EDITORS NOTES Jaron Lanier is not a Luddite. He's one of the most brilliant technologists in the world, the virtual inventor of virtual reality and one of the first people calling for information (and music) to be free. He was a tech giant when most of today's tech titans were in their disposable diapers. So when he starts talking about how the Internet is destroying the middle class, everybody ought to listen.
And that's exactly what he saying in his new book, Who Owns the Future?
Lanier is 53; he's been around long enough to see some of the best promises our modern industrial era turn out to be failures or lies. He's got a little perspective on things — and he's not happy with what he's seeing.
We all know American capitalism is a force for disruption and destruction as well as creativity and creation. We all know that industries are born and die. The automobile replaced the horse and buggy. And in a lot of today's conventional thinking, the tech revolution is just another step in the same direction.
Lanier has another perspective. The current light-speed, youth-driven tech economy has undermined the social contract that has been part of the United States political and economic systems since the Great Depression: People ought to have the right to job security, a decent wage, and the chance to have a family and grow old.
In an interview with Salon, Lanier notes:
"We don't realize that our society and our democracy ultimately rest on the stability of middle-class jobs. When I talk to libertarians and socialists, they have this weird belief that everybody's this abstract robot that won't ever get sick or have kids or get old. It's like everybody's this eternal freelancer who can afford downtime and can self-fund until they find their magic moment or something.
"The way society actually works is there's some mechanism of basic stability so that the majority of people can outspend the elite so we can have a democracy. That's the thing we're destroying, and that's really the thing I'm hoping to preserve. So we can look at musicians and artists and journalists as the canaries in the coal mine, and is this the precedent that we want to follow for our doctors and lawyers and nurses and everybody else? Because technology will get to everybody eventually."
Hey Googlers and Twitterati and Facebookians: You should listen, sometimes, to your elders.