The Web And The Creativity Bust
    By Mark Changizi | March 27th 2011 06:06 PM | 9 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Mark Changizi is Director of Human Cognition at 2AI, and the author of The Vision Revolution (Benbella 2009) and Harnessed: How...

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    Imagine, if you will, a Borg cube from Star Trek humming along through space, part of a fleet of such cubes, each with millions of drones participating in a spatially non-localized brain of billions.

    Now imagine that this collective Borg brain has a headache. The camera zooms inside one of the cubes and we see the source of the problem: a dreadlocked alien has awakened, and he’s raging through the ship, ripping up the neural wiring that connects the Borg drones to one another. Suddenly disconnected from the collective, the drones are waking up and finding themselves for the first time.

    Although this rabble-rousing nerve-cutter might sound like the actions of a Klingon, as the camera gets closer we realize it’s actually a human.

    Closer still and we realize that—holy crap!—it’s Jaron Lanier, author of the book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto  (Knopf, 2010).

    Lanier may be physically grounded on the Earth and not battling Borg, but he is battling a collective, trying to wake up somnolent drones. The collective in his sights is the Web. And the drones? Well, that’s you and me.

    Although Lanier is more civil than your average Klingon on a righteous ransack, one senses (even without the “manifesto” tip-off) that just below the surface is an individual bent on a revolution.

    In fact, what comes across most clearly in the book is Lanier’s distinct and unique individuality. He brims with novel ideas, from the origins of speech and music (he speculates that it connects to color signaling in cephalopods), to radical kinds of programming languages (without protocols), and to new ideas for virtual reality (e.g., altering our perceptions so that we experience life as billowy clouds). Although many of these ideas are not entirely crucial to his central thesis, they serve to illustrate that it is in individuals, not collectives, where we find the lion’s share of creativity. These novel ideas also serve to convince the reader to trust Lanier’s intuitions about where creativity comes from.

    And Lanier’s main thesis? It is that the Web is a creative bust.

    Twenty years ago one would have expected something like the Web to have liberated the creative spirits inside tremendous numbers of people who had not previously had such an outlet. Instead, Lanier argues, the Web has caused the evolution of creativity to stagnate.

    Where, Lanier asks, are the radically new musical genres since the 1990s? Technological change seems to be accelerating, and yet the development of novel forms of musical expression appears to have not merely slowed, but stalled altogether. We’re listening to non-radical variations on themes that existed two decades ago, Lanier argues. (Although I agree with his feeling in this regard, he and I may be too far removed from the last two decades of music to distinguish any ongoing revolutions, something he is quick to admit is a possibility.)

    The music has stopped, Lanier suggests, because the Web—as currently structured, at least—does not value individual creators. Sure, you can now put your music onto the Web and, in principle, have the world listen. But because very few people have figured out how to make any money by giving away their creative products on the Web, most composers end up setting aside their musical endeavors for any paying job as soon as Mom kicks them out of the house.

    More generally, he challenges readers to point to the new generation of people living off their creativity on the Web. They’re harder to find than a Borg at a bowling alley.

    Contrary to the prevailing idea that consumers on the Web should not be obligated to pay individual human content-creators for their work, Lanier is adamant that music and human-created information should not be free. Creativity that goes unpaid leads to a novelty- and diversity-impoverished intellectual world dominated by material that takes minimal effort to produce — think LOLcats. Creative artists get cut out, and all that remains are the content distributors, like YouTube, who become fabulously rich.

    lolcat ignorance and apathy on the web

    That might be something some of us would be willing to live with, if it were nevertheless the case that the Web, by virtue of its vast interconnectivity and complex emergent properties, was smart enough to turn our drone-ishly dull works into things greater and more beautiful. That’s what clouds, or colonies, or collectives, are meant to do: Take large numbers of meager parts, and uplift them into something larger and smarter at the level of the whole.

    And “smart collectives” do indeed exist. Social-insect colonies are the common example of stunning intelligence emanating from underwhelming individuals. Even our human-built machines are smart collectives: For instance, my personal computer’s hardware is built from hundreds of thousands of unimpressive parts, and my word-processing software is a collective of operators and terms working together as a single functional whole. I’ve even shown in my research that city road networks are rather like brains, in terms of their scaling laws.

    If all these collectives can be, in some capacity, brilliant, why can’t the Web itself? Who needs creativity from individuals when there’s a super-creative hive-mind capable of doing it much better?

    The beliefs underlying these questions are increasingly common in today’s techno-utopian world, and they need to be dispelled.

    But as important as it is to Lanier’s thesis to do so, he doesn’t succinctly elucidate the source of the misconceptions about where smart collectives come from.

