The possibility of socialism, the efficacy and ethics of global capitalism, the 99%–there is a lot of talk about economics and income inequality in the news. However, few of these conversations put contemporary economics into a technological context as forcefully as Jaron Lanier’s 2013 book Who Owns The Future does.  In considering why this is the case, I am reminded of this quote by economist John Maynard Keynes:

“Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back”

Globally, we are heirs to ideas from Karl Marx, the French Revolutionists, American Revolutionists, and Keynes himself and others.  The focus of most books about economics is thus the Nation-State, and economic relations between nation states.  However, our economic woes, Lanier contends, cannot be solved with old-world economics (if the last few years are any indication, even economists no longer understand the economy).  The mechanisms that have arisen with the internet have and will continue to fail to adequately reward citizens for their labor and contributions to this new society, defunct being the key word in the quote above.  Jaron Lanier has silicon valley street-cred as the inventor of virtual reality.  His book inspired several others and continues to steer the conversation.

Lanier’s sometimes rambling but often brilliant writing is essentially a tirade against what he describes as “Siren Servers”, large internet corporations like Google, Instagram and Uber that shrink and ultimately kill (“disrupt”) old economies.  Capitalism online has had a large hand in hollowing out the middle class from certain industries, exasperating income inequality.

To use one of Lanier’s examples, Kodak once employed 140,000 individuals and was worth 128 billion. By contrast, Instagram employed 12 people when it was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012. Yet photographic images remain every bit as important to our daily lives, perhaps even more central than they were. The music industry too, once employed producers, recording engineers, CD manufacturers, truck drivers hauling CD’s, record stores, etc. that’s not even to mention musicians. Now, the main players like Spotify have business models centered not on the production of music as a commodity, but on algorithms that track and record your musical interests. Music has been devalued while the value that comes with being algorithmically tracked has increased. As with photography, music remains important, yet our continued enjoyment of music no longer serves the middle class nor music producers or consumers. The main beneficiaries of these two “industries” now are the heads of large international corporations–the people with the most expensive and effective servers. What industries are next?

This trend will continue as social media platforms and siren servers dominate and decimate older industries, replacing labor forces with computers, servers and algorithms.  No amount of getting the money out of politics or regulating wall street (although that would help) will make American great again nor solve the issue that our old laws and ideas about labor are not equipped to handle ephemeral, infinitely replicated commodities of the information age, nor the value that comes with being algorithmically tracked.  Taking a critical look at how the current infrastructures of digital technologies might better serve a middle class economy requires some intensely imaginative thinking: Jaron Lanier and others have suggested that individuals simply get paid to create the content they are already creating.

Who Owns the Future - Jaron Lanier

Who Owns the Future – Jaron Lanier

Lanier’s ideas are overarching and cover any kind of content including a humble blog post like this one.  This post, for example, has taken time and energy–labor.  If this post is shared on Facebook, surely it will be read and shared more than it will be on my site.  Yet, Facebook stands to benefit more than I will by turning the reader’s eyes into the commodity.  This is the catch 22 that plagues modern producers of digital content.  In this landscape, content and labor are continually devalued while the gatekeepers (those with the Siren Servers) and not the producers ultimately benefit.

As a recording artist and visual artist, these concerns hit close to home.  Like Lanier, I had limited success in the music industry before it was torn apart (or self-destructed, depending on your perspective) by the internet and other forces.  Working in a mostly functioning industry that centered around the production of creative works provided me a first-hand look at how intellectual property laws can work to protect and serve creators.  This is an experience that few producers of content enjoy today.  Most artists and musicians I know know little, if anything, about intellectual property.  How is it that intellectual property laws are completely arcane to today’s most prolific creators of intellectual property?  This is simply because these laws no long protect the vast majority of creative individuals.  As creative works become easier and easier to produce while economies are engulfed by siren servers, those hurt the most are individuals who have dedicated their lives to the production of creative works.

Intellectual Property laws were written in an age where property and labor were physical.  While industrial revolution began to shift this paradigm, the internet has made these laws ineffective and often irrelevant.  Today, while creative works remain intrinsically valuable, from an economic standpoint the value is now in the transmission of content and the recording not of the song or image but of the actions of consumers.  Contemporary art thinkers have long predicted this shift in psychology and critical evaluation with the term relational aesthetics.  Now our technology has caught up.

