life and Style
Instagram daredevils get thousands of followers
techMeet the daredevil photographers redefining urban exploration with death-defying stunts
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'
TVDaughter says contestant was manipulated 'to boost ratings'
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

    Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Manchester - Computer Futures

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Computer Futures (an SThree br...

    Lead FE Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, jQuery, Knockout)

    £55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead FE Softwa...

    Quality Assurance Engineer (Excellent education, Manual, Automa

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Quality ...

    CRM Developer (MS Dynamics 2011/2013, JavaScript)

    £55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: CRM MS Dynamic...

    Day In a Page

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor