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Tom Hodgkinson: 'Every time we upload a thought or a photo, we give our creativity to the digital overlords'


Why are we so poor? My idea when I was young was that one day I'd turn into a member of the Idle Rich, or the Idle Comfortable at the very least. I would make a living from my own vita contemplativa. But this didn't happen. Instead, I find myself a member of a quite different class, the Busy Poor. I work my butt off writing, teaching, organising events.

Yes, I am one of the lucky ones in that I survive. But I don't really make any money. Dr Johnson wrote that, "No one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." It seems that I have turned into a blockhead. And this week I have discovered why. It's the internet's fault.

This is the conclusion reached by Silicon Valley über-geek Jaron Lanier, the dreadlocked inventor of virtual reality and author of two books, You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future?. Janier's thesis – and I tend to trust him because he very much writes from within the tech industry, having sold start-ups to Google – is that the creative classes have made a big mistake.

Encouraged by the hippyish idea that "information wants to be free", they have been manipulated by giant private companies into giving away their creativity for nothing. Every time we upload a thought to Twitter, an update to Facebook, a film to YouTube, a photo to Flickr, or one of the many other consonant-dropping money-making schemes out there, we devalue ourselves. We give our creativity to the feudal overlords who own the biggest supercomputers. They then sell us to advertisers and buy supercars, yachts and islands. We are the product; the advertisers are the customer.

I did try to point this out in an essay I wrote on Facebook in 2008. Facebook is big business. It is an ad-sales scam. Like the other big tech companies – Lanier calls them Siren Servers because of their seductive powers – they create a system where the user provides information, which is then sold to advertisers. We are the suckers.

Lanier points out that the rise of the Siren Servers, with their fortunes for the very few, has coincided with the gradually increasing poverty of the creative classes: the musicians, photographers, authors and journalists. The only areas where you can still make money are the uncreative professions, which are still ring-fenced by guilds: the law, medicine and the civil service. Parents of teenage offspring tell me that their kids want to be doctors not because they have a burning desire to make people well, but because it is one of the last middle-class professions that actually pays.

The tech sector advertises itself as a great place for young people to get involved in. But how many actually make it? As Lanier correctly points out, only a tiny but well-publicised fraction of YouTubers will ever make a living out of uploading their clips. It is the same with that other false holy grail, the app. The myth of a teenager working in his or her bedroom and making a million is precisely that: a myth. The one or two who make it are the exceptions.

So who then actually makes money from blogs? Only the aggregators, the lords of the digital manor, who coin it in while selling a dream of self-sufficiency to vain fools. We are digital serfs, doffing our caps and handing over a tithe on all we create, or paying a fee to use the mill.

The new landlords of cyberspace, like the landlords of old, are profoundly uncreative. They just own stuff. Their own companies are completely bland and free of character. They take no risk. They are the boring middlemen. Hedge funds have worked out a similar strategy: a kind of cold, amoral approach that buys and sells at the right moment without any interest in the thing that is being produced.

The internet promised freedom and self-determination. It has delivered a new super-rich elite and an impoverished middle class. It is no coincidence, says Lanier, that the tech giants have thrived precisely as the global economy has tumbled into recession. We need to fight back. We need to create a new yeomanry.

You don't have to sell your soul. But if you do, at least demand a good price.

Tom Hodgkinson is editor of 'The Idler'