It is true that digital images, like the physical prints that prefigured them, are protected by copyright law.  An internet user is not legally permitted to take photos from someone else’s site and claim ownership, post them, sell prints, etc.  In a system based on labor and physical goods, in order to steal a photograph, Jimmy would have had to walk into Jill’s house when she was not home and physically remove the print from her darkroom.  Today, Jimmy can visit, right click save as and “own” the digital photo.  Jimmy may chose to present the photo on his own site as his own, sell prints of the photo, or extract value out of it in some other way.  That is “piracy” at its most benign.  But who is responsible to flag Jimmy’s illegal usage in order to challenge or fine him?  Is it Jill’s responsibility to continually search all billion pages of the internet to see if someone is using her image?

Unlike the current music industry or the image industry, the pre-Napster music industry, despite payola, bloated contracts, was a functioning economy.  Songwriters doing the creative work of songwriting were paid every time a songs reached the ears of consumers.  Physical labor and intellectual labor were rewarded.  Within the music industry, there are performance rights groups that collect royalties for usages of music and pay those royalties to the owners and producers of content.  In retrospect, the music industry seems like a miraculous moment of societal intellectual property protection, making distinctions between different kinds of music uses and rights like mechanical royalties, performance royalties, etc.

Images today are performative in a musical sense.  An image shows up on a screen and then it’s gone.  Another image shows up.  Images operate temporally.  Images are no longer static pictures hanging on a wall, nor even magazine spreads that may require a moment of your time.  But unlike music performance rights groups like ASCAP and BMI, there are no viable image performing rights services that track the use or “performance” of images.  The reasons for this will become clear.

Images, because they were historically understood as paintings or prints on 2D surface (although now they effectively operate in the realm of 4D) were never thought to be worthy of performative protections.  Because the performative value of images is not recognized by copyright law, there is no revenue stream of royalties.  Because there is no revenue stream, no individual or company is motivated to create a service to track the performance of images. Artists and philosophers foresaw the coming ubiquity of images, but no one fought to set up systems of economic protection.  Conversely, because artists and philosophers are generally anticapitalist, and internet culture was initially a counterculture that actively sought ways to subvert or “disrupt” old systems and avoid paying people and corporations for things, the result is now that artists and non-artists alike must waive all of their intellectual property rights in order to be able to use online services at all. That’s not really free, is it?  (I can think of only one other economic system where individuals continually work for free for the benefit of those in power because they believe–rightly or wrongly–that they have no choice).

Glyph - digital print on fabric -

What’s an image anyway?  Glyph – digital print on fabric –

Let’s check in again with Jimmy.  Knowing Jill is a light sleeper, Jimmy decides not to rob her of her photos afterall.  Instead, cognizant of Jill’s innate human desire to share her creativity with the world at large, he offers her a deal: he will post her photos all over town, for free, as promotion.  Local businesses notice that customers are attracted to Jill’s compelling images, and begin paying Jimmy a small amount for beautifying their properties.  While visiting these businesses, surely, customers will notice Jill’s beautiful photos and be inclined to contact her for photographic services.  While many do indeed notice and appreciate (and even like!) her photos, Jill sadly does not receive even one phone call for photographic services, despite years of training and clear facility.  If this sounds like Instagram or Facebook, “image industries” you are right.  The difference between Jimmy’s Image Industry and say, components of the music industry like terrestrial radio or record stores is that the new image industry distribution companies do not pay producers of images.  Rather, in order to use Facebook, Google, or even an Apple computer users must accept lengthy contracts that strip away their rights and, unlike the music industry where content creators would receive advances in exchange for usage, are paid nothing for it. (Youtube has finally started to pay some royalties).

An information economy is not an economy of property or labor but of quantifiable, ethereal, media of numbers.  This understanding of labor and property has no precedent.  Silicon valley entrepreneurs have been able to capitalize on the system’s novelty while consumers and artists continue to embrace abstract ideas of sharing, open and free without stopping to think critically about what those words mean in this new context.  Content is the new religion, the new electricity, giving life and interest to all moments of daily life.  But unlike electricity, the line between producer and consumer has been blurred.
Who Owns the Future?  In short, it’s not those creating it.