Computer philosophy writer and “founding father of virtual reality” Jaron Lanier chats with The Verge’s editor-in-chief Nilay Patel about why he’s optimistic about the future in this week’s Vergecast interview. Lanier shares his thoughts on how the “manipulation economy” has reshaped the world we live in and why we should be controlling and profiting from our own data.
You can listen to the discussion in its entirety on The Vergecast right now. Below is a lightly edited excerpt from this interview regarding some of Jaron’s ideas about how we could potentially monetize our own data and avoid our increasing fear of obsolescence.
Nilay Patel: How do you make people’s data valuable? Do you have to pass a law?
Jaron Lanier: It has to come from multiple directions at once. I think there should be laws. I think people should be encouraged to take advantage of labor law if it’s powerful in whatever country they live in or whatever other body of law might be available in order to bargain for the value of their data and be able to create mids that extract value for the benefit of the people the data comes from on their own terms.
You’re talking about a very powerful idea that I want to make a literal, which is when you use a tech platform like Google, Facebook, Apple News, whatever. When you use a computer you are doing labor that is valuable. That’s the core of what you’re saying right now, that when you use these platforms and you use the software you’re not just receiving benefits, you are actually doing some work. You’re generating some data that should be right at some level.
The usual example I’ve been using which, just because it’s the clearest, it’s the one of language translation. So right now people who translate between languages for a living have been seeing a reduction in their career prospects that’s very similar to what’s happened to recording musicians and investigative journalists and photographers and so on. What happens is where there used to be a kind of a bell curve of outcomes where the majority of people had careers at a certain level and a few people did very well and a few people just, you know, crashed out of it. We’re seeing what we call a zip curve where there are just a tiny number that do well and everybody else is flattened and we see that in YouTube content producers and in many other systems.
Language translators used to be a bell curve and they turned into zip curve. Now the interesting thing about this is that the natural first reaction all of us have is that language translators have turned into buggy whips, that it’s very sad but this is what happens. And for those who don’t know, the buggy whip is the classical example of something that’s gone obsolete. They were used to motivate horses when carriages were drawn by horses and when the internal combustion engine came along, this whole industry of buggy whips just went away. But the thing is they’re not buggy whips and the reason why is that language is alive. Every single day there’s new culture and news and memes and all this stuff. And so every single day new examples have to be gathered to update the database that allows automatic translation to happen. The thing is we’re not paying anybody for that data. And so it’s a very weird situation where we’re saying “Hey, you’re obsolete, you’re a buggy whip, except we still need you but we just won’t admit we need you.” And that’s the twist.
In the past, whenever there’s been new technology, jobs have gotten better because we acknowledged that the new kinds of jobs that are needed by whatever the new technology is will turn out to be better. Usually the new kinds of jobs are more dignified and less dangerous and filthy and awful than the old jobs. That should be the case now. But the twist is we’re pretending that we don’t need the people, we’re pretending that the new kind of job doesn’t exist. We’re putting it into the same category as what used to be women’s work or slaves work or something like that. And so when you take a whole class of creativity and value and you say “Hey, this isn’t real, this is just nothing,” then of course you’re going to sort of make people feel kind of unwelcomed by the future. You’re going to make people feel unneeded and it’s a terrible thing to do to humanity. It’s inhumane.
The next idea I’m a little less confident about, but I want to share it anyway because it’s been haunting me lately. I’ve been reading the materials of the worst people in the world, like the guy who attacked the mosque in New Zealand and other people who “self radicalize” often on gaming boards or similar. And when you read what these people talk about, it doesn’t matter if they’re white-skinned or if they’re Islamic or whatever, they have this bizarre fear that they’re going to be made obsolete, that they’re going to be replaced. The replacement theory that the New Zealand guy was talking about was that his race would be replaced by immigrants, but you find variants of it elsewhere, like with the horrible people at the Charlottesville rally were saying “Jews will not replace us.” Actually they initially started “You will not replace us” and then it turned to Jews.
I’ve been thinking about this replacement theme and I think what it might be is people just feeling that modernity in the future no longer really needs them, no longer really wants them, and that they’re being replaced by where the future is going — that they’re becoming obsolete. And so in a sense, they might be responding to all of our rhetoric about AI and how everybody’s just going to have to go on universal basic income, like if we advertise I sing every single day that I can. You know it’s going to surpass people in this way or that way. I think a lot of people have this feeling like “Wow, this is not the world that needs me.” And I think that’s one of the worst things you can hear.