DDD Episode 002

Could Memes Become an Economy? ft. Jaron Lanier

Jaron: Design is all about the power balance between the individual and whatever’s being given to the individual by other forces, other sources.

Julia: Welcome to Design Despite Disciplines, a podcast series for the master of design program at UC Berkeley, where we explore the important fissures and emerging territories of interdisciplinary design practice.

This is ” Could Memes Become an Economy? ” featuring Jaron Lanier.We are your hosts Julia Park, Zhiyue Wang, and Elijah Lee.

Julia: Picture this: a cat with a Poptart for its body, flying through the sky. If you aren’t familiar with Nyan Cat, this may not make sense to you. Actually, I’m not sure it makes sense to anyone.

This delightful meme rose to the internet hall of fame 10 years ago; and it’s this weird animation of a cat Pop-Tart thing, leaving behind a trail of rainbows while singing this cheery song.

Sound effect:
*Nyan Cat Music*

Julia: Seriously, go watch it. The video is sitting at 186 million views on YouTube.

If you could purchase this masterpiece, that’s freely available on YouTube, how much would you pay for it? Well, apparently $600,000, says the internet.

The creator, Christopher Torres sold a slightly touched up version of Nyan Cat this year as a form of what’s called crypto art in a world where digital images and digital videos can be reproduced online for free, via a simple copy and paste function. Why on earth would anyone purchase a digital file for 600 grand?

So crypto art is a form of tokenized digital art created using what’s called a non fungible token. If you’re confused, I know. Non fungible token meant nothing to me a couple of weeks ago. So let me try to explain it as I understand it. When you create a piece of crypto art, this digital thing called a non fungible token gets made along with it, which basically announces to the world, “Hey, I’m a piece of art.” It’s kind of similar to cryptocurrency like Bitcoin in that it’s built off of blockchain technology, but the difference between a Bitcoin token and this crypto art token really comes down to interchangeability. You can exchange one Bitcoin for another, right? And it doesn’t matter.

A Bitcoin is a Bitcoin the same way that a dollar is a dollar. But only one token exists for each piece of crypto art and it cannot be exchanged for another. The tokens are unique. What this means is that when you purchase a piece of crypto art, you’re purchasing the bragging rights to say that you own that digital art piece, because you own the one token that exists for it.

Even if someone else comes along and copies and pastes it, no one else can own that token. So when you get one of these tokens, you also typically get licensing rights granted by the author to display this piece of art on your website or social media.

Your identity and your transaction of purchasing the artwork is logged forever in the digital ledger of the crypto art. And that’s valuable in the crypto art collectors community, both socially and financially.

If you’re still confused as to why people might spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a digital file… For me, the best way of looking at it is that it allows the community to directly pay the artist for art that might otherwise be viewed for free. Depending on where you sell your crypto art, every time it’s resold to another buyer, the original artist probably gets a percentage of that resale value.

So there’s something very egalitarian and fair about this way of paying the creator. And the buyer also sees exactly how they’re paying for something. The transaction is clear and it is upfront. Most of this work is sold through crypto art marketplaces, where anybody can go and just buy a piece of art.

Crypto art marketplaces are a very different model from other platforms like YouTube that pay their content creators through ad based revenue. You might’ve heard something about the controversy about these ad based revenue models, which by the way, dominates the technology industry. And you might be thinking, “So what? Ads existed on TV a long time before the internet came along! So what is the big fuss about?” Well, the difference is that these new types of ads are targeted to people and they do this by using algorithms that invisibly track your behavior. The ads are not necessarily the problem, but the algorithms that collect your data are they keep note of what you watch and then recommend videos based on what you watch.

YouTube’s goal is to keep users on their site consuming video after video, which again, you might be thinking here, “Well, it’s a business. Of course they want you to stay on their website!”

But the problem here is that certain topics like hate speech, conspiracy theories, and topics meant to enrage audiences are much more likely to get views and hold onto your interest, which means more ad money for YouTube. This means creators are financially incentivized to create inflammatory content capable of modifying your beliefs, distorting reality.

It can do all sorts of things like fuel misinformation, create echo chambers that only show you what you already believe. And that all is determined by these algorithms that catalog your behavior on their website. It’s not fun for creators either. The ability of their work to show up on someone’s feed or recommendations depends on the virality of their content and the invisible algorithms. Literally lines of code influence what creators make.

