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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.

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.

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13 Thoughts on "Jaron Lanier Discusses Power Laws, Centralized Publishing, and the Social Perils of Free Information"

Interesting ideas, but I would disagree with the assertion that “attribution” is non-economic. Attribution has large economic value for the creator of intellectual content, regardless of whether and who sells the copies of it.

Analogy between music and science:

The music industry is moaning about the destructive impact of free copying. But remember, musicians did earn a living for hundreds if not thousands of years before copying sound was possible. Musicians (both composers and performers) earned a living by gaining recognition and then people (or single wealthy sponsors) paying for them to make new music, and for performing it live. Yes, Mozart did not end up at the top 1% income class like some modern entertainers do, but then again, is it really necessary for entertainers to be among the best-paid citizens of a society anyway?

Of course, if most economic flow for creative work comes indirectly (via attribution) through e.g. invitations to create more (=a research grant, academic tenure), or selling in-person performances (= a concert, a speaking invitation), then most middle-men (record labels, publishers) get less. Whether that is considered a good or a bad thing, depends I guess on whether you are a creator, a copy-seller, or a consumer of creative works.

Attribution is weakly economic for everyone but the author, which is why authors submit papers for free, and more often now pay to submit or have them published. A citation (the baseline of attribution) is worth a lot to an academic, for the reasons you cite. However, there is a false trade off potentially here, in that copyright doesn’t threaten attribution, but an attribution-only attitude threatens the benefits of copyright. And there are plenty of benefits, including a healthier overall information macroeconomy. For authors to have outlets, publishers have to exist, and they need more than attribution to exist. No publisher exists purely for attribution. If attribution had economic value for publishers, then the most-cited journals would cost the most. This is generally not the case.

There is no real analogy between music and science. People will listen to “More Than a Feeling” over and over, but they usually only read a paper a few times at most, and most often only read a title or abstract before moving on. Music is widely popular and very approachable — children can sing and appreciate music, but science requires training and privileges to funding, devices, and permissions. We spent quite a few years thinking about “the iTunes of science” and similar things, but ultimately, it doesn’t work because a) science has no “White Album” and, b) I won’t buy the same science again and again.

Agree with JANNESEPPANEN re the economic value of attribution, especially in academia where attribution leads directly and indirectly (via impact metrics) to promotion, tenure, grants, consultancies and so on. Attribution can lead to significant economic benefits.
I would also point out that the “information wants to be free” argument is a straw man propped up by those who think that their economic interests are served by the current revenue-driven systems for publishing.
What information really wants to be is as frictionless as possible.

Define “frictionless.”

Do you mean “without jargon or the need for specialized knowledge to comprehend it”? Do you mean “written clearly so it can be understood in a straightforward manner”? Or is it about transmission speed, multimodal availability, appropriateness to context, etc.

Define “frictionless,” and explain why information wants it. Information seems unadorned of intentionality, to me. I think it comes down to what those who hold information want, which is where the tension lies. Sometimes, we want information to be secret, sometimes we want to be paid for it, and sometimes we want to shout in the streets. Maybe we should put the locus of intention where it rightly belongs.

Two of the quotes you pull from Lanier go on a little further, and raise points that are worth mentioning as well:
When discussing Xerox Parc (typo in the original article) and why copying became something they used there, the reasoning is given as follows:

And the answer was really interesting. They said, “You know, we’re sponsored by a copying machine company, Xerox, and so we simply cannot say that even in the abstract copying will become obsolete.” So, in a sense, it was an anachronism used to please a sponsor.

The other is where he’s talking about “the wisdom of the 20th century”, and how we’re reneging on it. That wisdom is in the paragraph above the one you quote:

…markets can’t thrive without customers, so you need a middle class to be the customers. So, for instance, Henry Ford, who was a complete creep and otherwise, it has to be said, but in this particular way was very enlightened, where he said, you know, I can’t just put a product out there. I have to create a whole ecosystem in which my product will have customers. And that means making sure that my own factory workers can afford to buy the product. So the pricing has to match what wages can handle. And it also means supporting the idea of industries that treat it as a monetized function, because otherwise it’ll never take off. And so there was this understanding at that time that you have to build a monetized ecosystem.

