Are Writers Powerless to Make a Living in the Digital Age?

In Editorial & Opinion by Mike Springer

• Jaron Lanier is the author of You Are Not a Gadget and “father of virtual reality” considers whether writers and “content” creators can make a living in the Digital Age.

• Lanier argues against mashups and content fragmentation, saying, “economic incentives will be in favor of supporting individuals instead of . . . a collective vision.”

Interview by Mike Springer

As paper and ink give way to electronic gadgetry, questions arise. What will reading be like in the future? Will long-form prose survive? Will the quality of literature get better or worse? To Jaron Lanier, those are the wrong questions.

“The crucial question,” he said, ”ultimately has to do with power. If the future is one in which writers are not paid, then it also is one in which writers lack clout. And if it’s a future in which writers lack clout, then what we have is a lack, basically, of an intellectual middle class. Instead we have a sort of volunteer intellectual class, which in terms of clout starts to resemble peasants.”

Earlier this year Alfred A. Knopf published Lanier’s manifesto, You Are Not a Gadget, in which the musician and digital technologist — famously known as “the father of virtual reality” — attempts to reign in some of the euphoria over Web 2.0 with a sobering analysis of its darker implications for the future of authorship, individuality, and the socioeconomics of creative work. We caught up with Lanier recently with a list of questions. We wanted to hear his views on a variety of topics centered around the emerging technologies and their effect on books and publishing, but throughout the conversation Lanier kept returning to a single issue: whether writers and other “content” creators will be able to make a living in the Digital Age.

“If somebody can actually get their kids through college writing for screens, for e-books, then the thing is working,” said Lanier. “If they can’t, it isn’t. That’s a crucial initial threshold we have to pass to even have this discussion.”

In Lanier’s view, a strong intellectual middle class is essential to democracy. “This was demonstrated with incredible power just weeks ago by the exposé in The New Yorker on the Koch brothers,” said Lanier. “They were able to apply a rather modest amount of money and very little time in order to buy the blogosphere and the Twittersphere for their political cause.” The article, “Covert Operations; The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama,” describes how, in the last decade, industrialists Charles and David H. Koch transitioned from an earlier strategy of creating “independent” think tanks, such as The Cato Institute, to the founding and funding of “grass-roots” organizations, such as Americans for Prosperity, in a systematic campaign to promote their libertarian ideology. Lanier pointed out that the author of the story, Jane Mayer, was on contract with a traditional publishing outlet. “Bloggers couldn’t find that themselves,” he said, “because they’re corrupted, or they couldn’t afford to spend the time.”

Popular Internet culture, said Lanier, offers creators a fool’s bargain: “We offer people fake flattery in exchange for them impoverishing themselves.” He wants a system in which creative intellectual workers of all types — software designers, scholars, journalists, artists — are paid for their work.

If current trends continue, Lanier writes in You Are Not a Gadget, the future of the book trade will be a grim one. “It is my hope that book publishing will continue remuneratively into the digital realm,” he writes. “But that will only happen if digital designs evolve to make it possible. As things stand, books will be vastly devalued as soon as large numbers of people start reading from an electronic device.”

Lanier has mixed views on some of the e-publishing business models that have been created so far. “As much as I admire on many levels, both in terms of marketing and design, what Apple and Amazon are doing, it’s not a long-term plan for civilization,” Lanier said. “The walled garden thing can’t last forever. It’s not sustainable. There has to be something similar to what Apple and Amazon are doing that’s a single, unified, universal store for everybody. There can still be a layer of publishers within that, and Apple and Amazon can be publishers within the universal system. But they can’t have monopoly channels.”

Despite his hope for a universal store, Lanier wants boundaries to protect the integrity of each author’s work. In general, he decries the “digital flattening of expression into a global mush” brought on by Web 2.0 software and the mashup culture. He opposes, for example, Kevin Kelly’s vision of a universal digital library in which “no book will be an island.”

“The approach to digital culture I abhor would indeed turn all the world’s books into one book, just as Kevin suggested,” writes Lanier in his book. “What happens next is what’s important. If the books in the cloud are accessed via user interfaces that encourage mashups of fragments that obscure the context and authorship of each fragment, there will be only one book. This happens today with a lot of content; often you don’t know where a quoted fragment from a news story came from, who wrote a comment, or who shot a video.”

The issue isn’t one of taste. “I want to define a line,” said Lanier, “between subjective judgment of what future generations might like or care about, and just this basic functioning mechanism of civilization and culture. If it’s the case that future generations don’t like things the length of books, and prefer things that have a graph structure and are made of little pieces, then my hope is that whatever they do with that is done well. But what I think is crucial for it to be sustainable, and to be more than a single generation’s fling before the collapse of civilization, is that whatever they do respects the integrity of each personal point of view and grants the idea of personhood with an almost mystical stature.”

Ultimately, that “basic functioning mechanism” is economic. “If it turns out that writers can actually be paid,” said Lanier, “which means they can have clout and not be susceptible to corruption as we’ve seen previously, then I become highly optimistic, because some of the other things that I’m concerned about — of digital media erasing the boundaries between different peoples’ thoughts and therefore erasing the integrity of personhood and separate points of view — all of those things will kind of go away, because the economic incentives will be in favor of supporting individuals instead of some sort of collective vision.”

To Lanier, the creation of economic incentives is more important than fighting piracy. “Just wagging your finger at people and telling them what not to do doesn’t work,” he said. “If you want to create a civil society in which people aren’t breaking into each other’s houses, those people have to have houses of their own, so that they know what it’s like to be broken into. They have to want to live in a society where houses aren’t broken into. The only way — the only way — to get to the point where piracy is reduced is if the people who are now pirating see an opportunity to gain because of other people’s lack of piracy.”

All of this will take time. “Creation of civil society is very tricky,” said Lanier. “It’s one of the hardest things we can do, but also one of the most rewarding and noble. I view it as something that would be a large struggle, and maybe a generational struggle comparable to founding a country.”

DISCUSS: Is Writing for the Web a “Fools Bargain”?

Photo credit: Mike Springer

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Mike Springer