About six years ago I was living in a tiny apartment in Paris and spending a lot of time in the American Library, tucked away in the 8th arrondisment.
It’s a strange place, full of bored students, elderly dames, rude staff and the most eclectic selection of books you can think of - titles from the 1970s, 80s and 90s, long out of print everywhere else.
As a place of serendipity and discovery, it is one of the best I’ve found (or at least was in 2013).
It was here, among the out-of-print paperbacks and long-forgotten self-help guides, that I stumbled upon a book called You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier. I had never heard of either book or author before but - maybe it was the intriguing title, maybe the cover design, or maybe the photo of the dreadlocked man on the inside - I felt compelled to read it.
And it changed my perception of the internet entirely.
Jaron’s book was full of weird turns of phrase like “drive-by anonymity” and “social media fascism”. Back in 2013, almost all commentary on the internet was positive - pollyannaish in fact - and here was a guy saying “this is not working out for us, and if we don’t change it soon, we’re going to be stuck with this version of it forever.”
Today everyone is saying that - but six years ago it was news.
I didn’t want to agree with him, but by the last page, my mind had been changed, my perception of the internet completely altered.
How many books can you really say that about?
“I want to make a video essay about these ideas” I said to myself, and six years later, incredibly, I was offered the chance to direct not just a video but a series with Jaron for the New York Times - and it’s about to drop.
In the years since You Are Not A Gadget, Jaron has developed his ideas into a vision for a new economy where internet users are not treated as products to be manipulated for clicks, but as dignified economic agents in control of, and earning money from, our data. I hope it will change your perception of the internet as much as his book did for me.
As a filmmaker, it’s been one of my most difficult projects. The challenge right at the top was converting Jaron’s abstract ideas into something you can not just see but feel.
The series is called Jaron Lanier Fixes the Internet and it launches tomorrow (Monday 23rd September). If you head to the New York Times homepage this week you’ll struggle to miss it. If you read this later in the week (or the future!) you can see the whole thing here. (If you’re not a Times subscriber, the videos will be on YouTube in a week).
In letter #40 I might do a quick Q&A about the project - so if you have any questions you want to ask about the show, just reply to this email!
Until next Sunday,