How to Trade “Global Mush” for Beauty, Meaning, and Value: Reflections on Lanier’s New Book

Implicit in many of my recent posts here is the idea that we must learn how to follow through on the appropriation of meaning to proper ownership of the properties characteristic of our own proprietary capital resources: the creativities, abilities, skills, talents, health, motivations, trust, etc.  that make us each reliable citizens and neighbors, and economically viable in being hireable, promotable, productive, and retainable. Individual control of investment in, income from, and returns on our own shares of human, social, and natural capital ought to be a fundamental constitutional human right.

But, just as property rights are constitutionally guaranteed by nations around the world that don’t take the trouble to enforce them or even to provide their necessary infrastructural capacities, so, too, are human rights to equal opportunities widely guaranteed without being properly provided for or enforced. And now in the Internet age, we have succeeded in innovating ever more fluid media for the expression of our individual capacities for making original cultural, technical, and human contributions, but we have yet to figure out how to exert effective control over the returns and income generated by these contributions.

Jaron Lanier’s new book, “You Are Not a Gadget,” is taking up this theme in interesting ways. In his recent Wall Street Journal article, Lanier says:

“There’s a dominant dogma in the online culture of the moment that collectives make the best stuff, but it hasn’t proven to be true. The most sophisticated, influential and lucrative examples of computer code—like the page-rank algorithms in the top search engines or Adobe’s Flash— always turn out to be the results of proprietary development. Indeed, the adored iPhone came out of what many regard as the most closed, tyrannically managed software-development shop on Earth.

Actually, Silicon Valley is remarkably good at not making collectivization mistakes when our own fortunes are at stake. On the one hand we want to avoid physical work and instead benefit from intellectual property. On the other hand, we’re undermining intellectual property so that information can roam around for nothing, or more precisely as bait for advertisements. That’s a formula that leaves no way for our nation to earn a living in the long term.
The “open” paradigm rests on the assumption that the way to get ahead is to give away your brain’s work—your music, writing, computer code and so on—and earn kudos instead of money. You are then supposedly compensated because your occasional dollop of online recognition will help you get some kind of less cerebral work that can earn money. For instance, maybe you can sell custom branded T-shirts.
We’re well over a decade into this utopia of demonetized sharing and almost everyone who does the kind of work that has been collectivized online is getting poorer. There are only a tiny handful of writers or musicians who actually make a living in the new utopia, for instance. Almost everyone else is becoming more like a peasant every day.”
Lanier’s suggestions of revised software structures and micropayment systems in an extension of intellectual property rights correctly recognizes the scope of the challenges we face. He also describes the motivations driving the ongoing collectivization process, saying that “youthful fascination with collectivism is in part simply a way to address perceived ‘unfairness’.” This radical way of enforcing a very low lowest common denominator points straight at the essential problem, and that problem is apparent in the repeated use of the key word, collective.

It was not so long ago that it was impossible to use that word without immediately evoking images of Soviet central planning and committees. The “global mush” of mediocrity Lanier complains about as a direct result of collective thinking is a very good way of describing the failures of socialism that brought down the Soviet Union by undercutting its economic viability. Lanier speaks of growing up and enthusiastically participating various forms of collective life, like food co-ops and shared housing. I, too, have shared those experiences. I saw, as Lanier sees and as the members of communes in the U.S. during the 1960s saw, that nothing gets done when no one owns the process and stands to reap the rewards: when housekeeping is everyone’s responsibility, no one does it.

Further and more to the point, nothing goes right when supply and demand are dictated by a central committee driven by ideological assumptions concerning exactly what does and does not constitute the greater good.  On the contrary, innovation is stifled, inefficiencies are rampant, and no one takes the initiative to do better because there are no incentives for doing so. Though considerable pain is experienced in allowing the invisible hand to coordinate the flux and flows of markets, no better path to prosperity has yet been found. The current struggle is less one of figuring out how to do without markets than it is one of figuring out how to organize them for greater long term stability. As previous posts in this blog endeavor to show, we ought to be looking more toward bringing all forms of capital into the market instead of toward regulating some to death while others ravage the economy, scot-free.

Friedrich von Hayek (1988, 1994) is an economist and philosopher often noted for his on-target evaluations of the errors of socialism. He tellingly focused on the difference between the laborious micromanagement of socialism’s thought police and the wealth-creating liberation of capital’s capacity for self-organization. It is interesting that Lanier describes the effects of demonetized online sharing as driving most of us toward peasant status, as Hayek (1994) describes socialism as a “road to serfdom.” Of course, capitalism itself is far from perfect, since private property, and manufactured and liquid capital, have enjoyed a freedom of movement that too often recklessly tramples human rights, community life, and the natural environment. But as is described in a previous blog I posted on re-inventing capitalism, we can go a long way toward rectifying the errors of capitalism by setting up the rules of law that will lubricate and improve the efficiency of human, social, and natural capital markets.

Now, I’ve always been fascinated with the Latin root shared in words like property, propriety, proprietary, appropriation, proper, and the French propre (which means both clean and one’s own, or belonging to oneself, depending on whether it comes before or after the noun; une maison propre = a clean house and sa propre maison = his/her own house). I was then happy to encounter in graduate school Ricoeur’s (1981) theory of text interpretation, which focuses on the way we create meaning by appropriating it. Real understanding requires that we must make a text our own if we are to be able to give proper evidence of understanding it by restating or summarizing it in our own words.

