Sunday, June 9, 2013

Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

As an idealist from the generation of computer scientists that helped create the internet, Jaron Lanier now feels that something has gone terribly wrong. Too much power is concentrated in the hands of too few. In Lanier's new book, he provides a wide ranging and deeply considered discussion paper on this very dilemma. 

Humanist, musician and computer scientist Jaron Lanier’s main claim to fame is the invention of virtual reality, a term he popularised. He currently works at Microsoft in one of their research labs. In addition to his many accomplishments he is now making a name for himself as a writer. His first book, You Are Not a Gadget, was a critique of Web 2.0 culture. Facebook and similar sites, he claimed,  had reduced our human potential, not expanded it. In this new book, Who Owns the Future?, Lanier tackles the economics of the internet: who wins, who loses, and how we should aim to spread the wealth around.

Lanier’s argument is really an age old one. Those who control the new technologies (in this case information technology) become enormously powerful, often putting the common good at peril. In the information age, power becomes concentrated in the servers of big corporations like Google and Facebook. Lanier calls these big servers ‘siren servers’: they transfix us with their dazzling allure but there is danger. While we might download free music, for example, this is eating away the music industry.

Those attracted to the siren server’s offer of freebies and treats may find themselves unable to obtain work in the industry of their choice. The upfront freebies that the internet gives may provide quick and easy gratification, but it also blinds us to their more serious long terms effects. We create an economy where a few become rich and powerful, while the rest of us must try to eke out a living on what's left. Surprisingly, Lanier’s argument is almost that of a Luddite: the new technology destroys many jobs and leaves few new ones behind to fill the gap.

The answer to this dilemma is a pretty standard one: redistribute the wealth. Seeing wealth in the internet age is built by controlling information about people, Lanier suggests that we should all get nanopayments for the bits and pieces of information we surrender to the siren servers. This would create a modest income for people and make their contribution valued. It would also be a way of preserving the middle class, which is seeing its ranks diminished. At the moment, this value is not recorded in the internet’s accounting system, it’s ‘off the books’. How would this be done? Lanier doesn’t give many details. As he readily admits, he’s really just throwing around ideas, but the rough answer is the internet would be retrofitted as a two way system so users could track who was using their information and then claim some type of payment. The information revolution would roll back the other way.

Of course this all sounds impossible and totally unlikely to ever happen. Who Owns the Future? can’t really be taken seriously as a prescription for a future internet economy. It seems too way out, or maybe we've all been too seduced by the power of the 'siren servers', and can't see any other alternatives to the current system.

Despite the book’s dubious utility, there are plenty of reasons why you should read Who Owns the Future? Lanier is a brilliant writer whose prose is rich and lovely. He has a broad range of ideas about the internet age that he discusses in a way that is accessible to the lay reader lacking in computer expertise (like this reviewer). Lanier has obviously thought long and deeply about a lot of wide ranging issues. He has quite a capacious mind and a philosopher’s temperament. In the final analysis he argues for balance and humanistic values when weighing up the internet's huge potential.

For example:

Making choices of where to place the barrier between ego and algorithm is unavoidable in the age of cloud software. Drawing the line between what we forfeit to calculation and what we reserve for the heroics of free will is the story of our time.


And if, as I argue, the world must eventually become somewhat artificial in order to thrive, must experience enabled by the Machine be forever inauthentic, infertile or shallow in comparison?

Jaron Lanier has a utopian vision of the internet as a humanist economy, one that sustains a broad middle class, rather than concentrating wealth at the top. He’s undoubtedly a hippie idealist. Who Owns the Future? will free your mind and open it to a world of wonderful possibilities. It will also hopefully kick start a discussion in the wider community about these vital issues.

Who Owns the Future?  by Jaron Lanier. Published by Allen Lane. ISBN: 9781846145223 RRP: $45.00