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When Are We Peers, When Are We Exploited? Rsp to NYT Op Ed by Jaron Lanier

The always interesting and controversial Jaron Lanier has a very clear and pointed op ed in today's New York Times, "Fixing the Digital Economy":      Lanier argues that, in the past, new technologies have generated a range of new middle-class occupations.  By contrast, the Internet revolution has worked to centralize power and economics in ways not seen since (this is my term, not his, the robber baron era of the last great Information Age, the end of the nineteenth century).  Lanier notes (and I could not agree more): 

"A healthy middle class is essential to both business and politics. Markets cannot function without customers, and government cannot remain democratic if wealth is overly concentrated. . . . In this century, however,  we have forgotten that wisdom and decided that when it comes to digital networks, more and more people will not be paid for what they do even though what they’re doing is needed. Jobs involving communication and expression (music, journalism and so forth) are suddenly much harder to come by, because information is now held to be free."

What is so crucial about Lanier saying this is that he is not only one of the early pioneers of the Internet (he is one of the pioneers of Virtual Reality), he is publicly reversing ideas he held in the past about the importance of peer-contribution and open-contribution.   His point is that, unless we reverse a growing tendency to have more and more unremunerated labor and more and more centralized corporate and individual wealth, we will end up with what he says, with his usual powerful metaphors,  wealth distribution that, "Instead of a bell curve . . . looks like a razor-thin skyscraper dragging an emaciated 'long tail' behind it."   


He paints a dystopic future:  "More and more activities will be operated by software. Instead of Teamsters, there will be robotic trucks. Where there had once been miners, there will be mining robots. Instead of factories, there will be 3-D printers in every home. Experimental robots have already outperformed many a white-collar worker, including the legal researcher, the pharmacist and the scientific investigator. . . .There are always real people behind the curtain. The rise of inequality isn’t because of people not being needed — more precisely, it’s because of an illusion that they aren’t even there."

Read that paragraph again.  And then reread it.  Think about it.   It could not be more important, especially in view of the increasing inequality and income gap throughout the world but increasing faster in the outsourcing, off-shoring, technocentric U.S. than anywhere else.   Where is the future?  Who owns that future?  How can the rest of us claim it back?


Lanier's provocations are becoming more and more pointed over time.   I think about them a lot when I teach "21st century literacies."  It is hugely important, in my opinion, to be teaching young people---from preschool to professional school---what they need to know to be prepared (one might say "to arm themselves") for an increasingly complex future where the odds are stacked against their economic success.  Personally, I think every four year old should be learning to code, using fabulous programs designed for kids like Scratch (which will soon be available in a pre-school form), not so they can grow up to be programmers, but so they can grow up understanding the building blocks of this society they are entering.  


The move to teach the 3R's in the 19th century wasn't so you could grow up to be a professional journalist or a professional accountant, but because these were survival skills on the way to independent adulthood.  Learning the basics of how the Internet works--starting with HTML as the "fourth R"--is a survival skill, and so is learning about security, privacy, surveillance, intellectual property, and, to return to Lanier's point, when  "open" and "free" mean the ability to contribute ideas and learn together in a community where everyone is sharing, versus a very different software-dominated world where "contributing" means "making yourself available to exploitation."   We beam up our photos using Instagram and, because of that heavily populated site, Instagram can be purchased by Facebook for a billion dollars and suddenly that photo of me holding a Bud in the backyard becomes an advertisement for Bud.   And maybe for landscape companies, too, if my yard just happens to be beautiful.   Who owns my image?   Who owns me?  These are crucailly important questions that every child should understand . . . and so should every adult too!

I continue to love peer-to-peer learning and I cannot imagine giving that up to return, for example, to traditional top-down teaching.  I see my students learn and grow and become engaged and contribute even as they learn a variety of project management and social skills rarely touched in the typical classroom.   But I also want my students to know where and when their peer contributions are part of their own growth and when they are part of someone else's business plan.  

There has always been abundant volunteer labor fueling social good in society.  Church groups, community programs, recreational sports, farmer's markets, festivals, parades, protests:   we collectively have contributed our time and expertise and attention for "free" probably since the beginning of time, understanding that if the community in which we live improves, we improve, and our "free" contribution to that community is also a contribution to our own well-being as social beings.   But understanding where satisfying and rewarding (in all senses) contribution ends and exploitation begins is a 21st century literacy.  

Jaron Lanier's important and pointed deconstruction of the "information wants to be free" anthem must remind us all that, if we are to be free, we also have to protect ourselves from exploitation and rethink contribution when it serves someone else's bottom line and not our own well-being. 






1 comment

In the first place, monetizing, as Lanier suggests, has already been done by the likes of Google and some of the big-guys. Ironically, it's just better data than they used to get from sales figures from places like Macy's and Gimbel's, A & P and the like. And better data actually just mean less waste - which correlates with more profit, but also more speed, more "efficiency," "effectiveness," and "output."

But the second place is more interesting: how to produce data that can be used by consumers, or by those who want to actually serve those consumers and may or may not want to maximize cash profits. That sequence of verbs, adverbs and adjectives is really important: "actually serve," "want to maximize" and "cash profits" particularly. Nonprofits - and schools for that matter - don't really know how or what they mean by serve, let alone who they mean by consumers. Often it is not their students, nor even parents. Frequently it is employers, unions, and trades, but those are changing so fast the nonprofits can't keep up. And they really don't understand that issue of "maximize," since it's too easy to assume "cash" is an adequate measure. As that "cash" gets more centralized, it shifts from a direct to indirect measure: how much financial aid high school graduates get, for example, rather than their eventual income; how quickly a hospital releases a patient, regardless of complex diagnoses. 

The way to challenge Lanier's conclusions is to challenge his oversimplification - test scores and income, for one example; treatment costs or prevention benefits for a health example. We know already, to continue that second example, that rapid treatment reduces the infection rates of HIV/AIDS by over 95%. So, it pays to diagnose early and treat early, in spite of how much that treatment costs, since each new case is about $400,000 and they can produce lots more cases when they go on waiting lists the way they do in Texas. Massachusetts makes out big time, while more judgmental states, with lower rates of insureds, lose billions.

And Lanier's conclusions are just as false in education: we know the value of collaboration, of teams, of inquiry and exploring project-based subjects. We just ignore those values when we only use tests as a measurement. So, use more and different measures - "big data" has got lots of options ranging from attendance to timeliness, from discipline to volunteerism.

In other words, choose more and better words than Lanier himself, and we'll get more from more and better data than we got thirty and a hundred years ago from tests and expulsion rates.