Peace Prize for Jaron Lanier
“He has a global concern”

Jaron Lanier
Jaron Lanier | Photo (detail): © 2013,

The Peace Prize of the German Book Trade went in 2014 to the internet theorist Jaron Lanier. An interview with Heinrich Riethmüller, head of the Association of German Booksellers and Publishers, which awards the prize.

Mr. Riethmüller, the computer scientist, musician and internet pioneer Jaron Lanier received the Peace Prize of the Association of German Booksellers and Publishers in 2014. Why him?

You might well ask, because Jaron Lanier hasn’t distinguished himself by a vast set of works, as have most previous Peace Prize laureates. They have generally been writers, philosophers and scientists who can look back on a lifetime of achievement. Lanier, on the other hand, has written only two books. But he’s drawn attention to the dangers that threaten us in the digital world with particular urgency, insightfulness and critical acumen. He thus has a global concern. The other winners of recent years have called for peace, freedom and democracy beginning from problems in their own countries. Lanier’s approach, on the other hand, is transnational.

The jury’s statement declares that Lanier has recognized “the risks concealed in the digital world for the free way of life of each and every human being”. What risks are these exactly?

One example that Lanier mentions: in the United States it’s now possible to insure yourself decently only if you’re healthy. There’s plenty of data available about people and the insurance companies decide whom and in what circumstances they’ll accept as a member on the basis of this profile. These connections are not transparent to the internet user; usually in perfectly good faith he leaves his traces on the internet. Lanier has therefore repeatedly emphasized that whoever has the biggest server and can collect and analyse the most data will rule the world and gain power over everyone.

“Specific proposals rather than one-sided criticism”

In his latest book Who Owns the Future?, Lanier calls for new business models for the internet and the strengthening of copyright. Where’s the peace message in this?

That alone of course isn’t a peace message. As an expert and specialist in the internet, Lanier isn’t a one-sided critic. He makes specific proposals, such as how the sharing of data and contents can be better organized so that not only big corporations profit from it. He suggests, for example, that everyone who puts information on the internet should be paid for it.

In the internet community, Lanier is a controversial figure – some fault his rejection of concepts such as Open Source and Open Data, others complain that he has put swarm intelligence in question.

When someone makes critical observations about the present, there will always be people who have a different point of view. This, by the way, was also the case with other laureates. With Lanier, the criticism came especially from the domain of the bloggers. Otherwise we were almost surprised at the considerable consensus which the award was met with.

“The issue of the NSA didn’t play a major role”

Part of the idea of the Peace Prize is to trigger social debates. Should we see Lanier’s prize as a comment on the NSA scandal?

No, not at all. That didn’t play a major role in the discussions of the foundation council. They were about an even bigger issue, the possibilities of comprehensive data storage. The NSA is of course part of this, but wasn’t the occasion for the award – then we would have had to give it to Edward Snowden.

Since the Peace Prize began being awarded in 1950, political focal points have emerged again and again. “Europe in Transition” was the keyword in the 1990s; then the issue of globalisation. Does Lanier signify the start of the decade in which internet critics will be honoured?

It is in fact a new issue that we’ve taken up. Once before we pointed the way; that was in the 1970s when we awarded the Peace Prize to the Club of Rome. In this case too we didn’t give the prize for a literary work, but for the indictment and the insight that this planet will be pillaged if we go on as we’ve been doing. The prize then triggered a major debate. We’ve now activated a similar stimulus, but this time in relation to the digital world.