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Digital technology networks like Facebook, Twitter and Google are estimated to be worth billions of dollars. Yet these ventures employ vastly fewer people than the big companies of the past. Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist who helped create Silicon Valley start-ups that are now part of these companies. But he argues these digital networks enrich relatively few people and do not enlarge the overall economy. In his new book, “Who Owns the Future?,” Lanier lays out his vision for how the middle class could benefit more from the new information economy.
- Jaron Lanier Computer scientist, author and musician.
Read An Excerpt
From “Who Owns The Future?” by Jaron Lanier. Copyright © 2013 by Jaron Lanier. Excerpted with permission of Simon & Schuster, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist and musician. He's often described as visionary for his work in the field of virtual reality. He helped create Silicon Valley start-ups that are now parts of Google and Adobe. Time magazine listed him as one of the most influential people in the world. He now works on special projects for Microsoft Research. But Lanier is also a critic of the ways digital technology is transforming our culture and the economy.
MS. DIANE REHMLanier's new book is titled "Who Owns The Future?" He joins me here in the studio. You're always welcome to be part of the program. Give us a call 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, Jaron.
MR. JARON LANIERGood morning, thanks for having me here.
REHMGood to have you here. You write in the book that you're concerned that the digital networks that you helped create are hurting the middle class. Describe how.
LANIERSure. Well, you know, when my colleagues and I worked on getting digital networking to be operational, we always anticipated that when it was introduced, we'd see a wave of fresh prosperity. We'd see a wave of well-being. We'd see people doing better in their lives.
LANIERAnd the reason we believed that is that's what technologists always want to see. We always -- that is what we saw with the advent of plumbing or vaccinations or the freeways or electricity and, you know, not always perfectly, but generally one would see that.
LANIERI mean, why else do these things? What's the purpose otherwise? And once networking became available, I was shocked and disappointed to see its effect on the world. And I know there are some triumphs that are often talked about.
LANIERMaybe it played a role in the Arab Spring. I actually have my doubts about that, but let's say it did. In the developed world, what we've seen is an increase in income concentration. We've seen austerity. We've seen jobless recoveries. We've seen a loss of social mobility.
LANIERWe've seen a hollowing-out of the labor market where middle class jobs are harder to come by and more people end up either on top or on the bottom, not too many on top. And I started to worry, like, why are we not seeing the benefits? And when I looked at it, I realized that we hadn't really thought through what we were doing well enough.
REHMLet's just take income concentration as one of the things that you are concerned about and talk about how the growth of Silicon Valley and everything that we now know and use has concentrated wealth.
LANIERIt's not just Silicon Valley, it's perhaps even more Wall Street. But what we found is that if you want to connect a bunch of people in a digital network and they're all sharing their information, you might think that's a wonderful open situation that should make things better, but here's the problem.
LANIEREven if people are created equal, computers are not and some of those people are going to have bigger computers than the others. And those that have the biggest computers have this extraordinary advantage, even if they didn't realize they were going to get it in advance.
LANIERTheir big computers, just as a matter of course, calculate things about the world that give them an overview. It allows them to analyze what everybody else is doing. It allows them to predict people's behavior. It allows them to notice opportunities in market places and all sorts of things.
LANIERAnd that inequality that exists between the people of the ordinary computers and the giant computers ends up concentrating wealth and power faster than any other technology in history.
REHMAre you also talking about the quickness of those computers?
LANIERRight. I'm kind of smudging a bit here because to really talk about it properly takes quite a long time. It's not just that the computer is big, although that matters. It has to be fast. It has to be very well connected.
LANIERAnd you have to have very good people programming it. And so there's, of course, a tremendous race to hire the best recent PhDs from the top schools.
REHMIt's interesting you use the example of Kodak as compared to Instagram, the online photo-sharing company, talk about that.
LANIERSure, our friends up in Rochester, N.Y. are the descendants of ancestors who thrived in the buggy whip industry once upon a time. When it became obsolete, new jobs arose with the rise of photography and Kodak and Polaroid were in the same place. They're in Rochester.
