Jaron Lanier’s Manifesto: Calculating the Cost of Free

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I say that information doesn’t deserve to be free.  – Jaron Lanier

Google’s lofty mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”  And I, for one, am thankful that some entity is attempting to create order out of the chaos that is the Internet.  The efficiency at which they establish order is not only evident in their increasingly intuitive search engine, but also in the variety of services they offer users.

This past week alone, I organized and synced my work/play schedules with Google Calendar. I wrote this column on Google Docs.  I found my way to an Ultimate Frisbee game using Google Maps. And I distracted myself kept up with the latest news and ideas through Google Reader.  Google Translate has been a great resource for transcribing the interviews I conducted with my grandparents because they frequently used Dutch phrases to describe events from their lives.  Additionally, all of my correspondence is conducted using Gmail, including phone calls and video “hangouts” with my family in Canada.  And the best part is that I can use all of these services without paying Google a penny.

But there is a cost.  According to Jaron Lanier, every “free” service comes with a cost, which is why in 2011 he wrote his manifesto.

The Cost of “Free” 

Who is Jaron Lanier?  In the 1980s Lanier helped pioneer virtual reality technology and usher in a future of computer-generated experience.  Now, three decades later, he is a vocal critic of the digital culture he refers to as “techno-utopianism.”  In his book, You are not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Lanier characterizes techno-utopians as those who blindly embrace an orthodoxy of openness, or free access to information, without calculating the cost.  And the cost, he believes, is the transformation of reality, including humanity, into “one big information system.”

In his manifesto, Lanier describes Google as a spy agency because he argues it baits users with free services (e.g. Google Calendar, Gmail, etc..) in order to extract personal data and generate enormous profits.  By using these free Google services, he points out, we give the company large quantities of data on our personal appointments, private correspondence, work spreadsheets, online reading habits, and even our specific location on the globe.  In this respect, social networks such as MySpace, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook are no different.  They offer users a free platform to network and, in turn, gain access to resumes, photos and videos we upload, the articles we read, and the games we play.

Lanier calls our attention to the reality that we generate a large and complex data set just by using free Internet services.  This information is known to the IT world as Big Data.  To get a sense of the “Bigness” of this data set, consider that in 2012 there were 2.5 quintillion (2.5 x 1018) bytes of data collected every day.  Developing the tools to store, analyze, organize, and visualize Big Data is (arguably) the key to assessing patterns in consumer behaviour and enjoying a profitable future.

What troubles Lanier, however, is who profits from Big Data.  Last year 96% of Google’s revenue came from advertising.  Companies pay Google to place ads under specific search terms and pays Google for every click the sight gets.  It is a win-win situation.  A company might only pay pennies for multiple views of its advertisements, but since Google Search draws in roughly 320 million inquiries daily, the company accumulates capital steadily.[1]

Since wealth is concentrated into the hands of very few Internet behemoths, Lanier believes the Internet is nothing more than a digital feudal enterprise.  Now, the “lords and nobles of the Internet” control vast empires of digital real estate and dole out free portions to us, the peasants.  Their interest is that we provide for them a large database of information to shell out to corporations.  For Lanier, this world of Big Data is a world where humanity is reduced into “transient fragments” of information to be exploited.  And ultimately, this is the cost of free.

Another Look at Digital Identity

Lanier’s manifesto raises (again) the issue of our digital identity.  In the last issue, I pointed out that online social networks, such as Facebook, encourage narcissistic behavior because members are free to control which people they connect with and they are free to determine how they appear to these connections. This “fixation with ourselves” can be unhealthy when it gradually warps our understanding of actively engaged connection to others and diminishes our capacity for authentic community.  Lanier takes this a step further by pointing out how our online identity is unhealthy when we try to “share ourselves” without “knowing ourselves.”

That is, we start to embody the ethos of “openness” and “accessibility” by sharing information as fast, or even faster, than we process it.   What does this look like?  This might involve tweeting a quote from a speaker before her talk is over and you have given yourself ample time to process the quote within the greater context of the talk.  It could mean posting an article online before reaching the conclusion. Or it can be watching fireworks through the screen of your phone because you want to share the moment with others and experience it later.  And I’ll be the first to admit that I have done all three of these things!  The problem is that in each of these scenarios we allow ourselves to become hollow vessels for streaming information from one source to another, rather than vessels who critically process the information.

Lanier does conclude the manifesto with this gloomy diagnosis.  He considers a number of possible cures, or ways that we can exercise our personality online without reducing ourselves into “fragments to be exploited by others.”  For instance, we can (and I quote Lanier here):

  1. Create your own website that expresses something about who you are that wont fit into the template available to you on a social networking site.
  2. Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view.
  3. Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out.
  4. 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.

I think this is a great start.  I would recommend reading all of Lanier’s manifesto because it thoughtfully challenges the political and economical shifts brought forward in the Internet age, and is an insightful counter-perspective to the orthodoxy of our digital age.

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CR Article 3: Issue 9
February 27, 2013

[1] Since Facebook went public it needs to find similar methods of tapping into the marketing potential of its user database.  Yet sharing private information with public corporations remains contentious, and Lanier correctly concludes, “The only hope for social networking sites from a business point of view is for a magic formula to appear in which some method of violating privacy and dignity becomes acceptable.”

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