Elijah: To further explore the digital ecosystem that’s fueled by targeted ads harvested from users’ data, we sat down with Jaron Lanier. He is a computer science philosopher, writer, and activist against giant social media platforms. Oh, I almost forgot, he is also known for being the father of virtual reality. Here he is talking about algorithms. ”

Jaron: The bigger thing that just enrages me is the advertising business model, where you have companies like Facebook and Google making all their money from third parties who think they can get in between other people in order to influence those people.

And it turns the whole society into just a game of who can be the trickiest, who can be the most manipulative. If our whole civilization is about who can trick somebody else the best, if there’s nothing else, why are we even bothering with it?

Elijah: So, how does the father of virtual reality become entangled with digital activism and why should we pay any attention to him? Well, it turns out Jaron has a remarkable track record of predicting digital ethical issues way before his time. Although recently, Jaron’s criticism about invasive data collection brought a lot of attention in recent media, he was an outspoken critic way before others started seeing it as a problem.

Jaron: I had an essay in 92 about how bots online could throw elections and make the world crazy.

So that’s- you know, whatever, 28 years ago or something 29 years ago.

The main reason that many of us knew this could be a problem is that the very, very, very, very, very first implementation of a network computer that somebody could actually use was designed by BF Skinner, the famous behaviorist.

And he did this in the Midwest. This was before the ARPANET and well before the internet and way before the web; this was in the early sixties and Skinner who had previously worked mostly with pigeons and rats. By the way, um, the way Skinner would modify behavior was by giving them a single button to press to reduce the amount of behavioral feedback he could measure to try to make the algorithms work better.

Cause he didn’t have computers. They have to be hand scored and that morphed directly into the like button in Facebook. But you know, there’s a whole interesting history of manipulation here. But from Skinner’s point of view, a manipulated society is what you wanted. What he wanted to do was have a central authority that would conduct constant behavior modification in order to have the society.

And that was true in the nineties as well. And it was true in the aughts for most, for the most part. You never knew that the first implementation of a network computers was explicitly to modify people’s behavior and control them.

Elijah: Unfortunately targeted ads and user data collection is extremely lucrative. The top companies in the world rely heavily on this way of making money. I mean, in the last fiscal year alone, Google raked in a whopping $182 billion dollars. But as companies and people become more aware of the damage that these algorithms can do to a society, I wonder what other market strategies might be proposed? Jaron Lanier talked to us about a few ideas he has about avoiding looking at people as data points. One alternative, he talked to us about is if we consider providing data as labor, rather than selling data as capital. In other words, the data you elect to provide is a labor that you can be compensated for.

Jaron: So French artists have unseverable moral rights to their art. They can’t sell their art completely. So it’s not capital. It’s not this thing that’s property that can be sold. So it’s not intellectual property because the idea of property is something that can be bought and sold and turned into capital.

It’s a new form of creativity. What we should see in the future economies instead of more and more people, depending on universal basic income, there should be more and more people who are members of creative classes that didn’t even exist before supporting, uh, data provision to different kinds of machine learning algorithms and robots that didn’t exist before.

Elijah: Jaron isn’t saying people should be paid for their data as if it’s an item that could be purchased, because that starts implying that company or someone could own your data. Instead he’s saying data should be considered as labor.

Jaron: I don’t think you should be allowed to sell your data. You cannot think of data as intellectual property. It has to be a labor with inseparable moral rights.

So nobody should have- should have the ability to sell their data. If you have, there are two things that are necessary for a data to dignity economy to be humane. One is inseverable moral rights. Um, treating it as labor, not as property, not as capital that’s actually essential. The second thing is collective bargaining so that people form unions in order for their stuff to be valuable.

If you want to call them jobs, these new roles of supplying data to either machine learning or for that matter, video lecturing, Berkeley students, if you’re paid for that or whatever, all of those things should be moderated through a union.

And, it’s a way that people who have very low value and very few rights as individuals can gain value and rights collectively, and that must happen. Um, and so one of the things I’ve been trying to foster on the world is laws to support data unions, where people can start to collectively bargain, believe it or not. We have a nascent one in California, they also exist in places like the Netherlands and other places in Europe, these things are starting to happen. And that is the way.

Elijah: So here Jaron is talking about data labor, rather than a non fungible token or crypto art. But we can still see sort of the same idea of moral rights within the crypto art. The digital ledger that’s created when you create a non fungible token holds onto the name of the original artists and the owner forever.

And the history of the ownership and their craft is forever part of the arts identity. And you can’t take that away, regardless of who owns it at a given moment in time”

Somewhat relevant example of this is when a recent tweet was sold for millions of dollars as a non fungible token, or a piece of crypto art, which is a crazy idea.

