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Digital elite: A bleak vision of the future

Sophie Elmhirst meets Jaron Lanier.

“The prophet of Silicon Valley”, proclaims the American edition of Jaron Lanier’s new book, Who Owns the Future?. The author, a large man with waist-length dreadlocks, throws his hands to his head in mock horror. He might be on a book tour, staying in a marbled London hotel, but he is not a guru. “I’m always running into people in Silicon Valley with business cards saying something like ‘corporate visionary’,” he says, derision lacing his gentle west coast accent. “It’s just, urgh.”

Lanier, a computer scientist and writer and one of the earliest internet pioneers, has a fairly bleak vision of the future for one raised in the sunny valleys of Californian optimism. He sees a world where people say they are “addicted” to digital interaction but rarely “fulfilled” by it, where instead of living in a networked paradise, we inhabit a dystopia in which a few megacorporates – Google, Facebook, Amazon – hold vast amounts of wealth and power and middleclass people will lose their jobs. It’ll be not just the musicians and journalists – the obvious victims of changing technology – but health workers, truck drivers, manufacturers, anyone who can eventually be replaced by a machine. The power rests in what Lanier calls the “Siren Servers”: giant corporate repositories of information about our lives that we have given freely and often without consent, now being used for huge financial benefit by a super-rich few.

We’ve already felt the brutal effects of this, he argues. “The phenomenon of the Google/Facebook style of information concentration is precisely the same as what brought about the austerity crisis” – that is, the technologically sophisticated but catastrophic virtual world of high finance which triggered the 2008 financial crash. Marx looms large (“his writing on alienation is really applicable to Facebook”), though Lanier concedes that talking about the philosopher in the US is “like declaring oneself a jihadist”.

His diagnosis of the problem is as interesting as his gloomy prognosis. Computing, he says, was developed by two groups – a hyper-technical elite after the Second World War and the post-Sixties hackers, who believed that advanced technical ability would create a perfect socialist world, not realising that most of us would struggle to adjust our Facebook settings.

“You have the Pirate Party types sometimes defending corporations like Google because information should be free and the state shouldn’t be involved,” he says, “but it’s just bizarre, because what is actually happening is this extreme wealth concentration and the creation of the least free information in the world, which is this giant spy database on everybody used to manipulate their lives.”

By way of a solution, Lanier proposes that we should be financially compensated for any content we share – whether a photo on Instagram or when we’re unwittingly tracked by government software. It might seem naive, but it stems from his fervent belief that all our digital progress is reliant on one thing: people. Years ago he used to extol the virtues of open source, until a musician friend of his, financially weakened by the collapse of the music industry, suddenly couldn’t afford a vital operation in hospital. “We’re systematically destroying dignity and security for people who once had it and calling it paradise,” he says, pained at the memory.

Ultimately, Lanier is the best example of his creed. It takes individual human effort to make something of lasting value, and it should be rewarded. His own contribution is that rather endangered, beautifully old-fashioned thing, a book.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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“A cursed project”: a short history of the Facebook “like” button

Mark Zuckerberg didn't like it, it used to be called the “awesome button”, and FriendFeed got there first. 

The "like" button is perhaps the simplest of the website's features, but it's also come to define it. Companies vie for your thumbs up. Articles online contain little blue portals which send your likes back to Facebook. The action of "liking" something is seen to have such power that in 2010, a class action lawsuit was filed against Facebook claiming teenagers should not be able to "like" ads without parental consent. 

And today, Facebook begins trials of six new emoji reaction buttons which join the like button at the bottom of posts, multiplying its potential meanings by seven: 

All this makes it a little surprising that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent a good portion of the noughties giving the like button a thumbs down. According to Andrew Bosworth, Vice President of Advertising and Pages at Facebook (and known simply as "Boz") it took nearly two years to get the concept of an approval button for posts off the ground.

In a fascinating Quora thread, Boz explains that the idea of a star, plus sign or thumbs up for posts first came up in July 2007, three years after "TheFacebook" launched in 2004. Throughout these initial discussions, the proposed bursts of positivity was referred to as an "awesome button". A few months later someone floated the word "like" as a replacement, but, according to Boz, it received a "lukewarm" reception. 

The team who ran the site's News Feed feature were keen, as it would help rank posts based on popularity. The ad team, meanwhile, thought "likes" could improve clickthrough rates on advertisements. But in November 2007, the engineering team presented the new feature to Mark Zuckerberg, and, according to Boz, the final review "[didn't] go well". The CEO was concerned about overshadowing the Facebook "share" and comment features - perhaps people would just "awesome" something, rather than re-posting the content or writing a message. He also wanted more clarification on whether others would see your feedback or not. After this meeting, Boz writes, "Feature development as originally envisioned basically stops". 

The teams who wanted the button forged ahead with slightly different features. If you were an early user, you might remember that News Feed items and ads collected positive or negative feedback from you, but this wasn't then displayed to other users. This feature was "ineffective", Boz writes, and was eventually shut down. 

So when Jonathan Piles, Jaren Morgenstern and designer Soleio took on the like button again in December 2008, many were skeptical: this was a "cursed project", and would never make it past a sceptical Zuckerberg. Their secret weapon, however was data scientist Itamar Rosenn, who provided data to show that a like button wouldn't reduce the number of comments on a post. - that, in fact, it increased the number of comments, as likes would boost a popular post up through the News Feed. Zuckerberg's fears that a lower-impact feedback style would discourage higher value interactions like reposting or commenting were shown to be unfounded. 

A bigger problem was that FriendFeed, a social aggregator site which shut down in April 2015, launched a "like" feature in October 2007, a fact which yielded some uncomfortable media coverage when Facebook's "like" finally launched. Yet Boz claims that no one at Facebook clocked onto FriendFeed's new feature: "As far as I can tell from my email archives, nobody at FB noticed. =/". 

Finally, on 9 February 2009, "like" launched with a blogpost, "I like this", from project manager Leah Pearlman who was there for the first "awesome button" discussions back in 2007. Her description of the button's purpose is a little curious, because it frames the feature as a kind of review: 

This is similar to how you might rate a restaurant on a reviews site. If you go to the restaurant and have a great time, you may want to rate it 5 stars. But if you had a particularly delicious dish there and want to rave about it, you can write a review detailing what you liked about the restaurant. We think of the new "Like" feature to be the stars, and the comments to be the review.

Yet as we all know, there's no room for negative reviews on Facebook - there is no dislike button, and there likely never will be. Even in the preliminary announcements about the new emoji reactions feature, Zuckerberg has repeatedly made clear that "dislike" is not a Facebook-worthy emotion: "We didn’t want to just build a Dislike button because we don’t want to turn Facebook into a forum where people are voting up or down on people’s posts. That doesn’t seem like the kind of community we want to create."

Thanks to the new buttons, you can be angry, excited, or in love with other people's content, but the one thing you can't do is disapprove of its existence. Championing positivity is all well and good, but Zuckerberg's love of the "like" has more to do with his users' psychology than it does a desire to make the world a happier place. Negative feedback drives users away, and thumbs-down discourages posting. A "dislike" button could slow the never-ending stream of News Feed content down to a trickle - and that, after all, is Facebook's worst nightmare. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.