    Here’s what, in my experience, people tend to tell themselves: Smart collectives result from liberal servings of self-organization and complexity. Why? Because the most brilliant collectives that exist—those found in biology, such as our bodies and brains built out of hundreds of billions of cells—are steeped with self-organization and complexity. And, the intuition continues, the Web also drips with self-organization and complexity. The Web therefore must be smart. And because the Web is growing and evolving over time, the Web must be getting ever smarter. Perhaps some day it will even become self-aware!

    This is entirely wrong. Although “self-organization” and “complexity” are strangely seductive (even if no one is quite sure what they mean), neither is key to a smart collective. My computer is a smart collective without having self-organized, and crystals are dumb despite having done so. And although “complex” may well apply to all smart collectives, most intuitive notions of “complex” also apply to countless ridiculously stupid collectives, such as creamer poured into a cup of coffee.

    No, the key to smart collectives is not to be found in these buzz words, but rather in something often overlooked or strangely derided: design.

    The smart and amazing machines in the world—whether functioning as software, hardware, organisms, insect colonies, or creative brains—have undergone tremendous design, whether via deliberate engineering or some variety of selection (e.g., natural, or cultural). Smart biological collectives do indeed self-organize, but it is only a negligible fraction of all self-organizing creatures that make it through the process of natural selection. The result is “design,” without which the parts would “self-organize” into some functionless mass, like the unwieldy tangles that power cables seem to inevitably form when thrown loosely into a drawer.

    And to be mind-like, the collective must not only have undergone design, but design for mindhood.

    The problem with the Web is simply this: The Web is not really designed for anything. The structure of the Web is characterized by its interconnectivity, and that depends on how individual sites choose to connect to one another. The Web’s large-scale interconnectivity isn’t designed by engineers, and it is also not a consequence of selection mechanisms capable of implicitly leading to anything one would call “design.” Selection does happen, but at the level of the individual sites within the Web, not at the level of the entire Web.

    If there were, say, many functionally distinct Webs, and they competed with one another over time, with some growing and some dying, Web selection would be possible. The surviving Webs might well end up exceedingly good at some things. But that’s not happening. And even if it were, there’s no reason to expect that the surviving Webs would be selected to fill the creativity gap that humans left open. It’s more plausible that they would be selected to minimize the time taken for consumers to find products—to be efficient shopping mechanisms, not mind-like entities at all.

    The Web itself hasn’t been designed to do anything. And so it doesn’t do anything, much less anything smart, creative, or suggesting awareness.

    If the Web is crushing human creativity, as Lanier argues, then there’s no solace to be found in looking to the Web itself, as a collective, to fill the creative shoes humankind needs.

    The question we are left with is whether the Web’s current trajectory can be reversed, and a new human-centrism brought back. Or, instead, might it be that resistance is futile?


    Lanier is adamant that music and human-created information should not be free. Creativity that goes unpaid leads to a novelty- and diversity-impoverished intellectual world dominated by material that takes minimal effort to produce — think LOLcats.
    Amen.  50% of the regular writers on this site have been approached by various other networks and magazines who see a huge profit in user-generated content.    They try to convince people (and sometimes succeed) that their brand is so awesome that a writer's name even appearing there will lead to magical success and fame - somewhere else.   But they never want to pay (1).  

    In reality, a site like this works because of the miracle of compounding, including on an individual level.   Once writers try to post stuff in 5 places they end up with about the same audience but 20% of the money.

    Not everyone cares about money, of course.   But I want people to care about money.  I don't want free crap, I want to have good science people are proud of that has value.  That means paying.


    (1) I sat next to horror movie FX legend Tom Savini ("Night Of The Living Dead") at a charity event where they were auctioning off, among other things, an appearance in a movie he was doing the special effects for.  We had a nice chat about the science and technical aspects of doing what he does, though I had never (and still have not) actually seen one of his movies.    He did not know about the film part auction in advance and as the bidding went up and up he turned to me and said, "Do they not know they have it all backwards?  They are supposed to get paid to do this stuff."

