You Are Your Own Paywall

I am highly wary of anyone who would write a book entitled You Are Not a Gadget; oh here we go, a Luddite screed about how Goog-Face-Pads are making us lonely/stupid/lazy. So it was with trepidation that I delved into a lengthy interview at The Edge from last year with Jaron Lanier on what the hell it is we’re all supposed to do with this whole Internet thing we’ve found ourselves swimming in.

I’m glad I did, particularly as someone who has dreams (of the metallic cylinder variety) of becoming self-sustaining through my mainly-online writing and creative work. The interview itself is extremely wide-ranging, but what caught my attention was Lanier’s wrestling with the implications of an information economy trying to emerge in the context of global recession:

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. There are just a lot of people who feel that being able to get their video or their tweet seen by somebody once in a while gets them enough ego gratification that it’s okay with them to still be living with their parents in their 30s, and that’s such a strange tradeoff….

To me, a lot of the culture of youth seems to be using the Internet as a form of denialism about their reduced prospects. They’re like, “Well, sure we can’t get a job and we need to live with our parents, but we can tweet”, or something. “Let us tweet!”

Now, for the record, I am 34, have a job (for now), and do not live with either of my parents. I have a wife and a kid and another on the way, and as tough as things are (and they are tough), we are not living by tweets alone. But Lanier’s somewhat derisively expressed concern still rings somewhat true to me. I might swap job prospects for real-world relationships in Lanier’s scenario, but it remains true that I take a lot of solace in sufficiently “buzzy” online work of mine, invest a lot of emotion and energy into their production, and let way too much of my ego and sense of self ride on how they fare. So, but for the grace of Jebus, there go I.

So what’s the alternative? What else could I or Lanier’s 30-something washout do? Particularly since so many more real-world gigs are vaporizing, like God in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, into a puff of logic.

The thing that I’m thinking about is the Ted Nelson [early Internet pioneer] approach … where people buy and sell each other information, and can live off of what they do with their hearts and minds as the machines get good enough to do what they would have done with their hands.

This model doesn’t really exist yet, and Lanier laments it. Part of why it doesn’t exist is because you can either already afford to go the “Apple route” and pay into, and then hopefully subsist on, a high-end but closed system, or the “Google model” in which you’ve already given up your intellectual property in order to have free access to its low-end computational power. That breeds a turbulent and (Lanier doesn’t use this word, but I will) ghettoized Internet.

And so when all you can expect is free stuff, you don’t respect it, it doesn’t offer you enough to give you a social contract. What you can seek on the Internet is you can seek some fine things, you can seek friendship and connection, you can seek reputation and all these things that are always talked about, you just can’t seek cash. And it tends to create a lot of vandalism and mob-like behavior. That’s what happens in the real world when people feel hopeless, and don’t feel that they’re getting enough from society. It happens online.

To avoid the ugly, people need universally to recognize the value of their own bits; to understand that what they offer to the Internet, usually for nothing, does have monetary value and should be treated as such. I don’t at all pretend to know how Lanier would have this actually manifest — just because I can’t get a job driving a bus because now they’re all automated, it doesn’t follow that I have something to blog about that people will pay me a living wage for the privilege of reading.

But on the institutional level, we do see a version of this doggy-paddling toward viability: the New York Times paywall. The Times takes a gamble that its bits are worth paying for, that they are not simply Google fodder for bottom dwellers. Results so far are mixed, as far as its profitability is concerned, but I think the philosophy is noble and pretty rock solid. It just may be too late.

Is it too late for me and my fellow blog-post slingers? Is the output of our brains something that we can turn to substinance on the Wild, Wild Web? I hope so. I spend an awful lot of time here. Let us tweet!

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