Last week, I found myself circling sections in a transcript of a recent podcast in IEEE Spectrum in which Steven Cherry interviewed polymath Jaron Lanier. The reason for all the jotting and underlining and circling was that Lanier was saying things — albeit, about the information economy writ large, and not specifically about scholarly publishing — that were new, challenging, and interesting. And since scholarly publishing has many traits of the larger information economy, with a few that are notably our own, much of what was discussed was relevant and provocative.
Lanier is a composer, computer scientist, visual artist, and original thinker. In the IEEE Spectrum interview, he’s asked for his surprising views on the damage free information is doing to the information economy. Lanier is out on the publicity circuit after publishing his new book, “Who Owns the Future?”
Because I haven’t read the book yet, I have to limit my comments here to the interview, which seems to pose a few provocative questions, at the very least:
- Why is the information economy not thriving universally given the vast increase in access to and uses of information? Why does much of it seem to be struggling or failing?
- What has made “free information” an expectation?
- What harm is the expectation of free information doing to the information economy and those in it?
- Why aren’t the participants in the modern information economy — namely, us — getting paid by those who are making all the money?
- What does free information mean for power relationships in a high-tech and information-dense society?
Lanier thinks a main problem is that we’re allowing the information economy to become subject to a power law, whereas the information economy we’re familiar with is based more on a bell curve power distribution. A bell curve outcome has a lot of winners in the middle. A power law outcome has fewer players, less diversity, and fewer people getting paid for creating information. As he states it:
. . . if you have people all competing for their place to be sorted by a single central hub, then you get a power law.
To Lanier, these power laws are “winner take all” situations, where there are a few beneficiaries gleaning most of the gains from a larger set of work. The recent court decision regarding Apple, while necessary given the facts of the case, consequently provides Amazon with a clear path toward invoking a power law around retail books and e-books, given its predilection for both low margins and the long game. The concentration of audiences around YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are other examples of a power law in effect.
Lanier also doesn’t accept the argument that micropayments or other forms of reimbursement aren’t possible, going so far as to assert that Clay Shirky, who famously argued that micropayments are untenable, “is going to be remembered as the Lysenko of economics someday.” In fact, micropayments or other approaches to the networked economy may be exactly what keeps us from painting ourselves into a power law corner. (If you think micropayments aren’t possible, I ask you to review any recent cable or cell phone bill, or think about iTunes. Or royalties in general.)
In Lanier’s power law scenario, “central servers” shut out competition and often don’t pay for information, creating a huge disparity in wealth and a gutting of the middle-class of information providers. We’ve seen this with mid-tier authors as the book market has become subject to a power law; we’re potentially going to see it over the next decade with mid-tier journals if some current trends continue. On the other hand, cable television (which distributes money to everyone who participates, functioning more like a sports league) seems to thrive using digital subscriptions because it maintains the middle class (Food Network, anyone?).
Despite focusing on the consumer information economy, Lanier inadvertently touches on many concepts and controversies that brought aspects of our world to mind. It’s a bit scattershot, but here’s a sampling of what I got out of reading the interview.
Copyright and Creative Commons — Lanier recants his “information should be free” stance in a manner that touches on things like copyright and Creative Commons alternatives, among other things:
The only problem is that right now the economics of richly connected networks is such that only the central server makes money, and then the people don’t pay each other. That’s treated as free information. Great examples to me are the free systems of Linux or Wikipedia, which are supported by people who do think information should be free, which is a view I used to have but no longer do.
Copyright doesn’t prevent people from using information — it merely requires people who want to use information to negotiate with the owner. Sometimes, money is transacted, but not all the time. However, when “people don’t pay each other,” the economy is damaged. That payment may be barter, trade, or commerce, but Creative Commons CC-BY only requires the non-economic factor of “attribution.” Copyright supports economic activity. That is not a criticism.
The “everyone’s a publisher” fallacy — Lanier touches on the fallacy that “everyone’s a publisher,” but not by calling out the fallacy, but rather by talking about the damage that could be wrought by buying into the fallacy, and not recognizing the power law being invoked when authors believe platforms like Facebook and WordPress and Twitter are making them “publishers.” He does this via an analogy about how, when cars were more complicated and difficult to use, we paid drivers but ultimately engineered cars that are so easy to drive that only a small minority of individuals actually get paid to drive anymore. If the day of self-driving cars comes, even this could go away:
We’re going to renege on the wisdom of the 20th century. We’re going to reject it. We’re going to say, sure, maybe it was still okay to pay people when they were driving vehicles, but you know what? At this point it’s ridiculous. Life’s getting so easy, vehicles can drive themselves. It’s time to stop paying people.