    This was before blogging but it must have sent an icy chill through even him.   What do we get if special effects are supposed to be done for free on the Internet?   Not "Avatar", that's for sure.
    They try to convince people (and sometimes succeed) that their brand is so awesome that a writer's name even appearing there will lead to magical success and fame - somewhere else. But they never want to pay.
    In reality, a site like this works because of the miracle of compounding, including on an individual level. Once writers try to post stuff in 5 places they end up with about the same audience but 20% of the money.
    Bingo, Hank! It's precisely for those reasons that after joining Science 2.0, (1) I stopped writing for publications for free, and (2) I deleted all content from my google blog.
    Agree on that it needs selection (you focus on the term "design" instead, which is a little misleading), but that the web is not selecting is wrong. It is Darwinian evolution going on there at a tremendous speed, and it is not seeing the wider picture to state that selection only goes on at the single sites. Yeah, biological selection is also only going on at the DNA in a sense, but this view is misleading.
    The web won't give us back what it stole from us via emergent smartness, true, but not because smartness or "design" by selection does not emerge, but simply because the higher level smartness does never entertain the lower level. The ant heap's smartness is not there to make the ants happy - in fact, the ants never even realize how smart the heap is at all. And THIS is the general point that neither Lanier nor Changizi nor anybody it seems really yet appreciates. As I wrote recently: "It is not the cells in the eye of the snake that see; the snake sees its own world. Technology helped scientists see; the western individualist bohemian in me likes that. Now it evolves into something else that must blind us towards its own world. Science is part of the evolving perceptive apparatus (information selection, cognition) of emerging super structures. Their consciousness is consciousness on a higher level, but it is not ‘higher consciousness’."
    Replace "science" with "web", and it fits well, no?
    I think it's the aggregation of data/information/action that makes it more than the sum of it's parts, Would either Jagger or Richards be what they are without the other? Sure they might be great on there own, but the aggregation of the two are the Rolling Stones. Another example could be Rose and Slash, Appetite IMO is one of the best albums made, apart? You be the judge.

    The web on the other hand doesn't aggregate information except in the mind of the user if they can actually find the pieces themselves. Google doesn't aggregate data, and there's no way it can(well???). Which gets to Mark's point about 'design'.

    The web has a unified architecture, but that by itself doesn't do anything to allow data to be blended into a greater self. There's almost no commonality across different web sites.

    As I was writing this, I thought of another great example of this effect, the Wintel PC(whether you like them or not). It was/is a common platform that over time provided the critical mass to grow huge ecosystems of both hardware and software. Consider Linux, while many consider it technically superior, it's value even for free was less than paying for Windows(yes, yes I know sacrilege).

    But this is the way software has evolved for as long as I've worked in the software industry. Useful pieces are integrated into something that's more than the sum of it's parts.

    The web is barely at the useful piece level.

    On the other hand, there are specific tools that can be used to aggregate data across the web, and they provide tremendous value, but they're not free or open for just anyone to use. But this too should evolve over time, just like you can now design mechanical things and get all the design info to get it manufactured for free.

    If we want the web to aggregate data for us, I suspect both the data and the tools will both have to change.

    IMO I see the pay part as a ancillary issue. Users don't want to pay(much) for content, in many old school media types, we pay the artist from commercial revenues. I think new content that's in the same vein will probably end up okay (ie the artist will get paid from ads), the content that doesn't use that model will struggle to find people to pay the creators. But part of this is consumers fear of buying 'trash'. How many $15 cd will you buy when you keep finding only a single song that's good (or that you actually like)? If the web wants to go to a pay for use model, the value of the content has to be such that consumers feel like they're getting their moneys worth.
    Never is a long time.
    If I'm correct, it sounds to me as if your main point here is that the internet is destroying creativity because the price of content is sinking to the point where most musicians, writers, "content creators", artists etc can no longer make a living wage doing what they enjoy doing. Well, the whole problem is very complex, so I don't want to oversimplify, but part of it is a supply-and-demand issue. Why, for example, do I write a blog? It's hardly making a significant contribution to my income (and I'd imagine the same is true for the rest of us). While it may not be lucrative, however, blogging is fun (and unfortunately a little addictive). Consequently, a lot of people are willing to produce this kind of content even if the price for it is almost nil, and the supply of blogging content vastly exceeds demand. The same is true of many kinds of internet content -- look at videos on YouTube or the thousands of unpaid writers/bloggers at HuffPost.

    Now, I know that looking at this from a supply&demand perspective makes a tacit assumption: that all content is of equal value, and that's not true. But the point here would be that content can only command a high price now if it's truly exceptional, or if it offers something that no other content does. You have a similar phenomenon in the making with novels, where zillions of would-be authors are publishing online through Kindle -- many of them offering their books for $0.99, or even for free. There was actually an article about this in the NYTimes not too long ago. None of it will affect the Grishams and Rowlings of the world, because their books are so distinctive they stand out from the rest. But the others, the swarms of wannabe novelists, will end up giving their books away, because when supply is so far in excess of demand, the price can only go down.

    Will the diminished price of content cause creativity to stagnate? or has it already done so? I'm not sure I agree. Right now we have information overload, where the amount of information and content available to any one of us would have been unimaginable a generation ago. But it's a complex issue, so I'm a little mistrustful of "easy answers".
    Why, for example, do I write a blog? It's hardly making a significant contribution to my income (and I'd imagine the same is true for the rest of us). While it may not be lucrative, however, blogging is fun (and unfortunately a little addictive).
    This is a narrow metric.   If someone spends 30 minutes a day on something and does make a significant income, they would be doing infomercials about it.   Bloggers make money but like any writers they established themselves first or did the work.  PZ Myers at has to make twice as much with his blog as he makes from his teaching job - if not, he should write here because if the traffic numbers he cites are accurate, he would make twice as much here as his teaching job.    But he has a 14 year or so head start on new people.

