Why not just opt out? Lanier’s argument, like Morozov’s, is that you just can’t. Take Facebook, for example: there is a certain “social immobility” to the whole experience, in that, once you’re in, you’re all in. Lanier writes:
Once a critical mass of conversation is on Facebook, then it’s hard to get a conversation going elsewhere…. It’s no longer commerce, but soft blackmail. And it’s not Facebook’s fault! We, the idealists, insisted that information be demonetized online, which meant that services about information, instead of the information itself, would be the main profit centers.
So what’s the alternative? Lanier proposes an entirely new online economy, one that has its roots in pre-World-Wide-Web thinking about the Internet. The Web now works on a single-link language, HTML: any website can link to any other, in one direction. But before Tim Berners-Lee developed HTML, Ted Nelson conceived of Project Xanadu, a hypothetical digital network with two-way linking: in this system, every node contains information about both what it links out to, and what other nodes link to it.
This, says Lanier, would be the key to a better online economy. “If the system remembers where information originally came from, then the people who are the sources of information can be paid for it.” So, for instance, every time your YouTube video was cut up into a political ad, or every time your Facebook activity was somehow used in an ad scheme that made someone money, or every time Google analyzed a translation you wrote in order to improve its Google Translate tool, you’d know about it, and you’d get a micropayment.
Lanier’s central argument would have been strengthened, though, if he had spent more time and attention on financial institutions and intelligence agencies, which he really only briefly mentions. When those behemoths track our preferences and purchases, we really don’t get anything in exchange. At least Google and Facebook give us free services while they’re manipulating us.
Another slight weakness is that almost all of Lanier’s argument consists of why this new “humanistic online economy” is such a good idea, rather than how it would actually work. Lanier focuses more on philosophy than pragmatics, which may frustrate some readers. Still, it is refreshing to have a brilliant technological mind working on the users’ behalf for once. And it’s good to see a tech innovator thinking seriously and creatively about what technology can do—and what it can’t.
Lanier, unlike Morozov, is more excited about building up new ways of thinking about technology than categorically tearing down other peoples’ ideas and arguments. But one area of common ground between the two is their shared disgust with what they both see as Silicon Valley’s self-obsessed, small-minded utopians too drunk on the power of “disruption” (previously: “transformation”) to acknowledge the inherent limitations of technology.
Some of the most insightful passages in Lanier’s book explain how themes of “self-actualization” borrowed from eastern religions have combined with Silicon Valley’s tech bubble to build a faith in technology as the means to ultimate self-expression and self-perfection: “Going about my day,” he writes, “there is nothing unusual at all about running into a friend at the coffee shop who is a for-real, serious scientist working on making people immortal.”
“Cyber-Panglossian fallacies rule Silicon Valley conversations,” writes Lanier. “Dreamlands of abstractions are a dime a dozen these days; what works in Palo Alto is assumed to work in Penang,” writes Morozov. Not having spent much time in Palo Alto myself, I may have been inclined to believe these generalizations, had I not just read Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business.