LANIERAnd it's interesting that people were still being paid, even though the jobs working at Kodak were easier than the jobs taking care of horses and buggies. I love horses, but it is a lot of work, you know. And somehow we decided, as a society, that even though the jobs were becoming more pleasant and less dangerous, people could still be paid for them.
LANIERBut then something happened at the turn of the century where we decided, wow, you know, we're building an information age, but we're going to make information free. That's not something that people will be paid for. So suddenly what happens is that only the people who own the biggest computer that routs the information make all the money and everybody else who actually creates the value doesn't.
LANIERSo Instagram only had 13 employees when they sold themselves to Facebook for a billion dollars and I don't -- I think they deserve their success, but the point is they did it in a particular way which is dysfunctional, which is by shrinking the middle class because Kodak had employed 140,000 people and not just employed them like entry-level jobs. These were good middle class jobs.
LANIERAnd so you have this winner-take-all society that results because the winners are the people who end up being close to the best computers.
REHMSo how is it that these companies make their fortune by selling the information of their users to advertisers while the users get nothing?
LANIERWell, the way it works is you use your big computer to calculate little ways that you can get advantages gradually over other people so the other people have to pay the costs and take the risks. And the terminology is different for each kind of big computer, but it's all quite similar.
LANIERIn the case of finance, what happens is you offer people cheap and easy mortgages. They get into it, but you have the computational power to leverage and bundle them and get the benefits and leave everybody else to pay for the increased risk, the tightness of credit, the loss of even national credit rating when it's social media, when it's Silicon Valley companies.
LANIERWhat happens is you give people free services like social networks and search, but in order to do that, you have to make what they do in the information world free so their own career prospects are diminished. And I know there are some listeners who are going to be saying, but, but, but, when you give away your stuff for free, you get so many benefits. You can promote yourself. Doesn't it all balance out in your favor?
LANIERAnd boy, do I know that argument because I helped make it up. And what happens actually is when you give away your information, you do gain a chance to promote yourself, but you enter into an informal economy. You might get reputation benefits and you might get a chance to sing for your supper more easily, but that's not the same thing as formal benefits, real money, real wealth.
LANIERYou can't plan for retirement on that. You can't have kids on that. You can't afford to get sick. You really have to be kind of a kid living with your parents to pull that off.
REHMJaron Lanier, his new book is titled "Who Owns The Future?" Time magazine listed him as one of the most influential people in the world. Do join us, 800-433-8850. Tell me how you grew up and how you got to be listed as one of the most influential people in the world and why?
LANIEROkay, who knows what they were thinking?
REHMTell me about yourself.
LANIERYou say this as if it makes sense.
REHMTell me about yourself.
LANIERWell, let me see. The short version is I grew up in a little town in New Mexico. I think my parents wanted to go to the end of the road away from the world. My mom was a concentration camp survivor and my dad's family had been mostly wiped out by pogroms in Russia so they wanted obscurity. They perceived it as, I think, safety.
LANIERAnd as it happened, weirdly what to them was obscurity, to me was opportunity because we ended up right near the White Sands Missile Range and there were extraordinary scientists and engineers around creating weapons. So one of my near neighbors was the fellow who discovered Pluto, Clyde Tombaugh and he was...
REHMPluto, no longer considered a planet.
LANIEROh listen, I am sorry. Pluto is a planet. I'm not going to buy into that.
REHMOf course it is, yeah, of course it is.
LANIERWhen somebody agrees that Europe is not a continent, I'll agree that Pluto is not a planet.
LANIERBut he was also the head of optics research and he taught me to make lenses and he used to let me use big telescopes when I was a little kid. And there are many other examples. There was a wonderful early computer center at the university there, New Mexico State.
LANIERSo it actually weirdly turned into an opportunity for this weird, little sort of lonely kid to have access to possibly a better technology education than I would have had anywhere else at a very young age because of the generosity and the sort of openness of the science and engineering community, just one of the things I really love about it.
LANIERAnd so that gave me a great early start and I had some other very, very good episodes of good fortune. I was very lucky to meet the right people and be in the right places.
REHMDid you go to university?
LANIERWell, what happened was, yes, I went to university very young and did very well. And then I just felt I had to go to an art school and be an artist and then, of course, I flunked out of that. So I never actually finished any real degrees. I do have some honorary ones.
