August 31, 2011

The dark side of the Internet: #Apple, #Google, and 'hollowing out'


Hat tip to Salon for pointing out this excellent Edge interview with Jaron Lanier. Especially given that the journalist is Douglas Rushkoff, who has written about the hollowing out of the middle class and whom Wiki notes was an early leader in the open source movement, and you're guaranteed, good insightful "Internet sociology."

Here's a sampling of Lanier's take on Apple and Google:
... "The Apple idea is that instead of the personal computer model where people own their own information, and everybody can be a creator as well as a consumer, we're moving towards this iPad, iPhone model where it's not as adequate for media creation as the real media creation tools, and even though you can become a seller over the network, you have to pass through Apple's gate to accept what you do, and your chances of doing well are very small, and it's not a person to person thing, it's a business through a hub, through Apple to others, and it doesn't create a middle class, it creates a new kind of upper class. ... Google has done something that might even be more destructive of the middle class, which is they've said, "Well, since Moore's law makes computation really cheap, let's just give away the computation, but keep the data." And that's a disaster.

... If we enter into the kind of world that Google likes, the world that Google wants, it's a world where information is copied so much on the Internet that nobody knows where it came from anymore, so there can't be any rights of authorship. However, you need a big search engine to even figure out what it is or find it. They want a lot of chaos that they can have an ability to undo. ... when you have copying on a network, you throw out information because you lose the provenance, and then you need a search engine to figure it out again. That's part of why Google can exist. Ah, the perversity of it all just gets to me.
So, contra New Media fluffers, you have two big "gatekeepers" in the Internet world, both trying to get bigger, and one naively beloved by librulz to boot. Perhaps that's part of why the Internet really hasn't lead to a New Economic World Order.

It's all about branding. More on that further below. Immediately below, Lanier's first discussion of "hollowing out":
Everyone's into Internet things, and yet we have this huge global economic trouble. If you had talked to anyone involved in it 20 years ago, everyone would have said that the ability for people to inexpensively have access to a tremendous global computation and networking facility ought to create wealth. This ought to create wellbeing; this ought to create this incredible expansion in just people living decently, and in personal liberty. And indeed, some of that's happened. Yet if you look at the big picture, it obviously isn't happening enough, if it's happening at all.
The only way he sees of working around that is actually monetizing more of what you and I do. In other words, the Net is going to try to force more hypercapitalism on us.

There's an hour-long video with the story, which Edge won't let me embed. That said, there's more text of the interview, and analysis, below the fold. Then, go to the website and watch the video.



OK ... hypercapitalism. Where does it stop? Does it? And, in the nonce?

Until then, and especially in the current economy, the Net is bread and circuses for many, and Lanier knows it:
I'm astonished at how readily a great many people I know, young people, have accepted a reduced economic prospect and limited freedoms in any substantial sense, and basically traded them for being able to screw around online. ...

What that leads to is the world that Wells and Kurt Vonnegut and many others wrote about, where there just is enough virtual bread and circuses, just barely enough to keep the poor in check, and perhaps somehow not breeding, and they just kind of either wither away through attrition or something.
He talks about that further in his "flip-flop" area, where he compares today's Internet world to ... Walmart:
Essentially what happened with finance is a larger scale, albeit more abstract version of what happened with Wal-Mart, where a global system was optimized by being able to build data that could be concentrated locally using a computer network. It tremendously enriched the people who ran the network. It seemed to create savings for people initially who were the end users, the leafs of the network, very much as Google, or Groupon, seem to save them money initially. But then in the long-term it took away more from the income prospects of people than it could offer them in savings, very much as Wal-Mart did.
And, because of that, Walmart (and perhaps Google and others online) can ultimately shoot themselves in the foot, Lanier says:
The network effects can be so powerful that you cease being a local player. An example of this is Wal-Mart removing so many jobs from their own customers that they start to lose profitability, and suddenly upscale players, like Target, are doing better. Wal-Mart impoverished its own customer base. Google is facing exactly the same issue long-term, although not yet.
If we use "Google" as a shorthand for "online information," I think he's right indeed. And, just as Walmart then led to Dollar General, Family Dollar and other dollar stores, the future of online shopping may well see similar hollowing out.

It's ultimately about branding, and yes, for all the laughing some librulz do at WallyWorld, it started the trend.

Two Walmart icons were key: The smiley face and the American flag.

The smiley, in conjunction with the (older, white) greeters at the entrance, "branded" Walmart as being like the mom-and-pop stores it was killing.

The flag, combined with the oh-so-long-ago "Made in the U.S.A." campaigns, branded Walmart as both small-town and patriotic.

Apple and Google took off from there.

Apple? The smiley computer face icon helped Steve Jobs sell people on the friendliness of his computers. Combined with the "1984" commercial, it branded Apple as an anti-corporation, i.e., not IBM, despite Apple a company founded and run by a noted control freak even in the CEO world, certainly worse than IBM's Lou Gerstner.

Google? The personalization of its logo on its home page for many holidays, tied with the personalization of Internet searches that Google offers us, brands Google as being an anti-corporation, i.e., not Microsoft, even as Google has had as many product clunkers as Bill Gates, and through "personalized" web searches, a "real names" policy on Google Plus and cloud computing, Google's profit motive is at least as transparent as that of Bill Gates for anybody who looks at all.

In both cases, and in countless less well-known brandings, the "brand" is designed to make consumers feel like insiders, even as (as Lanier notes), this company may be affecting their livelihood.

(Update: At the same time, Lanier is himself some sort of tech-neolib, who is dumb enough, naive enough, or on the take enough to assume that Big Data will give you or I micropayments for using its services.)

Let's not forget that Stewart Brand's famous, or infamous, "Information wants to be free" quote was only one half of the issue, something New Media fluffers especially ignore:
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.
What Lanier is saying is that the Apples and Googles of the world have the critical mass to make information free, or nearly so for now. Then, later, like WallyWorld, in a more and more semi-monopolized Internet, where they have more control of the "right place," it will get expensive.

It's ironic that Rushkoff, an early cyberpunk activist, is the person doing the interview, since the second sentence of Brand's quote was a favorite of cyberpunk activists and now is .... wait for it ... being hollowed out.

It's even more ironic that Brand first made his statement in public to Apple's Steve Wozniak, and in 1985, just one year after that "1984" commercial.

Lanier goes on to say saving more money is one way to address the personal monetization issue he raises above. He says liberals should give up their neoliberal Internet semi-utopian ideas; they just ain't happening.

He's got plenty of other asides:
1. Burning Man is intolerant if you don't conform;
2. Anarchists, like San Fran's bicycle anarchists, normally wind up creating new systems of order, and enforcing them;
3. Conservatives are better than liberals at social media messaging.

Even Lanier is a bit overoptimistic, or hyping of the past, though:
In the '80s and '90s, one of the things I liked about being in the Silicon Valley community was that we were growing the middle class.
Well, maybe you were slowing the hollowing out, I'll give you that.

And, following in Lanier's wake, though not consciously, I'm sure, J.A. Konrath and Blake Crouch argue that Amazon (and, to a lesser degree, other e-publishers) may be going down the same path of hollowing out and information control.

Think Lanier's provocative here? Read his Digital Maoism essay.

Update, Feb. 22, 2013: Massimo Pigliucci weighs in well on this issue. 

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