The tweet owner, the person who wrote the tweet, is essentially taking the power away from Twitter as a platform saying, “yeah, you currently host my content, but the tweet is still my own work and it will forever always be my work.” This feels like you’re putting your foot down against the dehumanizing algorithm that currently views people as data points. Ripe for harvesting and manipulation.

Jaron: Right now, what we say is we’ll steal your data and then we’ll put it into an AI to drive the AI. Then the AI will replace you and do your job instead. Then you’ll live on universal, basic income and feel useless.

That’s the approximate current paradigm. The better paradigm is there’s no AI. There’s no brain in a box. AI is a collaboration of people providing data. It’s more likely Wikipedia. What we’ll do is we’ll acknowledge your data. You’ll get paid for it. You’ll be able to be proud of it. You’ll be able to make a living. You’ll be a new kind of artist. In some cases, you’ll make a living in an honest way from providing an honest service and making it better. There’s no AI. There’s just people working together and getting paid for what they do.

That state of dignity- that creates an incentive structure that undoes the manipulation machine.

Zhiyue: These alternative business strategies might be fair and paint digital content creators as well. For example, YouTube creators often need to hit hundreds of thousands of views before they receive any sort of meaningful compensation. So they often design their content around these manipulative algorithms.

And I think that this low pay for content creators and their need to find a way to make more money is really due to the fact that digital files are again reproducible. So this whole idea of non fungible tokens is, is kind of like reversing that idea, right? The industry has been dominated and controlled by these giant companies that get to decide what artists can and cannot do in their platforms and which artists get featured.

Maybe we could also consider a situation where there isn’t this big overarching company that determines these transactions.

Jaron: Mohammad Yunus won a Nobel prize years ago for the idea of micro-lending and he had a bank called the Grameen bank and he was addressing this problem, which is you have an underdeveloped area. Everybody’s poor. Nobody’s ever had a bank account.

How can you start to finance development that isn’t some centralized-from-above telling people what to do, which they don’t want, how what’s what’s an alternative. And the alternative find people you trust, form little clubs together. The club can apply for a loan and everybody in the club is mutually responsible for repaying the loan.

Okay. When you do that, the, the, task of distributing, both the initial evaluation of trust, and then the responsibility to follow through gets distributed instead of something that has to be done centrally, which is impossible. Then people are deciding on their own projects, deciding what they want to finance.

And all of a sudden you have incredible loan repayments wet rates you have- it’s one of the reasons why there’s been a dramatic reduction in absolute poverty in the world in the last 20 years, that’s a remarkable invention. It has its problems. It’s not perfect everywhere, but just fundamentally sound.

So this is another example of societal institutions. When people work in groups, they can distribute the task of quality and create mutual motivations. So what I would propose is that in the future, you have to join a pod to post. You’re free to join any pod. You can start a new pod. It’s free association. It creates a structure that’s likely to increase, increase the quality of things without imposing censorship from the center. I don’t think anybody loves the idea that a Jack, a Twitter gets to decide who gets maybe he could have canceled Trump earlier, you know, but should he even be the person with the power?

Zhiyue: Some of these crypto art platforms, like the biggest one called SuperRare, have a very curated experience where the platforms get to vet the artists who choose to join their community, listing requirements, like “must have an active, established social media presence as an artist.” Because of this, SuperRare has a really high quality of content. I mean, these are all professional artists and they see average sale prices of like $1,300 for a single piece. But because of their curation and control, you might miss minor artists’ work, people that are just getting started, and which kind of pushes that circle of only the famous, the most popular kind, being lifted up above the others.

I’m not positive that these artists can negotiate the sales fees with these platforms. So even in crypto art, there are issues of power balance between companies and artists and companies and users. Here’s Jaron talking about this:

Jaron: Design is all about the power balance between the individual and whatever’s being given to the individual by other forces, other sources.

Zhiyue: To him, we all would be better served through a type of communal system of directly hiring artists.

Jaron: And that’s a world that’s really appealing to me. That’s an interesting world. To me, that’s a world where like you get together on Friday night and you have some pizza and maybe watch an immersive sports event, but then you say, “Hey, let’s find some kind of interesting immersive dancing thing” and you look around and you say, “Oh, hey, there’s this troop from Burundi. They happen to be available. Let’s see if we can book them.” And suddenly there’s like this troop and they get money from you. And it’s like this whole, that world is a really interesting world to me. And it seems like a plausible one.

Zhiyue: Jaron’s alternative market strategies have been interesting. But it raises the question about how feasible these strategies are and how feasible is it to avoid data collection? Well, turns out it may be more feasible in some parts of the world than others.

