Another second chance at an author review - this time two authors. I had already covered Jaron Lanier's I Am Not A Gadget I'd reviewed for Scotsman, and Morozov's The Net Delusion for the Independent.
As a mild Net enthusiast - for deep reasons, see here - I enjoy reading Net sceptics, as a useful corrective against boosterism and woods-not-seeing. But what's great about both these new books is that they are essentially political economies of the net - something an Enlightenment Scot recognises...
Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier
To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov
Reviewed by Pat Kane
The Independent, Friday 15 March 2013 (unedited version below, Independent version here)
For both of these writers, manifesting their manifestos in splendid chunks of wood-pulp and ink, the days of digital enchantment are over. Critical friends like Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier - the first a political scientist, the second a hardcore digeratus - provide a service to all network idealists. Caught up in our hypnotic loops of design and interaction, they remind us that “the internet” (a total concept that Morozov rejects in any case) is a particular construct of power, money and technical decisions, rather than some state of cybernature.
In particular, Who Owns The Future is an undeniably impressive feat of rhetoric, argument and bully-pulpitry - what Lanier himself calls “speculative advocacy” - on behalf of the middle-classes of the 21st century.
Applying information to automation creates a giant, implacable flow of efficiency, of doing more for less. What’s valuable about Lanier’s book is that, in the course of trying to make the torrent manageable, he provides a tour d’horizon of what we’ll have to cope with in the near future - beyond the usual candidates of the music business and media blown away by the free web, or financial services dissolving economies in an ecstasy of computation.
White van men (and their entire industry) will be destroyed by driverless cars; whole production and distribution systems will be unravelled by 3-D printing of objects in local communities. Surgeons and nurses, lawyers and teachers - all manner of professions - will feed their tacit skills into ever more adept robots and expert systems.
As someone who founded one of the more destabilizing fields of net hi-tech, Virtual Reality, in the 90s, and who is currently grinding the software cogs at Microsoft Research, Lanier could never be cranky about future-tech. Yet he does invoke the more sophisticated cry of the original 18th-century Luddites, when they objected to machinery only when they judged not to “benefit the commonality”.
The commonality that Lanier wants to erect defenses for are what he calls, with a particular American resonance, the “middle-classes” (a term which, translated into UK terms, seems to include hard-working aspirers as well as Waitrose-bothering professionals - Miliband’s “squeezed middle” comes close).
These middle-classes have been constituted by what he calls “levees”: barriers and structures that diffuse and defuse the firestorm of capital and technology, and make it into a livable landscape - whether those barriers be unions, welfare states, academic tenure, copyright. In the face of what, taken in the round, seems like a epochal leap to a different level of productivity, Lanier wants new levees to be constructed - but ones that are “graceful and ordinary...strengthened, not weakened, as more and more people embrace them”.
His solution, simply put, is to turn the open, endless copying-machine commons of the web into a pay-per-click (and get-paid-per-someone-else’s-click) phenomenon - a marketplace with a near-neuronal density and ubiquity of financial transactions. In what Lanier regards as a perversion of the original ideals of network pioneers like Ted Nelson, he believes we currently cavort in a false free-for-all of content and interactivity.
This bounty is provided by giant companies like Facebook and Google, who make huge profits out of what he calls “spying operations” - devising ever-more seductive interfaces to encourage our garrulous, sociable and sharing natures, and selling the patterns of that behaviour to advertisers. In To Save Everything, Click Here, Morozov usefully places this within a wider and broader history of what he calls “solutionism” - the engineer-driven idea that most phenomena (including the sheer quiddity of human behaviour) can be quantified and data-crunched.
Lanier has impish science-fictional fun extending the implications what he calls these “Siren Servers” into coming waves of technoculture. Would we want to be surrounded by a world of smart objects we get free or cheap access to - a Google Reality - as long as allow them to transmit data about our activities to their databanks? Morozov equally imagines all kinds of control-society horrors: how about medical-care discounts brought about by your real-time healthy-living data - or conversely, penalties for bingeing on cream-cakes?
Lanier wants us to realize that behind every abstract unit of information stands a real human being, either ultimately generating it or affected by it. As we perch on the brink of a vast new wave of info-powered automation, it’s urgent for him that we humanize the process by putting ourselves, as identifiable economic actors, back into the process.
Yet Lanier falters when specifying the exact structures and protocols that would shift us from an “internet” to what could be called an “econonet” (or maybe just a “moneynet”). At times it does seem like a contractual nightmare - in which he admits that accountants would become superstars, and lawyers (or robo-laywers) could crawl over every potential infraction of a nanopayment.
Lanier’s explicit identification of his system with a bourgeois interest is also useful - as an alternative Marxist explanation is easily to hand. The forces of production are about to take another enormous leap forward, while the relations of production are straggling far behind. Perhaps our argument with Siren Servers (and the wild new manufactures and automatons about to connect with them) should be more about whether they are like public utilities in waiting, ready for accountability and transparency as railroads and water systems once were. And if global warming demands a reduction in carbon-generating consumerist frenzy, is this best served by a new planetary network which makes every click an commercial transaction? Will expanding the cash nexus to every clickable corner of our lives help or hinder?
Morozov would recoil at any Marxism - as a Belarusian exile, for good reason - but it is striking that To Save Everything, Click Here is almost silent about the enterprise dimension of the internet. Indeed, as a brand of Luddite, Morozov is much more interested than the techie Lanier in literally sticking a sabot in the cogs. One of his suggestions for cultivated our net disenchantment is something called “adversarial design”, where we let devices into our lives that frustrate our appetite for frictionless info-fun. For example, the Natural Path, a software system that kills off real plants, if you use it too heedlessly.
Somehow, the idea of strapping on the digital equivalent of a cilice doesn’t feel like the best path to enlightenment about our true cybernetic reality. But both Morozov and Lanier are to be generally congratulated for the clarity and brio of their technorealism. It’s a better basis for moving forward with this extraordinary “extension of man”, in McLuhan’s old words, than either technophobia or technophilia.