Reply to Lanier

Jaron Lanier raises some interesting points–more, in fact, than I can address here. But two aspects of his essay particularly struck me because they jibe so closely with what’s going on in my life right now.

On the tension between the agora and the antigora, his points seem to have a lot to do with some things I’ve observed about the tension between big and small. Those two things aren’t always parallel: the Internet is big, but open, and plenty of clubs are small, but closed. But there seem to be some parallels. In this essay on small and big, I noted that big entities–like eBay–make it possible for lots of small businesses to form. (I expand on this point at considerable length in my forthcoming book, An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths). I’m pretty sure that eBay counts as an “antigora”–you have to join, and eBay has the authority to keep you out if it wants–but in fact it functions as something very close to an agora. (Jaron calls it a “semigora,” which actually seems about right).

In the agora of the Internet, issues of trust and communication serve as significant barriers; in the antigora of eBay, those problems are (mostly) addressed. (eBay also offers health insurance to its “power sellers,” and it’s not all that hard to become a power seller; its antigoran nature lets it use its buying power to get them better deals than people could get in the agora on their own.) On the other hand, eBay can exist only because it’s embedded in the larger open space of the Internet agora. And lots of people started using the Internet regularly because it provided access to antigoras, or semigoras, like eBay and Amazon.

This makes me wonder if the semigoras (Jaron’s neologism is already catching on!) might not prove to be very fertile places for innovation and growth on the Internet – a sort of informational tidal basin exploiting the boundary between two different zones. Or perhaps I’ve just fallen into a very 1990s sort of metaphor…

In these respects, I think I agree with Eric S. Raymond, who observed:

“antigoras” are actually reputational agoras (Michael Goldhaber and others have since popularized this idea under the rubric of the “attention economy”).

In the other direction, agoras morph into antigoras when they need capital concentrations to keep functioning; one good example of this is IMDB. Wikipedia may be beginning a similar transition right now. This isn’t to be feared, it’s just an adaptive response–nobody, after all, is actually forced to “slave” in an antigora. I think one of the consequences of communications costs being driven towards zero is that social organizations are more likely to undergo such phase changes during their lifetimes.

Eric’s also right that only a highly productive economy can support a gift economy across large numbers of people, and that echoes a theme that I’ve sounded in An Army of Davids: We may achieve the worker’s paradise, but it will be through the interplay of technology and markets, rather than via the mechanisms favored by 20 th Century advocates of socialism.

Jaron also notes another theme that I’ve sounded: The empowerment of ordinary people is a good thing, but it also carries with it the dangers inherent in empowering bad people. In a world in which individuals have the powers formerly enjoyed by nation-states, an already-shrinking planet can get pretty small.

To me, this is another reason why we should favor space exploration and – more significantly, over the long run – space colonization. (As I wrote a while back, “Stephen Hawking says that humanity won’t survive the next thousand years unless we colonize space. I think that Hawking is an optimist.”) And, it happens, the empowerment of individuals and small groups that we’re seeing elsewhere is also going on here, with significant progress in space technology taking place now that it’s moving out of the hands of a government monopoly. Let’s hope it moves fast enough.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In our techno-Utopian dreams, the advance of the internet is “a little like a cross between Adam Smith and Albert Einstein; the Invisible Hand accelerating toward the speed of light,” says tech visionary Jaron Lanier in this month’s big-thinking lead essay. Yet, according to Lanier, we chug along saddled by the illusion that the Internet is mainly a technological rather than a cultural phenomenon. Software, Lanier argues, is “brittle” and can continue to function only when backed by what he calls “Antigoras”– “privately owned digital meeting arenas made rich by unpaid or marginally paid labor … tweaking the global system of digital devices so that the bits in the various pieces of software remain functional and meaningful.” Antigoras are indispensable, but “if software stays brittle,” Lanier says, “there will be a huge dampening effect on any hyper-speed takeoff plans of the digital elite.” Takeoff velocity requires a reorientation that acknowledges that the “the Net is precisely the generosity and warmth of humanity connecting with itself.”

Response Essays

  • Open source software guru Eric S. Raymond takes issue with Lanier’s characterization of “lock-in,” his antipathy to the command line, and his discussion of ambiguity. Raymond claims that if Lanier’s point was just that the Internet is “a conduit of expression between people,” then he would stop in agreement. But, he writes, “the actual point seems to be to maintain an opposition between capitalism and (gift) culture that I think is … mistaken.”

  • Glenn Reynolds — taking pieces from both Lanier and Raymond — argues that small proprietary zones within the big open Internet — “semigoras” in Lanier’s terms — might prove “very fertile places for innovation and growth on the Internet” with the potential to empower individuals and small groups to “achieve the worker’s paradise” through technology and markets.

  • Ten years after his “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” John Perry Barlow insists that “the Internet continues to be an anti-sovereign social space, endowing billions with capacities for free expression that would have been unthinkable a generation ago.” A liberating future is still ahead, Barlow argues, but we must be on guard against a deep fact of both biology and markets: “New success inspires creativity. Old success tries to kill it.”