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Journal of No. 118


December 23rd, 2012

Sometimes the truth is painful @ 12:12 pm


Interesting interview with virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier in Smithsonian:

“I’d been an early advocate of making information free ... I’d had a career as a professional musician and what I started to see is that once we made information free, it wasn’t that we consigned all the big stars to the bread lines. Instead, it was the middle-class people [in the music industry] who were consigned to the bread lines."

"[Anonymity on the internet] slowly is turning us into a nation of hate-filled trolls." (This last quote is actually the interviewer, not Lanier, but I think he'd agree with the sentiment.)
 
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From:johnny9fingers
Date:December 23rd, 2012 10:04 pm (UTC)
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Absolutely.

Unemployed professional musicians make the best trolls. I should know.
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From:ian_tiberius
Date:December 24th, 2012 08:04 pm (UTC)
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While certain of his criticisms have some merit, others are damn stupid.

Take this one:

"[With machine translation] you’re producing this result that looks magical but in the meantime, the original translators aren’t paid for their work—their work was just appropriated. So by taking value off the books, you’re actually shrinking the economy."

This is true, in much the same way that user-operated elevators, refrigerators, and stocking frames put elevator operators, ice men, and textile workers out of work and shrank the economy. The only difference is that middle-and-upper-class people like Lanier thought it would never happen to them, only to menial workers, and when it starts happening to them or to their friends, they go Chicken Little. Another example:

"Instead, it was the middle-class people who were consigned to the bread lines. And that was a very large body of people. And all of a sudden there was this weekly ritual, sometimes even daily: ‘Oh, we need to organize a benefit because so and so who’d been a manager of this big studio that closed its doors has cancer and doesn’t have insurance. We need to raise money so he can have his operation.’

"And I realized this was a hopeless, stupid design of society and that it was our fault. It really hit on a personal level—this isn’t working."

Indeed, I agree. This isn't working. But what Lanier takes away from this is apparently that automation is bad. I would argue instead that the problem is social. The laid-off studio manager with cancer doesn't need a make-work job protected by a refusal to adopt new technology, he needs health insurance. (And, if he's healthy enough to rejoin the work force, job retraining.)

The real problem, in my opinion, is that our society hasn't adapted yet to the fact that more and more professions are being eliminated faster and faster due to an increased pace of technological advancement. In the last few decades, we've seen factory workers put out of work time and time again. In the last several years, we've seen newspapers and magazines collapse due to online competition (both in content and the classified ad business.) Other professions, like the textbook industry, are staring down the barrel of the gun.

Rather than fight these changes (which are inevitable in any case) we need to start assuming that people whose livelihoods have been eliminated aren't necessarily lazy and stupid, and we need to devote money to keeping them solvent while transitioning them to new professions. Maybe at some point we will need to concede that not everyone is suited for a profession in the new economy. I don't see it happening any time soon, but maybe a hundred years from now every menial task is handled cheaper and more easily by robots. What do we do then? Not everyone is suited to be an artist or a scientific researcher. Do we invent bullshit jobs for them to do, or do we just provide a baseline standard of living?

As far as the wisdom of crowds stuff - while there's some substance to his criticisms, I think it's overblown. I think the evils wrought by Anonymous or trolls or online lynch mobs are far outweighed by the benefits of the whole wisdom-of-crowds thing. I wouldn't trade away Wikipedia and Yelp and Amazon product reviews and open-source college classes to be rid of those problems.

Overall, Lanier seems like a man who has decided on a worldview and he's going to cram all the facts into it, whether they fit or not. His nonsense about MIDI illustrates that pretty well. Who gives a shit if one particular method for encoding music doesn't capture the violin well? MP3 at 320 kbps does a pretty fucking fine job. But he elides that because it would complicate his argument.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:December 25th, 2012 01:33 am (UTC)
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I admit he's not a poster boy for clear thinking, but I think you're uncharitably interpreting some of what he says.

"Instead, it was the middle-class people who were consigned to the bread lines."
But what Lanier takes away from this is apparently that automation is bad.


What I take away is not that he's complaining about automation, but rather about filesharing of music: "I’d been an early advocate of making information free ... what I started to see is that once we made information free, it wasn’t that we consigned all the big stars to the bread lines. Instead, it was the middle-class people [in the music industry] who were consigned to the bread lines."
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From:ian_tiberius
Date:December 28th, 2012 11:27 pm (UTC)
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I quoted that paragraph because I wanted to use his "studio manager with cancer" line as a jumping-off point - he blames filesharing, and while that may be accurate in this instance, I think it's missing the forest for the trees. If unemployed people can't get health care, let's address the health care issue directly rather than pretending the problem is that people sometimes lose their jobs.

I should not have conflated that with his other arguments where he seems to disapprove of technology and automation in general - his attack on Google Translate for putting human translators out of work, for example. I disagree with that, but for different reasons (already covered above, so I won't reiterate.)

As I say, not all of his arguments are crazy. But some of his arguments are so ridiculous that I am disinclined to take him seriously as a spokesman for anything, especially when there are plenty of people who can advocate more cogently against filesharing or on-line anonymity. The fact that he was once on one side of an issue, and is now on the other side, is not definitive proof of sagacity.

Edited at 2012-12-28 11:28 pm (UTC)

Journal of No. 118