LANIERJaron Lanier, his new book is titled "Who Owns The Future?" Do join us. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd if you just joined us, Jaron Lanier is with me in this hour. His new book is titled, "Who Owns the Future?" He is the author of "You Are Not A Gadget," and he's the cover. How do you interpret the cover?
REHMIt's sort of information exploding, is it not?
LANIERI was thinking that the big white circle was one -- was the biggest computer, sucking all the benefits out of all the little orange circles.
LANIERBut I actually never talked to the artist who made the cover.
REHMYou did not?
LANIERI did not know what it means.
REHMInteresting. All right, here's an email from Adam who says: We hear a lot about digital entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. Is there -- shouldn't there be an organization dedicated to assisting creative groups and individuals to learn how to exploit and make use of the power of big computers, IE get them to the point of being able to make a proposal to the venture capitalists? For example, there's a crime made for new sources of income and new distributors for documentary productions.
LANIERRight. So it's very difficult. I think the analogy that I like to make is to the American West in a much earlier era where you had the free land that people would go out. But to get access to their land, they had to use monopolized transportation systems, railroad barons and whatnot. And we have something like that on the internet. We have this illusion of free that's actually enriching a class that is actually, I think in a technically sense, not monopoly but is sort of a new kind of monopoly maybe.
LANIERAnd what we need to do is change the system. And I get emails all the time from people who have ideas about creating little organizations or start-ups or things. The truth is that the system is kind of overwhelming as it is. And this is why I feel like I need to speak out about it. I think bottom up, organizations are wonderful and they can do a lot of things in the short term perhaps. And something like this might work.
LANIERAlthough, I'll tell you, the venture capitalist will give you a tough time with those things because the biggest computers are really swallowing up the income, you know? I think you'd have a rough time of it. But what we really need to do is have a societal discussion about changing the system. In my view, we have two or three decades to do it. So we have some time. But now is the time to start talking.
REHMYou write that free translation services on Google are an example of people not being paid for their work. So explain that.
LANIERSure. So it seems like magic that you can upload some text in English and get it back in Spanish. And Google and Microsoft both offer that now and it's usable, it's not perfect. And the way we talk about it is as if there's some electronic brain and it's like it's doing a favor for us to give us access for free to this electronic brain. But that's not the truth. The way it actually works is real translations by real translators were gathered in the thousands, without pay by the way.
LANIERAnd then we do pattern matching of your text to examples from those things. So we create a mash-up of little elements of translations that were done in the past. And that mash up is actually workable. And that's what it is. So, anytime you see a claim that there's some electronic brain that you're getting access to for free, what's actually going on is there's a whole crowd of people who weren't paid. So, in a way, artificial intelligence is kind of an accounting fraud intrinsically.
REHMBut why would do it for free?
LANIERThey had no choice, nobody asks. You know, that's the thing is that you just scoop up the data.
LANIERYou're being observed by cameras. Your emails are being scanned these days. Everything, you know, everybody wants data. Every time you go on a new site, there's little spying services that are tracking where you go. It might be true on your website, I don't know. But it is on most.
REHMSo, in other words, what you are saying is that the idea that information on the Web should be free is actually harmful to the economy?
LANIERIn the long term. And I need to be clear about the timeframe I'm talking about. Right now, the people who are disenfranchised are, in a way, always underlings. They are the journalists, the photographers, the musicians and so forth, the translators. But as we see technology progress in the coming decades, more and more stuff will be automated. So cars are starting to drive themselves. Cars are already safer driven by robots than by people.
LANIERWe've seen robotic pharmacists and legal researchers outperform humans. But the thing is, whenever this happens, it's not because the machines are really autonomous. What automation really means is that there's a whole crowd of people providing the data that the machines used to create the illusion that they're autonomous. So at some point, when more and more jobs start going away, if we're not willing to pay people for that information that actually drives the machines that are doing those jobs.
LANIERWe'll face a crisis, where we either have to suddenly turn into a socialist society, which I don't think would be a pretty transition or a pretty result. I know some people do think that would be pretty. I'm not among them. Or something. I mean -- and so what we have to do is change the system before we hit that breaking point.
REHMHow close are we to that breaking point?
