By Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and a columnist for Discover (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 20/11/07):
Internet idealists like me have long had an easy answer for creative types — like the striking screenwriters in Hollywood — who feel threatened by the unremunerative nature of our new Eden: stop whining and figure out how to join the party!
That’s the line I spouted when I was part of the birthing celebrations for the Web. I even wrote a manifesto titled “Piracy Is Your Friend.” But I was wrong. We were all wrong.
Like so many in Silicon Valley in the 1990s, I thought the Web would increase business opportunities for writers and artists. Instead they have decreased. Most of the big names in the industry — Google, Facebook, MySpace and increasingly even Apple and Microsoft — are now in the business of assembling content from unpaid Internet users to sell advertising to other Internet users. (Disclosure: I’m the scholar at large for Microsoft Live Labs, and I once was part of a company that Google bought.)
There’s an almost religious belief in the Valley that charging for content is bad. The only business plan in sight is ever more advertising. One might ask what will be left to advertise once everyone is aggregated.
How long must creative people wait for the Web’s new wealth to find a path to their doors? A decade is a long enough time that idealism and hope are no longer enough. If there’s one practice technologists ought to embrace, it is the evaluation of empirical results.
To help writers and artists earn a living online, software engineers and Internet evangelists need to exercise the power they hold as designers. Information is free on the Internet because we created the system to be that way.
We could design information systems so that people can pay for content — so that anyone has the chance of becoming a widely read author and yet can also be paid. Information could be universally accessible but on an affordable instead of an absolutely free basis.
People happily pay for content in certain Internet ecosystems, provided the ecosystems are delightful. People love paying for virtual art, clothing and other items in virtual worlds like Second Life, for instance. Something similar is going on for music within the ecosystem of the iPod. (I am an adviser to Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life.)
Affordable turns out to be much harder than free when it comes to information technology, but we are smart enough to figure it out. We owe it to ourselves and to our creative friends to acknowledge the negative results of our old idealism. We need to grow up.