At its height Kodak employed 140,000 people. It was permanent, in a way things no longer are. When I was born my grandfather bought me some token amount of stock in the company, and I still remember the official and somehow grownup-seeming dividend statements that would come in the mail. Kodak was a fixture on the forever landscape, like phone booths and video arcades and counting your long-distance minutes.
The digitization of photography — helped along, ironically, but Kodak’s development of the first digital camera — has rendered much of the company’s core products obsolete. Now in bankruptcy, the one-time corporate giant has, in a sense, ceded its photographic legacy to Instagram, a company that had a grand total of 13 employees at the time of its billion-dollar sale to Facebook. As computer scientist Jaron Lanier argues in his new book, Who Owns the Future?, the disappearance of those 140,000 jobs is part of a larger story.
In a widely distributed Salon interview earlier this month, Lanier made a forceful case that the Internet is destroying the American middle class. Throughout the 20th century, he argues, we had something of a deal. Technology might’ve periodically come along to obviate some onerous bit of labor — painting people’s portraits, say — but we all sort of agreed that users of the new, easier technology would nevertheless get paid, too; portrait photographers could still draw a salary, even though their work was easier.
Now, Lanier says, the free-culture ethos of the Internet has us abandoning this arrangement.
I found myself particularly interested in the role of our most forgettable and banal digital pursuits. In our current non-work diversions — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, Flickr, Bandcamp and so on — Lanier sees a steady erosion of the system that once nourished a healthy middle class. Those online leisure pursuits constitute free labor, as he sees it, even if it’s easier and funner labor than whatever came before it.
Keep it up, he writes, and the results will be disastrous. The slow, ongoing death of the creative class — photographers, writers, musicians — might well be an indication of what’s to come for the rest of the country. Doctors, lawyers, manufacturers and other middle classers could see their professions eaten away by free Internet alternatives one day, either directly or indirectly.
“Technology will get to everybody eventually,” Lanier tells Salon. Funny how the happy promises turn ominous in time.
Chris Colin is the award-winning author of “Blindsight,” published by the Atavist and named one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2011. See his work at www.chriscolin.com.