In a fit of insomnia, I just read an interview with Jaron Lanier, author of You are Not a Gadget, who happens to be a personal hero of mine, in that he dares to question the trajectory of the internet and of technology toward the expectation that as individuals we freely produce information from which search aggregators profit, in the case of Google, and that technology can redefine us as consumers of paid-model content of a company’s choosing simply by changing devices and paradigms, as Apple has done with the iPad:
“The Apple idea is that instead of the personal computer model where people own their own information, and everybody can be a creator as well as a consumer, we’re moving towards this iPad, iPhone model where it’s not as adequate for media creation as the real media creation tools, and even though you can become a seller over the network, you have to pass through Apple’s gate to accept what you do, and your chances of doing well are very small, and it’s not a person to person thing, it’s a business through a hub, through Apple to others, and it doesn’t create a middle class, it creates a new kind of upper class. … Google has done something that might even be more destructive of the middle class, which is they’ve said, “Well, since Moore’s law makes computation really cheap, let’s just give away the computation, but keep the data.” And that’s a disaster.”
By contrast, I think of the typewriter (of course). It is a device in which you define and create the content, without influence from Royal or Olympia. It provides no options to serve up advertisements or content of Royal’s choosing, or shape in any way the kind of content you choose to consume and at what cost. It’s only job is for you to create writing of your choice, completely outside of the connected network of online expectations about the life of information and its uses. There is no function inherently built into the device compelling you to share your work for free with a click to be monetized by Google search; we have to drag out middleman technology like scanners, cameras, and computers to make that possible, and even scans of typecasts evade the search engine’s current requirement for digital text to parse. These things being the case, does the typewriter, by dint of its independence from this work-for-free system offer us the opportunity to profit from our work, in and of itself (and by means other than selling hardware on eBay, I mean, in the act of creating content itself)? Can you create wealth with a typewriter?
It would be revolutionary for one of us to show that it’s possible. I’m curious to know what your wild theories are about this. Mine is this: there is a certain type of person out there who craves authentic experience, not just ideas but the tactile manifestation of authenticity: a hand-bound book, typed or hand-illustrated information, on paper. Not just nostalgics but people looking to engage their mind and creativity not with online groupthink or aggregated crowds but with the real work and ideas of individuals and artists. If the content and the quality of these publications is sufficiently high, the market may be there.
If you take zines as a case study of this kind of thinking, the problem of free reappears in the spectre of collectivism. Any group that functions mostly on the goodwill of people can tend toward this line of thinking, that profit is immoral and freedom is benevolence. (The typosphere itself functions on this sort of value system, in fact). The problem with this thinking is that people need to earn money, full stop. It has to come from somewhere. If it can’t come from, as Lanier says, “the products of our hearts and minds,” if the value of those things is agreed to be zero, except by large corporations that can mine it for advertising revenue, from where does the profit come for the creators? Are we not able to create a viable market between ourselves by agreement? Must we give our work away to the aggregators for profit, but insist that we exchange it between ourselves for nothing?
Putting this to the test, if you had only a typewriter to work with, how would you create an income with it? (Consider this a variant on a common technology interview question, in which one is prompted to come up with a monetization strategy for 1,000 ping pong balls on the spot).