Jaron: In the developing world, you tend to have a situation where the internet giants are the only means of connectivity that people have, period. For instance Brazil is relatively developed compared to a lot of the developing world, and you could even argue that it shouldn’t be treated as a developing country, and yet people are not connected to each other except through Facebook.

Period. And it’s, it’s typically WhatsApp. For a little while. Google was hanging on there with Orca and then Facebook won. In Africa, the situation is being treated as a geopolitical great game where people are either connected through Facebook or through Chinese platforms. China is a whole complicated story that requires a whole other conversation. But, at any rate, in the developing world, you tend to have uh few alternatives, like in the U S when I wrote a books, you know, 10 Reasons to Delete Your Social Media Accounts. And the truth is you can. I don’t have them and I still can write bestselling books and it’s fine, you know, because I have access to so much other stuff I can send email without going through one of the big companies I can um I can set up my own web page. I have all these options. I’m fine. You know, if I was in Brazil, that would not be true, you know?

The information space of the developing world was grabbed almost effortlessly by the giant- either the giant companies or, or China. And it’s a significant problem. And I know there, there are a lot of, there’s been a lot of discussion about the solution to it. There’s some talk of the companies just nationalizing their little piece of Facebook or something, which might be, would be technically difficult and legally difficult, but maybe possible.

And yet that in turn might excessively empower whatever government is in place at the time of that transfer. And that might not be great either. You know, it’s, it’s a bit of a luck of the draw of who’s there in place when it happens. But in a lot of cases, that drought would be unlucky.

Zhiyue: So you could start to see how proposing alternative business strategies might become an uphill battle. Even with crypto art, which we’ve established offers more respect to artists than perhaps other platforms, there are some uncertainties. For one, it has sort of an unstable future. Like maybe only the first wave of artists who put up digital work will make tons of money.

But once the novelty wears off, maybe the fees will slowly fade over time and interest will wane. There’s also no legal precedent saying that the smart contracts generated by the NFTs are legally binding. So if there is eventually a legal case about this, and it turns out that the contracts are not valid legal documents, then what happens to the future of crypto art?

The other thing we should be concerned about when looking at alternative market strategies is that maybe implementing them might do the opposite of promoting equality.

In some ways, crypto art for example, has further cemented the wealth gap and basically made the rich richer. For example, you’ve probably heard of Logan Paul from YouTube who became infamous for filming a suicide and garnered a ton of views.

Well, he recently made three and a half million dollars in one day from selling a piece of crypto art, despite not having any training in art.

Grimes, a famous Canadian musician and mother of Elon Musk’s son, who we all know is extremely wealthy, sold several million dollars worth of art that may not be objectively better than other artists’ work.

Lastly, even if conceptually the idea of purchasing art directly seems more fair than a service like YouTube, . the platforms artworks are sold on could also eventually change and they could be designed for the same type of unfairness and algorithmic creation in the future.

Jaron: Our society has largely split into the rich and the poor. And you can- this is doc- and I’m talking about the US but to a degree it’s also true of the world, less so in some countries than others, obviously, but you have more and more income and influence and power concentration in a very small number of people in the US that’s become… You know, has, has become a gilded age, if you like, it’s become a historical degree of concentration. And then you have a very large number of people who are for the most part, not they can, they have enough to eat and so forth. They’re not in abject poverty, although some are and yet they have they don’t have enough wealth to plan their own lives.

Julia: When we’re looking at alternate market strategies, we should probably also look beyond social impact. I say this because crypto art has a huge environmental toll. So not a lot of people know this, but the computing power it takes to make one of these crypto art transactions is huge. That’s because the crypto art pieces are usually bought with cryptocurrency and one cryptocurrency transaction consumes more power than one whole day’s worth of energy for an average American household and generating a token takes even more energy. It takes the equivalent of days, weeks, or months of an American household’s energy usage.

So we should be aware of these things when we’re evaluating alternate market strategies, right? But there are a lot of great alternatives out there already. There’s also other ways to directly fund artists or people like GoFund me, Kickstarter, Patrion, Twitch, and so on this all, again, gives power back to creators.

You’re probably familiar with Kickstarter, the platform that helps creators obtain capital by crowdsourcing funding from everyday people and in exchange for the money that people send them. The creator usually offers a part of their finished product. So most of them are product based, but they’re all also like a lot of non-commercial projects, like installing a new vegetable garden, personal research projects or making potato salads.

