Information Wants to Be Free, but the World Isn’t Ready
Every few years, one of my friends from the early days of digital enthusiasm turns up on the media’s radar as a “defector.” Huzzah! The former advocate or progenitor of the Next New Thing has turned into a flaming critic. Perhaps he or she has even issued a jeremiad against the former Great Hope of All Humanity. It’s a turnkey, media-ready narrative, easy to convey and easy for a low-attention reading public to digest: He was for it. Now he’s agin’ it. You can tweet that and have enough characters left over for a haiku.
Jaron Lanier, who emerged into the media spotlight in the early ’90s as the chief spokesperson for Virtual Reality, seems to be having a longer — and more vocal — run at this sort of thing than most. In “Half A Manifesto,” published in Wired (2000), Lanier struck out against what he saw as a cybernetic totalism wherein some techno enthusiasts were laboring to create our nonbiological replacement species. You Are Not A Gadget (2011) went a bit further into “fighting the future,” exploring the ways in which Web 2.0 disruption depersonalized or was economically unfair to “creatives.” The latest chapter of this saga, “What Turned Jaron Lanier Against the Web,” is the much-ballyhooed portrait by Ron Rosenbaum for Smithsonian Magazine that portrays Jaron as being like a “spy who came in from the cold.”
I partly agree with every point that Jaron Lanier makes in the Smithsonian article… with the emphasis on partly. But there is one place where I stand, politically, in opposition to Lanier’s implicit stance: that whole “information wants to be free” thing.