I have to admit that I have not read Jaron Lanier’s “Who Owns the Future?“, but mainstream media seems to be filled with snippets from the book. Often described as a visionary, Lanier has become one of the most prominent and outspoken critics of the digital economy. The most publicised and quoted part of the book, offered as the ultimate evidence that the Internet destroys jobs and hurts the economy, has been the statement that at its height Kodak employed 140,000 people, while Instagram only employs 13. Where did all the jobs go?
The statement has been rightly criticised as both shallow and disingenuous. Firstly, Kodak was not killed by the Internet, it was destroyed by poor management, low margins, and bad decisions. It is true that Kodak was synonymous with film, but it actually attempted to manufacture printers and digital cameras for more than a decade, it was just trying to compete with companies that were more efficient at doing both.
Moreover, Lanier’s statement reeks of a certain technophobe conceit. Hidden in his Kodak statement is the implication that digital photography is not as good as film photography. Anyone over a certain age must remember the time of film cameras, how you had only a limited number of shots, how you could not preview your pictures, how you had to buy film and then wait to have it developed, and how pictures rested unseen at the bottom of some drawer. To bemoan the demise of film photography is akin to longing for the good old days of steam engines and the telegraph. Technologies change, this is an inescapable fact of life. I, for one, welcome digital photography with open arms.
But the true shallowness of the Instagram comparison is that it is purposefully misleading. It may sound profound at first, until you really think about what it is really saying and realise that it is a case of false equivalence. Lanier hints strongly that all of the jobs lost by Kodak should have been picked up by Instagram, if that is not the intention, then the analogy simply breaks down. But obviously there is no one-to-one substitution, Instagram does not equal digital photography. A more accurate analogy would be to look at other elements of the economy that have directly replaced Kodak, and this gives us a lengthy list of companies. Let’s just look at the memory card market, which provides a better type of comparison. We have several types of technologies here, including Secure Digital card (SD), MiniSD Card, CompactFlash (CF-I), Memory Stick, MultiMediaCard (MMC), and SmartMedia. Listing some of the jobs created by some of the top card manufacturers, we get a better picture of just how wrong Lanier truly is (this is not an exhaustive list):
Sandisk – 4,600 employees.
PNY – 1,000 employees in 13 company locations around the world.
Kingston – 4,200 employees.
Transcend – 2,200 employees.
Fujifilm – 35,274 (proving that you can make a successful transition from film to digital).
Samsung – 17% of South Korea’s total GDP.
And this does not even include chip manufacturers, external hard drive manufacturers, printer manufacturers, ink cartridge providers, digital printing services, digital camera makers, mobile phone manufacturers, computer manufacturers, media server providers, cloud storage services, social media… you get the picture (pardon the pun).
To use the Instagram analogy is lazy journalism of the worst kind. It sounds good, but it truly fails to consider the whole of the digital photography industry. To blame technology for job losses displays both lack of knowledge and imagination. The Internet creates jobs. True, it also replaces jobs, but given the preposterously poor level of journalism on display in some of the articles that praise Lanier, I think that we can accurately guess where the next number of jobs will be lost.