On Capitalism and Jaron’s Views on Capitalism

I consider myself a conservative Republican; I am in fact a Bush administration appointee, in a small-potatoes way. (I’m on the board of the National Endowment for the Arts, and was confirmed by Congress.) But capitalism strikes me as the spoiled brat of the political and philosophical universe.

I strongly agree with Jaron: people don’t need to declare their loyalty to capitalism every time they open their mouths. Everyone knows about capitalism’s successes; we need to spare a little attention for its failures too. The US university is one big one. Everyone knows that elite US universities occupy the wacko left of the ideological spectrum. Because they run the ed schools, they’ve gradually turned the public schools into wacko-left institutions also, where children learn every day about all the awful things (aand none of the good ones)the US, western civilization, amd white men in general have foisted off on the world.

Why does it work this way? In part because humanities and social science professors are paid approximately nothing. They’ve always earned less than their accountants, but nowadays I’ll bet they make an order of magnitude less. (Science profs are underpaid too, but at least we have consulting opportunities, etc.) Why shouldn’t U.S. humanities professors hate this country and hate capitalism when their mediocre-ist students routinely get rich while their professors can’t even pay their damned bills? Do we really think this is a clever way to run a country—to pay the people who have maximum influence on the attitudes of young people so little that they’re bound to be resentful and angry? Nowadays, colleges that have managed their portfolios well are swimming in money and are putting up new buildings right and left. How much of that filters down to the faculty? Zero.

And why do we want to be a nation that worships rich people anyway? Conspicuous consumption used to be bad taste. Unfortunately taste has been abolished. And students have never been so obsessed with money, and so indifferent to spiritual things. It’s not the tech industry’s fault. But the next time a multi-billionaire tech bigshot tells me how wonderful capitalism is, I’m going to throw up. Obviously they think it’s wonderful. But there’s more to life. Jaron is one of the few top technologists I know who makes an attempt to speak about the “more.”

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.”