DIGITAL AMERICA

Jaron Lanier and The Disappearance of the Middle Class

// Posted by on 03/23/2014 (11:56 PM)

Timberg’s article “Jaron Lanier: The Internet destroyed the middle class,” includes a very interesting interview between Timberg and Lanier about his book, “Who Owns the Future?”, and the problems that arise when the concentration of wealth and power is in the hands of very few people.

One of Web 2.0 intellectual Jaron Lanier’s main arguments in his book, “Who Owns the Future?”, is that “free” information on the Internet is leading to the disappearance of the middle class. Lanier criticizes big Web entities, such as Facebook and Google, and their business model. One of the examples he gives in the interview is that Kodak (now bankrupt) employed more than 140,000 people, while Instagram employs 13. Where did all those jobs disappear? This concentration of wealth leads to an intense concentration of formal benefits.

Many of his arguments are also highlighted on The Colbert Report, where Lanier suggested the concentration of wealth is “unhealthy,” because “real wealth” is dependent on everyone else’s wealth– a community of wealth. If there is a concentration of wealth, then that is not real wealth, it is “fake, brittle, phony, it falls apart.” Open economy is a new development, and it is not sustainable.

Lanier argues that we have talked ourselves into a weird double-economy—if material things are what’s being distributed, then we believe in material markets, but if it is information, creativity, the work of comedians and journalists etc., we think it should be shared and open. But, there is danger in that, as this shift from a formal economy to an informal economy puts all the information and workers into one area, so regular people are not getting credited for their information and value their work provides. In the formal economy, people who make contributions to the system receive formal benefits such as salary and pensions. Therefore, Lanier’s proposed solution is that those people involved in the informal economy facilitated by the Internet be “rewarded in micropayments when their data enriches a digital network.” An example Lanier continues to highlight is the issue of online translators. The algorithms that make up the online translators take away people’s jobs, as these corporations “mine” peoples’ skills without crediting them.

Lanier does not completely discredit the development of the informal economy. He believes that there is beauty in the trust that these systems work on, but in a world that is still in most ways a formal economy, one cannot rely on informal benefits, such as cultural capital, to pay for rent or raise kids, etc., “it is not biologically real.”

In Lanier’s view, the benefits of reinstating the middle class distribution of wealth and power are huge—“democracy is destabilized if there isn’t a broad distribution of wealth.” This idea of democracy and the Internet is one we have been grappling with throughout the whole course, and is one that continues to be questioned as we explore further.


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Comments:


Cassaundra said...

You do an excellent job in this post of highlighting some of Lanier’s main arguments that overlap with other articles and topics we have been studying in class so far. Lanier’s claim that “free” information is causing the middle class to dissipate can be tied into Goodman’s article, “The Digital Divide is Still Leaving Americans Behind.” The fact that there is so much available online limits those who cannot afford an internet connection at home. Many companies require online application submissions for jobs, and college applications become much more tedious and difficult without the ability to access the Common Application online. In the article, Susan Crawford, a telecommunications experts, goes so far as to say that “It makes zero sense that in this nation people are not able to do school work or basic communication. It’s not the people’s fault. It’s the marketplace’s fault.” I can see validity in the claim that placing wealth in the hands of a few has diminished the middle class, and the internet has given these people the power to do so. With jobs diminishing as some companies, like Instagram, hiring so few people, the digital divide is bound to widen as without a steady job, internet access will continue to not be in the budget for many families. Outrage over the concentration of wealth is also what gave rise to protests like Occupy Wall Street, which ironically grew due to the publicity and ease of communication provided by Twitter and smart phone messaging. I struggle a bit with my opinion on what Lanier refers to as our current “double-economy.” On the one hand, I do believe it is crucial to reinstate the middle class, and recognize that having machines do the work of humans is detracting from the job market. On the other hand, I see the benefits to using machines and technology in industries like trade, where we learned that it would be incredibly inefficient and impossible to have humans doing the job of transmitting data as machines make less error than humans, and the data needs to travel much faster than humans are capable of delivering. I’ve been a proponent of information being free thus far, but do you think it truly is negatively impacting our economy?

// 03/24/2014 at 12:25 pm

Claire said...

Your blog post really made me think about the topic of the shrinking middle class. I feel this is a relatively well known fact that is happening in today’s society however we cease to take action in making the system more in balanced. This reminded me a lot of a recent documentary I viewed “Waiting for Superman.” This documentary examines the public school system and how it is inherently flawed. Most of what was brought up referenced the teachers unions and poor distribution of money but what stuck out at me was how a good portion of the film was devoted to how the U.S is doing a subpar job at educating its students in math and science. It pointed out how many of these tech companies had jobs available but could not find the U.S citizens to fill them. This relates back to the widening of the income gap in how we educate our children With the system so unbalanced it is no wonder that lower class and even middle class students are falling, not in the middle, but at the bottom of income wages. Is this just the way that society is evolving and the naturally flow of the economy? When it was no longer the norm for people to be employed in factories because of mechanization those people had to acquire skills they were otherwise lacking in order to succeed. Is this different? It is startling however to look at the statistic of Kodak employing 140,00 people versus instagrams 13, however that’s no to say that these tech companies don’t hire huge numbers of people. Laniers solution of micropayments when their data enriches a digital network would be nice but seem highly unlikely or unrealistic to implement. The only solution I can see is improving our education system to allow all children entering the public school system access to better science and math departments. While this may still kept the income gap growing it would however employ more people and allow U.S citizens to take advantage of the jobs the internet is creating in the moment.

// 03/31/2014 at 10:49 pm