LANIERI'm thinking 20 or 30 years.
REHMAnd what could be done in this 20 or 30 years to change that outcome?
LANIERWell, what we need to do is exactly what we did with the American West. We need to move away from a system where the land was taken from the Native Americans who lived there, given for free to new people but only in a system where they could access it through a monopoly transportation system. We need to move from that to a world where people can buy and sell property and they can start to have a bit of wealth and clout on their own with public freeways to get them to their lands, so that they're not beholden to somebody else in order to access their own wealth.
LANIERWe need to create a real economy, because when people are able to be first class citizens and find their own way, I think a middle class will arise. But we're not allowing that online. Instead, we're creating a winner take all society online.
REHMSo who are the winners right now?
LANIERWell, so to ask who the winners are, you have to ask which are the biggest or the most powerful computers. And so, I can give you a rundown of some of the big ones. The most egregious ones at the moment are the Wall Street computers, the high-frequency trading machines, the ones that bundle derivatives and have brought austerity and credit cards to the whole developed world at once.
LANIERBut those -- if you visit those machines and meet the people and get to know the code, which I've had an opportunity to do, they're extremely similar. I mean, it's really just a coding of terminology that distinguishes them from the computers in Silicon Valley, at Facebook or Google that run social networking and search. They're essentially the same. They're doing -- gathering huge amounts of data from the world and performing statistics to create models of everybody and then selling the results to parties who can benefit from predicting what individuals are going to do.
LANIERAn example is the crisis in American health insurance where with big computers you can predict who's going to get sick a little bit more accurately so you can try to create the perfect business where you only insure the people who are unlikely to need it. And we all know what happens. You inject so much risk and cost into the society that it can't sustain it. And that's happened in finance, it's happened in health care.
LANIERIt will happen with social media and search as people start losing their jobs. Modern elections are another example. When you look at national elections and now state elections even, you're seeing these giant computing engines that target people and fine tune messages. So that's turning into it. And let us not forget the national intelligence organizations around the world, which are also becoming similar. They're also running the same types of algorithms run by the same types of scientists.
REHMDo you have any hopes any hopes whatsoever that the very young generation, I mean the very young -- the 10, 12, 13-year-olds -- will, building on the knowledge that's already there in terms of who has and who has not, will find a way to begin to level the playing field or will they simple take advantage of what's there and push forward on their own? In other words, are we creating a more selfish society?
LANIERI am absolutely optimistic. I have absolutely no doubt that a new generation will fix this. The question is, which generation it will be? So the popular way of thinking is that it's the young and hip way to be is to give all your information to private corporations in California and then complain about the state of your life. And at some point people will realize that that's crazy. They'll realize that every time you use social media to complain about society, that very act is concentrating wealth and power in a smaller league and undoing your intention.
LANIERSo at some point, somebody's going to notice, hey, wait a second, this is ridiculous, you know. And I don't think it will happen with current teenagers. Current 12-year-olds maybe. But, you know, it will happen because people aren't that stupid. People will get it. But I think the earlier we start talking about it, the sooner we'll start to be able to have the substantial conversation and figure out how to get out of this.
REHMHow old were you when you first looked at a personal computer?
LANIERWow. It depends what you think a personal computer was. I remember the little kits, the Altairs and that sort of stuff. I guess I must have been 16 or something. It's in the '70s.
REHMAnd what happened?
LANIERWell, I had access to much bigger computers, so I was -- I had a little bit of fun making those and playing with them. But I was kind of more interested in the bigger computers. So I had, at the time, I was able to really work with what, in those days, was considered the big iron. And so, when I moved to California, I must have been 18 or 19, and I got to know the people at the nascent Apple computer and all these places.
LANIERAnd then I got the personal computer bug. And in my early 20s, I had the good fortune to be successful writing games for them at one point. And I enjoyed the little computers, they were great. They still are.
REHMSo you made lots of money yourself?
LANIERYou know, I've had a funny thing about money in my life. I made a lot of money about four times and then lost it trying to do something else. And I've gotten to this point of having an indeterminate class status. So I was sort of -- I was going up and down. Now I have a daughter, so I'm trying to not live such a -- but I've gone back and forth between...
