Nina Paley vs. Jaron Lanier
from the take-your-pick dept
Okay, so we had said that we were just going to do one post debunking Jaron Lanier’s new hatred for everything about “open culture,” but WNYC recently had a nice little debate between Nina Paley and Jaron Lanier — and the thing that amazed me is how unprepared to debate these topics Lanier appears to be. Admittedly, some of it is just that Lanier loses his train of thought a few times, but that’s really not what stands out. He rarely seems to have an actual point. You can pretty much sum up his position as “but, artists need to make money and after 10 years, they haven’t been able to online, so it’s a failure.” But that’s it. Nothing in what he says explains how to change things. It’s just pining for the way things used to be. And whenever he’s confronted on specific points, he either falls back to saying “well, I made up that argument originally, but now I know it’s wrong” without ever explaining why it’s wrong, or saying “well, I’m not an absolutist, so I could maybe see how free could be helpful.” His discussion about the length of copyright and whether copyright should go to kids and grandkids is quite telling. He doesn’t seem to understand the issues at play, doesn’t have a clear train of thought, and goes back and forth and makes totally arbitrary claims, such as, “well, I don’t know, I think it’s okay to pass it on to your kids, but if it’s for your grand kids, okay, I guess I can see that that’s starting to be too much.” Why? Not clear.
The one point that really does need to be refuted is that he seems to believe that artificial scarcity somehow makes people pay. He talks about the importance of a “social contract” to have people “pay for others’ brains.” He says “people need to be secure that they’re earning their dignity and don’t need to sing for their supper every night.” But that confuses a few different issues. Having the government step in and ramp up copyright laws doesn’t earn anyone their dignity. Providing products that people actually want to pay for does. And that’s the point that Lanier seems to miss. He tries to support the importance of “artificial scarcity” by using money as an example, saying that money only works because it’s artificially scarce. But that’s a total misunderstanding of money. Money works because it’s a proxy for value, so it isn’t actually artificially scarce at all. It’s legitimately scarce, because if you print more money, the value of the money already in the system goes down (inflation) meaning that you have to pay more to get the same thing. It works because it’s a proxy for that scarce value. It’s not an artificial scarcity at all. He later agrees with Nina when she talks about the importance of real scarcity, but fails to recognize that real scarcity makes sense, whereas artificial scarcity is actually economically limiting.
Lanier also makes an odd claim that the old studio/label system allowed for a “middle class” of content creators. But that’s really not true. For most who go through that system it’s totally hit or miss, with most missing. But with new business models, we’re seeing more and more people who are able to make a perfect middle class living by not having to wait for the gatekeepers. More people are making money due to their music today than ever before, and it’s because they have all sorts of different ways to make money.
Nina, not surprisingly, does an excellent job responding to each of Lanier’s points. He brings up the inevitable claim that “but people could take your film and do stuff with it!” and she points out that she wants that, and knows that her fans are smart enough to know the difference between her original and what others do with her film.
All in all it’s a fun debate to listen to, but I have to admit that I would have found it a lot more interesting if Lanier actually sounded like he understood the topic at hand beyond the superficial level.