This story is co-published with Sluice, the London-based experimental artist collective, and appears in its Autumn/Winter 2019 number, “Mycorrhiza and Extancy.” Grateful thanks to Jack Smurthwaite and Karl England.
Toward the end of September 2019 Jaron Lanier, a computer pioneer often referred to as “the father of virtual reality,” published a video in the New York Times called “Jaron Lanier Fixes the Internet.” The piece expands on ideas Lanier has written about for a long time, notably in his 2013 book Who Owns the Future?
The linchpin of Lanier’s vision is that people should be paid for sharing their data. According to him, this innovation would solve the problems of the World Wide Web as it is currently constituted. But exactly how people (symbolized, in the video, by a handsome couple in a very large loft, celebrating the arrival of what is quite clearly a plastic baby) will “make money” by sharing their personal news is left entirely undefined. In the video, three one-dollar bills float down to the happy couple from an undisclosed source above them.
“We’ll have to invent a lot of things,” Lanier says breezily.
I totally agree with Lanier that people should be compensated for their participation online in order to restore a fair and egalitarian spirit to the global human network that constitutes the Web. I also agree that “we’ll have to invent a lot of things” to get there, and have even gone ahead and invented some, with the help of our friends and colleagues at Popula and before that, with our friends at Civil.
Where Lanier and I differ is that I believe it will be necessary to ensure that middlemen are eliminated, so that nobody can get rich, or acquire any kind of monopoly power, over this new and better network. In the specific case of media, the complete elimination of middlemen is the only way I know of to protect privacy, speech rights and press freedom.
Various ideas similar to Lanier’s have begun to take shape in recent years, particularly since the introduction of Bitcoin in 2009. Blockchain technology provides an attractive vehicle for network innovation because it was invented specifically in order to produce incorruptible, distributed recordkeeping systems, and (relatedly) because of its spectacularly brilliant, efficient means of handling currency-like transactions.
The Brave browser, for example, a blockchain-based system with its own crypto token (called BAT), compensates users for their attention to advertisements. Ad networks pay Brave, and Brave shares a portion of these funds with the ad-watching users of their browser, keeping a cut for itself.
But both Brave and Lanier’s proposed systems interfere with the organic operations of the network by introducing a central authority—a platform, middleman, or gatekeeper—perhaps a better word would be “ruler.” The ruler of the network has the ultimate power to control the flow of information, compensation and connections between its users. This centralization of authority ensures that the ruler will, eventually and invariably, come to concentrate solely on the arrogation of profits to itself, reducing network participants to virtual sharecroppers or worse.
This pattern has emerged at every large platform: Google, Paypal, Facebook, Amazon, eBay. Where there is power to control interactions within the network—and money to be got by it—the human aspects of the network erode, and eventually cease to exist as such. Eventually, inevitably, the network’s organic functions degrade into a single business function: all is subsumed into a source of fuel for the ruler.
Note that Wikipedia, where control is distributed and in the hands of users, was spared this fate.
Such networks may begin (as Facebook, Paypal and Google did) as free- or low-cost, ad-free providers of desirable services, but they all slowly devolve into bloodsuckers. There’s no reason to believe that the same won’t happen to Brave, as it would to the vague system Lanier describes.
So long as there is a middleman to skim something from each transaction, that system will eventually deteriorate; rather than serving people’s interests, people will inevitably be made to serve theirs.
One possible way to combat this tendency is to eliminate middlemen entirely, as we are doing on a very small scale here at Popula. Popula is a journalist-owned independent publisher, whose equity will be continually held in trust; 100% of the company’s ownership will be retained on behalf of the people who work here, for as long as the project exists.
That means nobody can get rich from it, or buy it, or invest in it. By this means we ensure Popula’s complete editorial freedom, and also protect the project from the control of would-be censors and/or profiteers. The only money that flows into Popula comes from readers and direct donations; it can only be used for the project. Direct donors receive nothing in return except the continued existence of the project. Protecting the business aspect of the network against profiteering and censorship come first.
Secondly, as the beginnings of a system for compensating participants, we’ve designed and launched microtipping features so that authors can receive tips (in ETH cryptocurrency) directly from readers who’ve enjoyed their work. Popula takes no cut of these transactions. Because crypto is so frictionless, tips between Popula users can be very small and delivered at minimal cost.
Paying Popula subscribers can also make comments on any piece, and those comments are themselves eligible for tips. We have a lot of plans for expanding on this system, which we’ll be sharing as we go.
Popula’s fledgling cryptoeconomy demonstrates
- how comment moderation costs can easily be lowered
- how to enable a more egalitarian flow of resources within the network, and
- how even a small publication can offer these benefits sustainably.
There’s a lot of nostalgia now for the World Wide Web of the 1990s, before the platform companies began to turn the internet into a surveillance machine and a petri dish for authoritarianism—before they’d begun torpedoing the world’s democracies. What began as an organic network comprised of free individuals, a naively diverse and egalitarian ecosystem, in about fifteen years succumbed to the opportunistic strain of monopolistic activity represented by the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Peter Thiel and Mark Zuckerberg.
Marshall McLuhan said in a 1969 Playboy interview that “the computer… holds out the promise of… universal understanding and unity, a state of absorption in the Logos that could knit mankind into one family and create a perpetuity of harmony and peace.” If that were to happen, it would mean curtains for the Man, which is why they are fighting us information activists tooth and claw.
There are two key questions to keep in mind as you consider your participation in the online future:
1) Am I spending money?—and if I am, who is ending up with it? and,
2) Am I receiving adequate value in exchange for my participation, time and attention?
You might not think that just one person’s answer to these questions is so important, but it is. Each person’s answer is crucial. We’re facing a moment where most of the human race and our information economy will either develop into a true, global, egalitarian network, or succumb to slavery.
As a veteran of Internet 1.0 who founded my first commercial website more than twenty years ago, I’ve watched all this happen with increasing alarm. But the free spirit of the original Web is not entirely at an end—not even in oppressive nations like Cuba, Hong Kong, China and Egypt, where, despite vicious authoritarian clampdowns over the internet, inventive people are finding and developing all kinds of clever workarounds in order to publish and communicate freely, away from the control of autocrats, censors or profiteers. It’s possible to move forward from where we find ourselves—one modest proof being the fact that you’re reading this—and to reestablish the Web as a free, egalitarian space for communication, rather than a controlled space for profit-making.