    Like in any form of writing, experience and talent make a difference.   I am not going to write a book on physics tomorrow and have it outsell Brian Cox.

    Print had a barrier to entry and the Web does not so it is liberating for people who want to write just for fun - no different than a teenager in Korea who is a great guitar player but isn't going to get a recording contract any time soon - but there are a lot of people making a lot of money.  Those billions of dollars in ad revenue are obviously not going to the NY Times, since they are swamped in red ink.   But a lot of little sites make pretty good money.  It is not, however, using Google AdSense, which also has a low barrier to entry.

    As pageviews go up, so does the base rate advertisers pay - the same way it is here.  That's double compounding because a writer makes more per reader and has more readers to show an ad.
    This is a narrow metric.   If someone spends 30 minutes a day on something and does make a significant income, they would be doing infomercials about it. Bloggers make money but like any writers they established themselves first or did the work.

    Weeeeell, yes, but that's not the point I'm trying to make. On an hourly basis, given the amount of time it takes to blog (we'll say 30 min a day), the vast majority of bloggers aren't making minimum wage (heck, probably not even anything close to minimum wage). The thousands who write for HuffPost write for free. That's fine, however, because people don't typically write blogs to make money. My point is not that people should make money from blogging; ultimately, I think, the free market determines the price of goods and services, and if a good or service is not considered valuable there's a reason why. Moreover, money isn't usually the reason why people write blogs. My point is that blogging is a great example of the reasons why the price of content has gone down -- supply exceeds demand. The same is true for any other form of artwork or content distributed online. Now that the barrier to entry has fallen, there's more competition and more content, consumers become choosier as a result. Changizi, however, seems to be arguing that content creators (of whatever variety) ought to be paid more for their work, and I'm not sure how that would be economically viable.
    Income is nonlinear.  The bulk of the people blogging will spend a half hour a day and make $5 a month of whatever but people who spend their days writing and promoting their work make a good living.   Entry level bloggers are not supply competition, they are instead creating the market and therefore demand.

    Baseball became a business when everyone played it and teams sprouted up all over the place.   As that happened, fans learned the game and got interested, players got better, and they were scouted by more successful teams and recruited and got paid.    Mark writes books.  He knows he is good at it because a publisher pays him an advance.   Millions of people putting books on the Internet have not damaged his chances.

    As I said, virtually every new blogging network in existence has tried to shortcut their process by recruiting writers from elsewhere but it's a lateral move for most.  When I wrote about Forbes doing it last fall, they were extrapolating out that True/Slant model from the site they acquired, which was only half the size of us, but big enough to give it a shot.   These large companies are not doing it because they can't make money, they are doing it because they can make money but convince content creators to use a barter system - instead of money they trade their brand to writers.  

    We have 800K readers even in a bad month, independent bloggers don't ding that no matter how much supply they throw out there, but if we had a base level of 3 million readers a month the income we get would not be 4X it would be 10X because of that nonlinearity I mentioned - again, supply makes no difference.  

    The Web is not really a creative bust in the sense Lanier suggests - I am betting he is just an age where he has gotten nostalgic (creative music stopped in the 1990s???   Yeah, Salt n Pepa were real legends of the form).  But I agree people should value their work.
    The Stand-Up Physicist
    Here is my definition: "Creativity is imagination bound by logic".

    Has the web helped my own efforts to create physics of value? The answer for me is yes. There is one professor at MIT where I saw outside his office until he showed up. Those interactions happen to be the most useful of any I had. The other half dozen professors who have critiqued the math were all contacted via the Internet. Two decades ago, it would have all been with letters and stapes (I have tried that retro approach a few times too). These were examples of critical logic refining the project.

    On YouTube, I have about 160k downloads of a hundred+ videos. Most comments are banal. Yet one poignant curse led to an on-going collaboration with a physics grad student. email/chat/phone interactions led to the quaternion quantum field theory work. I would file that under imagination - imagine we could rebuild one of the most difficult subjects in physics. LOTS of work to do...

    An engineer in Mexico sent me the way to map of the 16 Dirac gamma matrices to quaternion triple products. That one reward for owning makes me respect the power of the web.

    My few blogs here have helped. I would not have learned about Julian Barbour's work which is well worth my time. One reason I am blogging is because I have come to terms with the limitations of what I could do. I have a Lagrangian where I can point to EM, the weak force, the strong force, and gravity, so I should be able to solve any problem in EM, the weak force, the strong force, and gravity. Nope, no can do.

    I don't understand the money making thing, that much is certain. While I do sell products - t-shirts, DVDs, buttons - and do take in donations, my Schedule-C indicates a loss on $440 of gross sales this year. All of those sales happen because of the web, but they are not self-sustaining.

    The web has materially helped my creative project.