REHMWell, tell me how you lost it. First, how you made that first pile of money and how you lost it.
LANIERWell, I guess the first time I did well was I wrote a videogame and nobody would remember now called Moondust in '82 or something that at the time was very successful. And it was kind of a cool, psychedelic music improvisation, groovy sort of an experience game. And it did well and then I got all the money from it and I poured into building virtual reality machines. And that turned into a little startup that Sun eventually bought but only after a very complicated bankruptcy.
LANIERSo essentially the money I made went into starting this thing and I didn't make money back out of it. And then I repeated that sort of cycle a bunch of times. I've always been a little bit more into the technology than the business side. I tend to not be that good on the sort of stage where you stare down the investors and you're supposed to cash out. That part kind of bores me to tears.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Shall we take some callers now?
REHMLet's do it. And first to Baltimore, MD. Good morning, Bill, you're on the air.
BILLGood morning, thanks for taking my call.
BILLI hadn't heard of your books, Mr. Lanier, but I'm definitely going to look into it. It sounds very interesting.
BILLI like the example of Kodak versus Instagram that you gave. But to me, and I haven't been around as long you, I'm only 28 years old. It always seemed like a sort of obvious conclusion that computers would replace and eliminate certain types of consumer work and consumer goods and that's what they've always been used for. And speaking about Adam Smith who devised monetary value is relative to (unintelligible) the work. I'm wondering if you think that we need to redefine monetary value as some sort of other than computer time and human work in the future?
LANIERWell, I think if we define value in terms of what people want, we'll actually be okay. And here's what I mean by that. Let me bring up another figure who's Abraham Maslow who was a psychologist who pointed out that the concept of what's really needed shifts over time. That these days we really need electricity, but electricity was a luxury at first. And so, if you look at what people really like, they like seeing what each other are up to on social media.
LANIERIf that was monetized, looking at the way information flows in social media, it would create a middle class out of pure information.
REHMHow could you monetize it?
LANIERWell, see that's the big transition. This is like the question of how did the west move out of its initial phase, where land was free and gunslingers ruled and railroad barons profited.
REHMAnd that's the comparison between now...
LANIERYeah, that is, you know. And it's -- there's a great old movie called Liberty Valance, "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." It's about that transition in the West. And I grew up in the West. I grew up in a town where people still wandered around with horses and rifles and shot each other now and then. So I saw the tail-end of it. And it's not an easy transition, but it's the one we have to start to make.
LANIERAnd I know that too many people who are used to something like Facebook, they're reaction is probably, like, they think it sounds crazy. Like, why would I pay for this? And also, this is fluff, you know. But the thing is, if you followed the information, if you look at the information that makes everything work, that makes the computers operate, you will find people at the origin.
LANIERAnd if you just decide that that's actually a real value, which it is, all of a sudden we get back a middle class even when the machines get really good, approximately. I mean, I'm over-simplifying here. Of course, there are all kinds of issues. But it's a simple idea. And it's not something that can be undertaken quickly. It will require a shift in values and it'll take some time. But I don't see any other way out.
REHMWhat about the music industry, which you are clearly a part of as a musician yourself?
LANIERWell, the music business used to support a very large middle class population. In fact, at the turn of the century, if you look at tax data, you'll see that there were, I think almost a third of a million Americans earning more than $100,000. So good middle class jobs in the music business and mostly not as musicians but as just part of the industry. So we have to understand that when music was demonetized, it's not just that we're putting musicians into an informal economic life that you'd normally associate with slums in the developing world.
LANIERYou know, where they have to live gig to gig. But you're also throwing away this whole world of good jobs. You're killing a General Motors type of ecosystem. And that's what we did. And, you know, in the '90s, I used to join with all my musician friends and hate the labels, because that was the cool thing to do. But now that they're gone, I miss them.
REHMJaron Lanier, his new book is titled, "Who Owns The Future?" We'll talking, take your calls, your email. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd we're back. Jaron Lanier is with me. He has been called by Time magazine one of the most influential people in the world. Here's an email from Karen. It says, "It has occurred to me that with online learning and so many prestigious schools offering free -- free online courses that far fewer professors will be needed in the future." What's your comment?
LANIERYeah, so I think the idea of making learning more available and using technology to do it is wonderful.
