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Jaron Lanier Says ‘Happy Birthday’ to Web — and Talks About Making It Better

| March 13, 2014
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Jaron Lanier, author of "Who Owns the Future," says that despite his reservations about how the World Wide Web is playing out, he's still an optimist. (JD Lasica/Flickr)

Jaron Lanier, author of “Who Owns the Future,” says that despite his reservations about how the World Wide Web is playing out, he’s still an optimist. (JD Lasica/Flickr)

The World Wide Web‘s 25th birthday has prompted a lot of reflecting on what it has helped achieve and where it has missed its mark.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the Web’s inventor, shared this reflection on Google’s blog:

“By design, the underlying Internet and the WWW are non-hierarchical, decentralized and radically open. The web can be made to work with any type of information, on any device, with any software, in any language. You can link to any piece of information. You don’t need to ask for permission. What you create is limited only by your imagination.”

That idealism, laced with a little disappointment and some strong warnings, was shared by Internet pioneer and author Jaron Lanier during his appearance on KQED’s “Forum” on Wednesday.

As proud as Lanier is of networking technology’s many achievements (he cites its key role in battling global climate change as an example), he argues that the focus of the Web and emerging technologies needs to change — or the free market, the middle class and even democracy are at risk.

One of the most regrettable developments of digital networks, according to Lanier: the collection of user data as a major industry.

The problem with exchanging free Internet services for users’ data is that “it makes every different kind of company, no matter what they do, compete for the same batch of customers who are the so-called advertisers,” said Lanier. “We end up forcing ourselves into this zero-sum game in this narrow world that’s of our own invention and serves no purpose.”

One solution that Lanier proposes: Companies paying individuals for the content they share.

One solution that Lanier proposes: companies paying individuals for the content they share. Lanier says that would spread wealth beyond a few “elites” and help bolster the middle class.

“It undoes the financial incentive of just controlling the data because the people who made it would get a piece of the pie,” said Lanier.

Plus, money could be invested into a greater variety of technology, and companies “would actually have to provide value to earn money,” said Lanier.

Despite his misgivings, Lanier said, “The good stuff we claim for networking and for cloud computing is very real. It’s very necessary stuff. There was no way we were going to this perfect the first time.”

You can listen to Lanier’s full comments on everything from self-driving cars to why he’s an optimist — and his infectious giggle — here:

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About the Author ()

Amanda Stupi is the Engagement Producer for KQED’s daily public affairs program Forum. In that role she turns the information shared during the hour-long call-in show into web-friendly content. Her writing has been featured throughout KQED.org, including on KQED Arts and News Fix as well as on MLB.com, Hyphen Magazine and the San Francisco Examiner. Her radio work has aired on The California Report and Talk of the Nation. Stupi runs the @KQEDForum Twitter account and Forum Facebook account. Her personal Twitter account is @FiftyCentHotdog. She believes that Hostess products get a bad rap and that cereal can save the world. Reach Amanda Stupi at astupi@kqed.org.
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