Who Owns the Future? (Jaron Lanier)

lanierWith Who Owns the Future, Jaron Lanier has delivered another wildly thought-provoking work of “speculative advocacy” after his 2010 work “You Are Not a Gadget”.

Lanier is a kind of technology wizard-sociologist. The New York Times described him as the father of virtual reality in the gaudy, reputation-burnishing way that Michael Jackson was the king of pop.

The book problematises our relation with the online environment, which has evolved from a largely open web to a much more closed one.  The early Web was characterised by people designing their own websites, registering their own domains, creatively building their unique online space. The closed Web is dominated by a few ‘Siren Servers’, technology behemoths that have come to dominate how we interact with the Web.  Driven by an one-sided notion of ‘openness’, people are encouraged to ‘share’ everything for free and be open about one’s personal information.  However, these companies are secretive about the algorithms they use to lure advertisers and decide what appears in front of you. “You don’t get to know what correlations have been calculated about you by Google, Facebook, an insurance company or a financial entity and that’s the kind of data that influences your life in a networked world.” (p.202)

“We want free online experiences so badly that we are happy to not be paid for information that comes from us now or ever. That sensibility also implies that the more dominant information becomes in our economy, the less most of us will be worth.”

Why should we care if people equal the Web with Facebook and search with Google? Lanier presents some far-reaching economic and political consequences.

Internet companies have succeeded in making people believe that data should be freely given to them.  The early internet years have fetishized open access and knowledge-sharing in a way that has distracted people from demanding fairness and job security in an information economy. Through the spread of smartphones and increasingly, the internet of things, we increasingly leave a constant data trail that is eagerly hoovered up by companies to improve their algorithms who make these same people economically redundant.

These aggregate data are clearly very lucrative, given these companies’ market values Networks create network effects, as every additional user renders the network more powerful (Metcalfe’s Law).  These network effects tend to lead to monopolies (or oligopolies) wielding enormous power and preventing newcomers from entering the market.  This threatens the diversity capitalism needs. Lanier lays out how evolutions in Artificial Intelligence, genetics and Virtual Reality, combined with Moore’s Law, are strengthening this tendency.

A second impact lies in the ‘demonetisation’ of more and more sectors of the economy.  Lanier describes how the advantage of local knowledge is gradually reduced by mining large datasets.  Instead of local knowledge about a place, an algorithm identifies which places you are likely to want to visit on your city trip.  GPS and Uber have replaced the value of local knowledge of a city to get around.  These shifts have two important consequences for markets:

  • Markets shrink as the total value that is created in sectors decreases;
  • Proportionally more people lose income as the distribution of earnings in more sectors turns from a bell-shaped curve, where the largest share goes to the middle class, to a right-skewed distribution where the bulk of earnings is concentrated among a small group of people (winner-takes-all markets).

The xMOOC rationale that aims at replacing face-to-face lectures by the lecture videos of the ‘best lecturers in the world’ fits in this story. Data mining and ‘smart’ algorithms that tailor explanations and exercises to students’ interests and progress may not necessarily be better than current education systems, but are likely to be cheaper and benefit a few companies like Coursera. With every posting on the forum, every video you watch, every quiz you take, the system becomes ‘smarter’, gradually reducing the economic value of most people who take part in these courses.  Similar trends are taking shape in lots of middle class professions such as accounting, medicine and transport.

The resulting political consequences are similarly profound. Democracies can only function in societies with a large middle class.  Large inequalities in a society increase the risk that either the elite financially captures the state or that the mass will vote populists into office with self-destructing policies.

Lanier does not offer easy ways out.  Banning technological process tends to be futile. Nor is Lanier a ‘leftie’, advocating large scale redistribution. He pleads for a ‘humanistic digital economy’ where technology is in function of society and in which the continued existence of a thriving middle class is supported.  In such an economy, information is valued fairly and transactions occur transparently. People would receive small payments (nanopayments) every time their information is used. They would also pay to use information, like using a search engine or creating a social media profile.  However, they would be paid a small but fair amount if their data are used by companies such as Google or Facebook to improve their algorithms. In such an economy we would, throughout our lives, be financially rewarded by an accumulation of small remunerations.

“By making opportunity more incremental, open and diverse than it was in the Sirenic era, most people ought to find some way to build up material dignity in the course of their lives.  The alternative would have been feeding data into Siren Servers, which lock people in by goading them into free-will-leeching feedback loops so that they become better represented by algorithms.” (p.347)

A re-design of the internet from a one-way network to a two-way network would make this possible.   In a one-way network you can create a link to a website or copy a file, but the original author will not know that you created a link or made a copy unless you inform the author.  Lanier’s concept of provenance – the recording of where value originates – is fundamental to such an ethical information economy.  In a two-way network information flows in both directions. In such a system, illegal copying is no longer possible.  Lanier compares it with systems like the Apple store or the Amazon e-book store, where you don’t buy actually copies of apps or books, but only the right to use or read it. People could protect their privacy by making the cost to use their personal data prohibitive.

The solution Lanier advocates is optimistic and might be utopian. It is also deeply realistic though in its acceptance that people are unlikely to forgo their desire for ‘free’ services anytime soon. Technology companies have become a ‘third force’, next to the state and religion. This book may not provide many answers (“It is too early for me to solve every problem brought up by the approach I’m advocating here”), but it does articulate a desperate need for them.

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