LANIERIt's like being one of them -- I worked on that myself a lot. And, of course, it's lovely, but into the current regime in which we're operating where so much power accrues around whoever has the biggest computer because the information is free and there's no balance, it'll destroy education. I mean it'll backfire. It'll create early treats in the way that, you know, financiers use big computers to get out all those easy to accept mortgages, But then in the long term you pay for it.
LANIERI remember watching all those bright kids in Egypt in Tahrir Square who had used social media to help topple a dictator. And then I thought, my God, none of them will ever be professors. They're sending all their information to companies in California. You know, they're not -- they're not creating their own wealth structure around information that could sustain people to have jobs as professors.
LANIERYou know, you could be a professor by using social media to get reputation and crash on people's couches and sing for your supper for every meal just like musicians do today, but if you want to have kids or whatever it won't work. And so, yeah, we're sort of eating our own seed corn where it's the way we're doing it. So we could do it -- if information was valued we could still -- we could still do it. I mean the problem is not making education available online. The problem is doing it in the context of the power structure where all the wealth and power accrues to the big computers.
LANIERSo it's really -- it's really a good thing that's currently made gloomy because of this other contextual problem. Can I just say one other thing about education? On the one hand you could say well, there's more information available than ever before...
LANIER...Because of the internet.
LANIERBut there's a funny thing about that because of the way -- because of the way we're doing things big computers tend to accrue all the -- all the influence and all the attention. So, for instance, in the paper era it would never have occurred to anyone to say there should only be one encyclopedia. There was an encyclopedia Britannica, an encyclopedia Americana and it was understood that they all were written by people and they had points of view.
LANIERAnd that's why there were multiple ones, but because of the way we're doing things there's something called network effect where as soon as you accumulate a lot of people on a network you get so much influence that it outstrips other people attempting to rise up to compete with you. So the Wikipedia becomes the only encyclopedia for a lot of people, even for, like, topics in the humanities where there can't be a single point of view.
LANIERAnd that's going to start happening with education where at first it'll seem like we're supporting diversity, but actually we're destroying it. But the way out is not to say don't put technology online, don't put education online. The way out of it is to change the power system so that having the biggest computer isn't the ticket to infinite wealth.
REHMBut how do you begin the change process?
LANIERWell, this is, of course...
REHMBack to the gunslingers.
LANIERSo, you know, I faced a problem with this book in that I could have just said here's the problem and we must find a solution and then stop. And then I thought, no, that's not courageous. Even if I don't quite know the path forward I have to start to sketch it as much as I can.
LANIERAnd, of course, that makes me vulnerable because people will look at it and they'll say oh, my God, his -- his alternative is ridiculous.
REHMIs all wrong.
LANIERYou know, and I'm not claiming to have all the answers. I do feel I understand the problem. I think the answer has to start with -- I think it's a little bit like modernizing the west and it's a little bit like the union movement. It has to involve both bottom up and top down efforts at the same time. I think it will involve a cultural change. I think it'll involve maybe people having to see more of the suffering emerge as this process continues.
LANIERThey're going to have to see the community colleges closing and all but the star colleges, you know, suffering before they realize that we're actually damaging education. They're going to have to look at the fact that they don't have prospects themselves to become a professor before they realize that we're doing it the wrong way.
REHMAnd isn't that almost too late?
LANIERWell, see this is why we start talking now. I think when -- you know, people always find a way. I'm actually really optimistic. I think -- I think we'll find a way out of global climate change and I think we'll find a way out of this. The two are related, by the way, because we only know about global climate change because of big computing. And in order for us to be able to perceive the fruits of big computing without corruption we need to get the corruption out of the big computing, you know. So there's actually a connection between the problems. I'm totally optimistic we'll get it. And I think by talking about it this early in the game the chances are improved. So, you know, but people always squeak by.
LANIERWe always do it.
REHMTo Jacksonville, Fla., good morning, Mark.
