Review: You are not a gadget

There are two things which seem to get criticised even more than the weather these days, and they are politics and computer technology. I’ll save political criticism for a later post, and today address the latter.

It’s quite easy as a young person to be quick to defend the merits of IT. For someone who grew up at the same time that these technologies were starting to mature, all this stuff is second nature. As much as we (the young) might be tempted to disregard criticisms of technology as the failure of an older generation to adapt to the exciting rapid evolution of computing, there are actually some serious failures of the Silicon Valley philosophy that affect all of us, and need to be addressed.

You are not a gadget coverIn “You are not a gadget”, computer scientist and musician Jaron Lanier points out these failures. Some of them will be familiar — such as the tendency for “trolling” on the internet — whilst others are more subtle and abstract, like the limitation of the “wisdom of crowds” to actually generate whatever it is it is supposed to be being wise about. There are too many other observations within the book that I can’t come close to summarising them here, so I would suggest that if you’re interested, read the book!

Here, however, I want to focus on one particular criticism: that of intellectual property being devalued by the “free” or “open” internet culture. I want to explore whether this is an appropriate criticism, and what possible paths there are going forward.

There seems to be something within our culture at the moment that conflicts with the idea of paying for things where the marginal cost of distribution is so low.  Music for example, is so readily available on the internet, and distributable at virtually no cost, that when we are expected to pay for it, we can be repulsed by the idea.  There is also a significant movement at the moment for skill-sharing, which has gained traction both on- and off-line.  Consumers of these free services naturally praise their freeness, and glorify those services that make their free distribution possible, YouTube, for example.

But even YouTube must cover its costs, which it does through advertising, advertising that is itself heavily criticised amongst YouTube’s users, and the producers often get nothing.

So what legitimate justification might we use for this material to be free to the consumer?

One is that it serves as advertising for the producers themselves.  A musician, for example, may use their YouTube channel to advertise their music so that they can earn money through their live gigs.  But very few bands have been able to make money this way, especially if they don’t already have some other advantage, such as an existing dedicated fan-base. For journalists, this is even worse, as someone who can read your column online for free is actually much less likely to buy the physical newspaper or magazine through which you may be paid.

The other is that it serves a non-monetary benefit to the producer.  This could be in the social interaction with other people, or that warm fuzzy feel that comes with giving people gifts, or the feedback that you get from others online to improve your skills. If you are able to afford this, and have weighed up your costs against your benefits, then there’s not really anything wrong with this as a form of non-monetary trade. But it should be recognised that any producer taking this approach is definitely the one losing out financially, and may also be diminishing the value of their art in general, through the potential lost income of their own and competitors’ revenue streams.

How are producers expected to cover their costs, and get a slice for their creative input, if there is no mechanism through which they can earn money from it?

It is not surprising to me that the best recording artists will only distribute their work on fee-paying sites and writers still publish their books in physical form. These are still relatively reliable ways of being paid for your creative work, although they are constantly being threatened by free web-based services that sometimes win out, despite their lower quality, simply by being free.

But wouldn’t it be better if technology really enriched our lives, both socially and financially?  Shouldn’t the producers of creative expression be rewarded for what they publish on the internet, as well as what they publish in the physical world? What’s more, wouldn’t the online economy work better if there were some way of guaranteeing its quality, rather than relying on the vague hope that some geeky expert was committed enough to the education of others for free that they wrote a Wikipedia article on their chosen subject.  There are plenty of subjects that don’t have good Wikipedia articles, and the reason will usually be because they are far too complex subjects to be worth an expert’s time and effort writing and publishing a Wikipedia article when they aren’t getting paid to do so.  The same must also be true of other art forms.  There would (as Lanier suggests) be a much greater level of musical innovation if artists thought it worth their while financially to put the effort in.

But there is still something in me warning that simply restricting information to those with the cash to buy it is also risky and unfair, particularly in a time when financial inequality is so vast.  Unfortunately, that inequality is already there.  Any truly innovative company with enough financial backing just won’t publish its intellectual property, because they know that to do so would ruin their business.  Meanwhile, those who are impoverished anyway, by not being able to earn anything from their creative talents, are at the same time the people who cannot afford to buy from others the types of things that they themselves might like to supply.

The potential for collaboration, meanwhile, could well be affected by monetising intellectual property that is currently available for free, but certain things could change that.

One is that the information is left publicly available, pretty much as it is, but that new social convention dictates that anyone who uses that information should pay the producer to the extent that they are able.

Another is that information is restricted, but that closed subscription-based networks pop up that allow access to that information, as long as the users abide by certain rules, such as not to redistribute.

Or finally, that producers raise money before they do their work, by, for example, crowd-funding or private benefactors, who then may or may not want to take a financial cut, depending on the nature of their other benefits (such as having a free copy of the resulting work).

Despite the title of this post being a review of Jaron Lanier’s book, I’ve actually expressed far more of my own opinion here, in a way that I hope Lanier would be proud of (he says several times that online commentary should be the blogger’s own expression, rather than a rehash of their inspiration), but feel I have gone far enough.

If these sorts of ideas interest you, then buy his book (but not from Amazon because they cost the UK millions of pounds in tax avoidance). Simple as.



  1. Posted 8 January, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Interesting. One of the other big risks of doing stuff for free is that it is financially unsustainable. The whole dot-com bubble was based on hyped up companies that were making massive losses for years at a time, often with no business plan that would make them viable. There are still multiple startup services every year that then collapse,or simply get bought into a bigger corporate-owned service.

    I’ve been stung a couple of times by getting used to an online service (my much missed Flock browser, for example) which then vanished. I’m much more likely to pay for things now.

    I think the internet is probably learning this too as it matures as a technology. I see Gmail is now a paid service for organisations and businesses, crowdfunding is increasingly popular, and the two-tier services with a premium paid-for option is pretty standard too. I wouldn’t be surprised if Facebook or Twitter launch premium upgrades at some point.

  2. Posted 8 January, 2013 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Thanks Jeremy!, which was originally a independent service but is now owned by twitter, has a premium upgrade, so they’re already heading in that direction! And Facebook recently asked me if I wanted to “promote” a status update, which was a paid for service.

    As a journalist, you must have an interest in getting paid for work. Out of interest, do you write for any newspapers? Or have paid contributions to other blogs? With it being add-free and Creative Commons, do you get any income stream from your blog, which must take quite a bit of work being frequently updated with such high-quality content?

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