Everyone’s a publisher could lead to completely automated publishing, which again drives the power law. Which system will dominate the person-less publishing environment? The problem is that the inherent assumption is that publishing is about technology. As I mentioned in an earlier post, publishing isn’t about using technology nearly as much as it is about shouldering risk on behalf of content creators. If you write for Facebook or Twitter, you’re an author, not a publisher. With power laws driving a “winner takes all” future of automated publishing, the risk ultimately centralizes in a “too big to fail” scenario, as the winner radiates away all risk and settles on a risk-free model, one that might include, as banks seemingly have concluded their model should, the occasional government and public bailout.
Peer-review, technology, and even running a basic business creates expenses — Of course, one of the lessons of open access (OA) publishing has been that even what seems to be a Valhalla of free information turns out to be expensive. As Lanier talks about it, again through analogy:
Why don’t we have perpetual motion? The answer is that the very act of computing, the act of discrimination, the act of measurement, the act of even the smallest manipulation in response to those things, the act of keeping track of it all so you know what you’re doing, all that stuff is real work. And it takes energy. It radiates its own waste heat. It’s real work. And you can never get ahead. There’s no free lunch.
I explored this topic last year, studying the hidden expense of energy in digital publishing, which is not a trivial expense, even if it’s often overlooked. In addition, we’ve recently seen that posting author manuscripts in a useful manner costs the US government about $50 a pop, while the hosting costs are hidden in other budgets. In short, there is no free lunch, which suggests single-payment APC systems are actually expense-side retrospective Ponzi schemes — the newer papers are paying the older papers an expense royalty, such that the oldest paper in an OA repository is the most subsidized.
Mendeley — One section of the interview seemed to evoke the story of Mendeley, in which a hub for papers became worth tens of millions of dollars despite generating only thousands in revenue. Of course, this hub put a power law in effect. Lanier spares nothing when lambasting companies who claim revolutionary traits, leverage a power law effect for a time, but ultimately leave the world poorer:
. . . there may be a heroin-like hit because the initial phases of it feel really good, in the initial phases you can have little tiny companies that become incredibly valuable because they’ve become hubs of data, and people can get free treats online. . . . But in the long term, of course, they’re shrinking markets and, indeed, destroying the market economy without a clear alternative.
The PubMed Central model — One of the fundamental puzzles of PMC is why it stores redundant versions of articles, making it duplicative with publishers. This continues despite evidence that this hurts publishers, including OA publishers, and despite the expense this creates for the US government. Initiatives like CHORUS would allow users to access content as easily, but without threatening publisher traffic or requiring redundant hosting and effort. Lanier touches on the fundamental bassackwardness of a duplicative repository in the networked age:
Well, copying is a strange idea if you think about it from first principles. . . . if you have a network, the original’s right there, so why would you copy it? . . . In the book, I tell a story about when I was a kid, visiting Xerox Park the first time in the ’70s and asking people, you know, “Why the hell are you copying files here when they had created Ethernet?” . . . it makes information less valuable because it loses context. . . . it creates the illusion that the information just came from the sky or from angels or sirens or some imaginary place.
Governmental intrusion in the age of free information — We often think of free information as a panacea, but Lanier sees a clear downside — a huge social price may be looming. One of the most interesting aspects of his interview is his discussion of the value of information and why users of it should pay. Here, he touches on the NSA metadata program and cyberspying in general:
. . . we don’t issue the police an arbitrary number of free batons and police cars and guns; they have to pay for them out of a budget. . . . the citizenry isn’t a citizenry unless it controls the power of the purse. . . . if we say the government doesn’t have to pay for information, that’s the same as giving them a license for infinite spying, which eventually means infinite power as technology becomes more advanced. It’s an absolutely unviable alternative. . . . you can’t have a democracy in a highly evolved information society if information is free.
Overall, it’s a fascinating interview that touches on a number of topics in the wind currently. I plan to read the book, and do some thinking about these issues. “Free” is a price that has consequences. As we see what happens when information remains or becomes free, those consequences become clearer and require more serious thought. Ultimately, “free” could make us less free.