MARKGood morning, Diane and Jaron. I'm so glad you're on this program. I'm excited to read your book. I wanted to ask you what your opinion about the fact that so many kids today are falling way behind because they don't have tangible physical skills, yet they are totally users of the internet. I teach part time in high school and I've been part of competitive robotics for ten years and so I have been -- first off, I remember a world without, like, widespread internet, whereas my brother, who's four years younger, does not. And I'm just trying to gauge what we do about a generation of kids whose entire experience is by and large digital and (unintelligible).
LANIERWell, okay, there are a lot of different angles to this. There's one angle which is what we're doing to the ability to learn and to attention and so forth. I won't address that. I'll direct people to Sherry Turkle's work to address that. She's excellent on that point. What I will address is two other issues, though. One of them is this way that kids are growing up in an excessively preconstructed world and, I think, not learning to confront reality directly.
LANIERSo what I mean by that is they grow -- and I 'm part of this as a parent now. It's hard to escape this pattern, but our kids grow up in ultra structured lives where play dates are organized and they never are just, like, hey, you're bored go out and play, you know. They never -- they never invent their own lives. They never deal -- they never go out and play and deal with the dirt and have to be able -- you know, well, that's -- they don't -- it's not that they never do, but there's so much preconstruction in their lives.
LANIERAnd then when they enter the internet a little older they are dealing with this highly structured world where everybody's categorized, they're single, there are, you know, there are all these labels and everybody's routed through these networks according to algorithms. There are algorithms that model what they should listen to, who they should date when they get old enough. And my concern about that is that if you're not dealing with reality directly you can't be a scientist, you can't be a good engineer, you can't be a good artist.
LANIERThere's a kind of an artificiality. And I'm deeply concerned that if we use technology that way we're using it incorrectly. But right now all the incentives, all the monetary incentives are to get people into that artificial world so you can model them and manipulate them because that's where the money and the power are for all the types of big computers I just mentioned, financial, electoral, everything. So that's a huge, huge issue.
LANIERAnd I don't know. I mean, this all happened very quickly. It's going to take us some effort -- I very strongly urge everyone, though, to try to fight back on this trope that to be young is to give yourself to Facebook because what a stupid way to be young and creative to say I'm beholding to some company in California. I mean, that one thing I think should be defeatable. And I have nothing against Facebook, by the way, I like the people there. I have a lot of friends there. And I think Facebook would do tons better, actually, I'm not anti corporate. I think they'd do tons better in a world of monetized information because then the economy would grow instead of shrink when we acknowledge the value that's being created.
REHMAll right, to St. Louis, Mo., good morning, Tara.
TARAGood morning. Thanks for taking my call.
TARAI was -- so I'm in St. Louis. I work on a civic tax project here called City Post that wants to collect and visualize data about cities in real time. And it's basically to keep citizens and policy makers more informed. And because of that one of our guiding tenets is to make sure that we are keeping what we do equitably acceptable in the communities we work in. St. Louis is a very segregated city socioeconomically and we have entire neighborhoods that have no ground wire to connect to reach the internet, for example.
TARASo more at the neighborhood level and the individual level information is actually not free. And so my question is how, you know, in the information age when even the United Nations declares internet access a basic human right, what can we do to motivate the oligarchy of telecommunications companies, to motivate our government to make information and, you know, access to internet cheaper, better. My understanding is that the U.S. is actually behind a lot of other countries in terms of connectivity and I'm wondering what role the government can have or what we, as citizens, can have in changing that.
LANIEROK, well, this is an interesting question and my answer has to be somewhat complex. So, on the one hand, let me -- there's this issue of, sort of, where I am in the cycle versus where your question is. So your question is utterly valid, but I'm in a sense looking at the world beyond your question. So this issue of having just raw access and corporate interests charging too much and excluding people is very much an important issue. And it's an issue of the present. The problem is that let's suppose we solve that and everybody had access and we no longer had economic restrictions.
LANIERThen we'd enter into the world where the biggest computers or the thing they had access to would still be regimenting them, you know, and grabbing all the value. So in a sense I'm dealing with the problem on the horizon beyond the horizon that you're dealing with. That doesn't make your problem invalid at all. In fact, it's a huge one and it bugs me greatly.
LANIERWhat we see is that when we declare something to be free something else gets really expensive. When you buy a photo printer it's incredibly cheap, but somehow the ink is insanely expensive. And if you try to get cheaper ink it doesn't really work. And the music is free, but your wireless bill becomes insanely expensive somehow, even if it's not supposed to be. And this keeps on happening. And this is very much like the railroad barons and the free land in the west.
