Wacky conspiracy theory alert! I don't actually believe Google has a secret world-domination laboratory on a private island, but on days like this...
(image courtesy jaronlanier.com)
I recently learned the term cloud lords from Jaron Lanier, a marvelously human Silicon Valley original and oft-quoted critic of Web 2.0.
Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget (YANAG) takes the often stupendous mystery of the digital realm and turns it into stories about real people with real ideas -- and many of the ideas (and people) are so crazy-flaky, it's hard to believe anyone ever actually took them seriously in the first place, let alone continue to. The noosphere, the singularity... go ahead, Google* those suckers and see what Wikipedia* has to say about them.
In chapter 6 of YANAG, Lanier introduces us to the Lords of the Clouds, those lucky few who have managed to be in the right place at the right time to become extraordinarily wealthy on the cooperative and freely-given efforts of the now billions of internet users around the planet. Cloud Lords own Twitter and Facebook and Google; and while we use their products and think how marvelous it is that we don't have to pay to do so, the cloud lords are still managing to fill northern Californian mansions with Citizen Kane-like treasure because they control the levers and switches that allow us to do web searches, load embarrassing photos of each other online, and broadcast our lives 140 characters at a time. BTW, does everyone know that NBA star Chris Bosh had belgian waffles for breakfast this morning before breaking Toronto Raptor fans hearts? I do, because I follow him on Twitter.
The free-ness of our collective efforts is absolutely key to the cloud lord business model. If these algorithmic wizards actually had to pay for the content, activity, personal information and eyeballs they provide to advertisers, their margins would be cut substantially and, you know, other people would also be making money from the Internet.
So it is we get the spectacle of Google initiating a commercial scanning of entire libraries full of books without asking the permission of publishers or writers. So it is we hear after the fact when Facebook has made yet another change to its unique revenue model that peddles our privacy on the digital street. Requests for permission, respect for intellectual property, even payment for professionally produced content... all these things slow down humanity's inevitable march into single-consciousnesshoodocity. They also, presumably, slow down the Ka-ching sounds emanating from the American west coast.
How do we get to a point in our social history when so many of us are happy to say - yeah, the music industry... whatever. Since musicians love to play music, and since youTube will make it all freely available, there will always be music. Who cares if no-one makes a living at it anymore?
How do we get to this point? Well, perhaps we are taught to think that way. You want a new generation of free content producers to take the place of the old fuddy-duddies who like to get paid for their work? Go to the source for impressionable youth seeking easy rebellion from the old way of doing things -- go to the universities.
Want free content? Call it something even more attractive than "free;" call it "open!" Want your business model to seem less like raw capitalism and more like fun? Don't call it a business model; call it a movement. Kids love movements.
Anyway, perhaps you see where this is all going. One could build a pretty little conspiracy theory out of the idea that so much of the open content, free culture energy comes out of universities because that's where the cloud lords want it to come from. How better to guarantee a future of happy, compliant free-content providers than to encourage the academy to teach that happy compliance?
How would the cloud lords manage such a crazy conspiracy? Well, in my fevered imagination it would involve a lot of cackling and rubbing of the hands together in evil glee, perhaps on the appropriately named Nomanisa Island (Incredibles reference).
In the real world, it might look a bit more like this:
from The Daily Beast -- Harvard Law star Jonathan Zittrain is an influential critic of Apple—so why doesn’t he talk about donations to his research center from Steve Jobs’ competitors?
Professors at Harvard Law School’s influential Berkman Center for Internet & Society consistently take positions on hotly debated business issues in support of companies like Google, which favor a free-wheeling Internet culture and less control over intellectual property...
Read the whole story, Harvard vs. Steve Jobs, by Emily Brill at the Daily Beast link (above).
*Google and Wikipedia can be thought of as participants in both the noosphere and singularity -- so now you get the joke I was trying to make.