No, really like a guy in Columbus, Ohio started a Kickstarter project to make a potato salad. He somehow ended up with $55,000 and 7,000 backers for the project. I mean, I don’t get it, but you know, it’s the internet.

Anyway, Kickstarter gives people the power to control, which projects to fund and which projects to support directly. For creators it allows them to get financial backing without risking a huge capital of their own to finish their projects.

Another really successful alternate model is Patrion, right? Like where you basically subscribe to content creators, monthly service, and they provide you new content every month. This is perhaps a really steady way of making money and you don’t have to rely on ad based revenue or letting algorithms dictate what sort of content you should produce.

In any case, according to Jaron, the right way to handle this will involve way more than just one or two solutions or one or two parties.

Jaron: Like you can’t have regulators alone, fix everything, nor can you have businesses, nor can you have designers or can you have individuals nor educators and our parents.

And it has to be kind of a lot of them at once. It’s just the only way.

Julia: So let’s circle back a bit to Jaron’s focus on VR. It’s super interesting that a man who’s so well-known for virtual reality- like literally the father of virtual reality- is so invested in digital activism. So it turns out that VR was actually just an outlet for him to talk about this technological dishonesty and his attempt to make a better world.

Jaron: A lot of how I got into virtual reality was actually in reaction against the stuff that I’m criticizing now, which already existed as I was pointing out, that back in, even when I was getting into it at first, which would have been as a teenager in the late seventies. My main mentor was uh Marvin Minsky, fathers of the idea of artificial intelligence and probably the author of most of the rhetoric about artificial intelligence that you still hear coming out of the mouth of the people like Elon Musk. It really was originally coming from Marvin Minsky.

And, uh, I was very offended by it because I thought it did dehumanize people. And I thought it wasn’t really honest. It would ultimately turn into this manipulation economy that Wiener had warned against and that, we, you know, that that Skinner had tried to create. And, so, uh, virtual reality was intended as one way of envisioning this other more human centric, more beautiful, more creative way of thinking about the future of computation.

Julia: Given his long history in virtual reality, it’s not surprising that Jaron has concerns about manipulative techniques being applied to VR.

Jaron: This is actually one of the heartbreaking truths- that is hard- it’s hard for me to accept still. When I was in my early twenties, my standard talk on VR, which now we’re talking about the early eighties. My standard talk would have been that VR could be this empathy machine, where you could walk into somebody else’s shoes and appreciate their position.

And it would make people more sympathetic to more kinds of people in the world. And that kind of thing has happened lately. I would point out the work of Chris Milk. Who’s you know, try to create a refugee’s point of view and that sort of thing. The problem is VR can also be used very effectively to lie.

And after we’ve seen the way that just normal social media has been used to lie in a way that’s done enormous damage to society… that with VR would just not be survivable, that’s an extinction event. So there has to be this notion of VR as some sort of a new cinematic-like expression requires a whole reformulating of the economics of the internet so that we’re not incentivizing people to be manipulative above all else.

Julia: So, okay. This might all seem doom and gloom, but despite the risk of targeted advertising, infiltrating VR, Jaron, somehow still remains positive.

Jaron: The funny thing about it is this idea of tech as hope is something that, with a lot of caveats, I still believe in actually, I still think that tech does increase our options and it does give us more possibilities to become decent. And it does give us more wiggle room to try to tolerate each other and all those things.

I actually believe all that stuff. That’s the funny thing. So I never lost my belief in tech as a beacon of hope. I really do think it’s there. It’s just not automatic, you know? It’s like, all it does is it gives you options. It doesn’t make anybody better. It increases the wiggle room and it increases the potential for people who are trying to be better to have options, to enact what they dream of.

Julia: And I think, I think I tend to agree because I think that the industry, as we know, it is still quite nascent. And as time goes on and people become more tech literate, we’ll find a better middle ground between funding companies, but treating people as people. He told us about how back in the day he was ostracized for speaking out about these issues, predicting that they would occur.

But these days, there are a lot more activists on the scene. Bringing these voices forward will help us find the right solutions. And yes, technology these days is not so empathetic to the plight of people. But after speaking with Jaron, ironically, I become less cynical towards technology.

I’m starting to see the potential for how technology can help start building empathy.

You have just listened to episode Could Memes Become an Economy? from the Design Despite Disciplines podcast series. Over the course of the spring 2021 semester eight teams of MDes students researched, interviewed, presented, and produced episodes featuring invited speakers from the colloquium. We’d like to thank Jaron Lanier for sharing your time and insights with our class.

To learn more about debates and design and the Berkeley master of design program. Visit design.berkeley.edu.