LANIERWe have this level that we call free, but then access to it -- there's something about it that's actually hyper expensive. So now as to how to deal with the American situation as opposed to the general world situation the history in America is twisted. It's very strange. I can recommend Tim Wu's book, "The Master Switch" for a bit of the history. There's one part I want to mention which is Al Gore actually, kind of, did -- he never said he invented the internet, but I'll say it for him. He kind of did because he -- the technology for networking was around, but it was fragmented. And the idea of a unified thing that would work for everybody was really government funded. It was really pulled together.
LANIERThere was a thing called the Gore Bill that did it. I was there. I saw him do it. He was really smart about it and he was following in the footsteps of his dad who'd worked on the interstate highway with a similar analogy that people should be able to get to their land without being beholding to some sort of interest or bottleneck on the way. And what happened as a result of that was he still -- I keep on hearing these jokes about him like it's become this trope.
LANIERSo if a politician is going to be smart and is going to try to do something of use, they face a lifetime of ridicule because somehow it's just hard in America to do that. So I think, you know, in a way, one of the steps is to try to stop ridiculing our politicians who actually do something smart, like, maybe give them some credit once in a while. And Al Gore would be a great example.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Jaron, I want to ask a very personal question of you. And that is your appearance. I want to ask you about your decision, for example, to let your hair grow so long. It's almost down your back and in these tiny little curls. It's got to be a political decision.
LANIERNo, I can't tell you how little I think about it. I mean really what happened was at a certain point in my 20's there's some pictures of me with, kind of, normal hair, but I worked so hard trying to comb the kinks of out it every single day and it hurt. And at a certain point I just thought I don't have time for this. It's just too much work. And I just didn't want to fight my hair. It just -- it wanted to turn into dreadlocks and it always and it always did. If I let it go even a little bit it would start to form into them and it was just too much damn work to try to fight it and it's really nothing beyond that.
LANIERI had no contact with Jamaican culture. I have no -- although I did -- there is something funny which is one time -- my mom's from Vienna. And one time I was in the Vienna train station and I saw some kids with dreadlocks. And they turned out to be some of the few remaining Jews in Vienna. And there's obviously some strain -- and they had this natural problem, too. There's some strain of hair around...
LANIER...There that's like that. And I -- it's interesting to speculate how that might have come about, but anyway for -- I...
REHMYou are who you are.
LANIERIt's just a matter -- it's just a matter of letting nature -- it's just a matter of trying to be graceful instead of fighting it all the time.
REHMAnd how is your health considering your weight?
REHMOh, thus far great, great blood pressure, no blood sugar problems. You know, I -- yeah, I know because Chris Christie just went through this whole public thing about weight.
LANIEROn the weight question I'm really interested in a result from last year where when weight loss surgery disrupts a portion of the digestive tract diabetes disappears in a day in some patients. You know, it's, like, just crazy. And so there's something, maybe to do with bacterial populations that we don't understand. And my feeling is that the science is moving pretty fast and I kind of want to, for myself, I probably wouldn't make the same decision he did just yet. I want to see a bit more information. So thanks for asking. So far I'm doing great. I understand the statistics for being a heavy person suggest that one should be worried.
REHMBut you're not or are you?
LANIERYou know, I've worked a lot with doctors and surgeons because I made the first surgical simulator and I've worked a lot on modeling brains and stuff so I've gotten a doctor's perspective on how to balance statistics with individual cases and how fragile everybody is really. And I think -- I think the best strategy for the moment, since I don't have problems, is to relax and wait and see a bit. In the term of the next few years I might do something. I don't know.
LANIERI mean I think these are -- these are not easy decisions because we have only impartial information and that's colored in a way by all kinds of interests because there's commercial people trying to sell you, you know, like, you see lap band advertisements on the side of buses. And when you're in an environment like that it's very hard to get a balanced view.
REHMJaron Lanier. His new book is titled, "Who Owns the Future?" I've so enjoyed talking with you.
LANIEROh, thanks for having me on.
REHMThank you. And thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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