Such restating is, of course, also the criterion for demonstrating that a scientific theory of the properties of a phenomenon is adequate to the task of reproducing its effects on demand. As Ricoeur (1981, p. 210) says, situating science in a sphere of signs puts the human and natural sciences together on the same footing in the context of linguistically-mediated social relations. This unification of the sciences has profound consequences, not just for philosophy, the social sciences, or economics, but for the practical task of transforming the current “global mush” into a beautiful, meaningful, and effective living creativity system. So, there is real practical significance in realizing what appropriation is and how its processes feed into our conceptualizations of property, propriety, and ownership.

When we can devise a new instrument or measuring method that gives the same results as an existing instrument or method, we have demonstrated theoretical control over the properties of the phenomenon (Heelan, 1983, 2001; Ihde, 1991; Ihde & Selinger, 2003; Fisher, 2004, 2006, 2010b). The more precisely the effects are reproduced, the purer they become, the clearer their representation, and the greater their independence from the local contingencies of sample, instrument, observer, method, etc. When we can package a technique for reproducing the desired effects (radio or tv broadcast/reception, vibrating toothbrushes, or what have you), we can export the phenomenon from the laboratory via networks of distribution, supply, sales, marketing, manufacture, repair, etc. (Latour, 1987). Proprietary methods, instruments, and effects can then be patented and ownership secured.

What we have in the current “global mush” of collective aggregations are nothing at all of this kind. There are specific criteria for information quality and network configuration (Akkerman, et al., 2007; Latour, 1987, pp. 247-257; Latour, 1995; Magnus, 2007; Mandel, 1978; Wise, 1995) that have to be met for collective cognition to realize its potential in the manner described by Surowiecki (2004) or Brafman and Beckstrom (2006), for instance.  The difference is the difference between living and dead capital, between capitalism and socialism, and between scientific measurement and funny numbers that don’t stand for the repetitive additivity of a constant unit (Fisher, 2002, 2009, 2010a). As Lanier notes, Silicon Valley understands very well the nature of this difference, and protects its own interests by vigilantly ensuring that its collective cognitions are based in properly constructed information and networks.

And here we find the crux of the lesson to be learned. We need to focus very carefully on the details of how we create meaningful relationships, of how things come into words, of how instruments are calibrated and linked together in shared systems of signification, and of how economies thrive on the productive efficiencies of well-lubricated markets. Everything we need to turn things around is available, though seeing things for what they are is one of the most daunting and difficult tasks we can undertake.

The postmodern implications of the way appropriation is more a letting-go than a possessing (Ricoeur, 1981, p. 191) will be taken up another time, in the context of the playful flow of signification we are always already caught up within. For now, it is enough to point the way toward the issues raised and examined in other posts in this blog as to how capital is brought to life. We are well on the way toward a convergence of efforts that may well result in exactly the kind of fierce individuals and competing teams able to reap their just due, as Lanier envisions.


Akkerman, S., Van den Bossche, P., Admiraal, W., Gijselaers, W., Segers, M., Simons, R.-J., Kirschnerd, P. (2007, February). Reconsidering group cognition: From conceptual confusion to a boundary area between cognitive and socio-cultural perspectives? Educational Research Review, 2, 39-63.
Brafman, O., & Beckstrom, R. A. (2006). The starfish and the spider: The unstoppable power of leaderless organizations. New York: Portfolio (Penguin Group).

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2002, Spring). “The Mystery of Capital” and the human sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(4), 854 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004, October). Meaning and method in the social sciences. Human Studies: A Journal for Philosophy and the Social Sciences, 27(4), 429-54.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2006). Meaningfulness, sufficiency, invariance, and conjoint additivity. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 20(1), 1053 [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009, November). Invariance and traceability for measures of human, social, and natural capital: Theory and application. Measurement (Elsevier), 42(9), 1278-1287.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010a). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11, in press [].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010)b. Reducible or irreducible? Mathematical reasoning and the ontological method. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11, in press.

von Hayek, F. A. (1988). The fatal conceit: The errors of socialism (W. W. Bartley, III, Ed.) (Vol. I). The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

von Hayek, F. A. (1994/1944). The road to serfdom (Fiftieth Anniversary Edition; Introduction by Milton Friedman). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Heelan, P. A. (1983, June). Natural science as a hermeneutic of instrumentation. Philosophy of Science, 50, 181-204.

Heelan, P. A. (2001). The lifeworld and scientific interpretation. In S. K. Toombs (Ed.), Handbook of phenomenology and medicine (pp. 47-66). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ihde, D., & Selinger, E. (Eds.). (2003). Chasing technoscience: Matrix for materiality. (Indiana Series in Philosophy of Technology). Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Latour, B. (1995). Cogito ergo sumus! Or psychology swept inside out by the fresh air of the upper deck: Review of Hutchins’ Cognition in the Wild, MIT Press, 1995. Mind, Culture, and Activity: An International Journal, 3(192), 54-63.

Magnus, P. D. (2007). Distributed cognition and the task of science. Social Studies of Science, 37(2), 297-310.

Mandel, J. (1978, December). Interlaboratory testing. ASTM Standardization News, 6, 11-12.

Ricoeur, P. (1981). Hermeneutics and the human sciences: Essays on language, action and interpretation (J. B. Thompson, Ed. & Trans). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Surowiecki, J. (2004). The wisdom of crowds: Why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies and nations. New York: Doubleday.
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