And to me, that’s particularly apt because we live in an era of short-term thinking. All you have to do is get the company to the point where it can have a successful IPO, or be bought out by someone else. Either way, you cash out relatively quickly. You don’t have to worry about the long term, about running an actual business that has customers and makes money. The ecosystem no longer seems to matter because the business’ founders will be long gone before its chickens come home to roost:

…in the long term, of course, you’re shrinking markets and, indeed, destroying the market economy without a clear alternative. And so that’s the problem with our third act so far, and we have to figure out a way to resolve it.

You seem to be talking about the swarm of venture startups but there is a great deal more to the information industry.

I think the logic could be extended beyond startups. If you run a business around aggregating news stories from newspapers, then you may be in trouble if your business drives those sources out of existence. Similarly, a company profiting by selling music in a way that makes it impossible for musicians to earn a living, or books in a way that makes being an author impossible.

It is normal for industrial revolutions to lead to power law distributions. For that matter the pre-revolutionary information industry had and still has its own power law distributions, such as journal publishers. But where we are going is far from clear.

Forces like unions and copyright law have been correctives to power laws in the industrial and information pasts, forcing those benefiting from power laws to relinquish some of the gains for the broader good, which ultimately proved to be a win-win, as the middle class grew rich enough to become customers and fill in a more robust economy. Now, the Internet information economy faces us. Will we have the courage and foresight to create the new digital middle class? That seems to be a question on Lanier’s mind.

Where we are going is far from clear, but that doesn’t mean we have to be passive in the face of uncertainty. Perhaps it’s in our analytical natures to merely observe, but maybe the times call for a more involved approach.

I agree that “consumption” of music and science are entirely different, but the aspects of value of attribution, and free copying in internet, may well have analogous ramifications if free copying amplifies the value of attribution:

Twenty years ago, you needed the machinery of a record label, to have any hope of making it as a musician. Today, a talented musician/performer may initiate a career by freely sharing productions in YouTube. Because sharing is free, word of her talent spreads wide and fast, and soon the musician can earn a living by giving concerts people do want to pay for, and otherwise being hired to perform. While never asking people to pay for electronic copies.

No real analogy to science? Not yet, but book at what is happening at github. Originally a version-control system for programmers, scientists now write serious books there. And then give an electronic copy away for free, while selling hardcovers on demand via, and surely reaping the indirect benefits via author attribution also. Is free information (economically) perilous then? For whom? Does it lead to centralized behemoths grabbing all the fruits, or does it facilitate more even distribution, allowing smaller private entities (even individuals) to share in the pie?

So, is an interesting example. No bookstores. No trucks taking books to bookstores. No agents selling books to a publisher. No cover designers (usually). No composition artists laying out pages. This is the middle class that’s being shut out in the book business, for example. Sure, a relatively well-off scientist can dash off a book as a hobby, but the healthy middle of bookdom is withering away — the midlist and the middlemen. Is the “book economy” healthier and more robust and more dominant because of github and lulu? Probably not. In fact, they are helping it to shrink, living off the exhaust.

The connection to science you point out is not an analogy, by the way. Just a connection, but one that sheds light on the larger macroeconomic issues Lanier points to. And I quote:

. . . 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.

And I quote too (thanks to it being freely available to me):

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.

In the the case of the book I mentioned people probably will pay each other. Readers who want to have the textbook on their shelf will pay the authors directly, while before they would have paid to the central hub (a publisher). I would not be surprised if, because electronic version is freely available, the hardcover of this arcane math textbook will sell much more than it would have otherwise. Lulu takes 20% commission allowing it to invest and create new kinds of jobs, and of course, printing and delivering will still require labour. Is that a shrinking effect on economy, I doubt? Rather than living off an exhaust of a dying industry, perhaps free information is sometimes creating more, not less, equitable versions of those industries? A bookstore chain suffers, right, a large academic publisher lost this book’s revenue, yes, but it is much easier for a small player to create a service by themselves in this environment, adding some value (traditional things like cover design, or professional composition, or something entirely new that did not exists in the print age), and be paid for that.

The flaw is immediately clear — “probably” will pay each other. The e-version is free, so why pay? 20% of zero is zero. And that, my friend, is the shrinking effect on the economy.

(Aside — quoting from a book is fair use under copyright law, so there’s nothing in the current paid content environment preventing you from quoting from a book, magazine, etc. “Free” is not a prerequisite for progress, as the 20th century showed. In fact, the shrinking macroeconomy of information may be slowing down progress.)

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