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Book review: Who Owns the Future?

This wide-ranging, discursive, and deliberately provocative book argues for an alternative to a developing future in which we all become digital serfs, valued only for our eyeballs and our sharing ability.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

"Did you pay for this book?" asks author Jaron Lanier in the introduction to Who Owns the Future? Or did you pirate it, perhaps planning to write a nice tweet that might convince a dozen people to buy it? Authors generally remind you that they have a mortgage to pay, but here, Lanier gets right to his point that social networks and what he calls "siren servers" — in fields from finance to music — are singing us to an economic shipwreck, sucking value out of the economy, and destroying the middle class.

And no, they're not replacing those lost professional jobs with new ones the way previous advances have. Kodak once employed over 140,000 people; when Facebook bought Instagram, it had just 13 staff.

Image: Penguin Books

Big data and the social networks, search engines, ad services, Walmart supply chain and other siren servers it feeds, doesn't come from nowhere. It comes from the unpaid contributions of millions of users, which have been aggregated, analysed, and turned into secret algorithms by these siren servers that externalise risk (the way the financial and insurance industries do), centralising value, and limiting the overall potential for economic growth.

That's asymmetrical, Lanier points out: "We've decided not to pay most people for performing the new roles that are valuable in relation to latest technologies. Ordinary people 'share', while elite network presences generate unprecedented fortunes."

Lanier makes sense of the great financial meltdown with a technological metaphor. Think of the big banks externalising risk like a computer running a fan to push heat out of the system. Finance got so big that it became the whole system, had nowhere else to push the heat to — and melted down. By letting siren servers concentrate the money, we're not just making ourselves poorer than we need to be — we're turning economics into a winner-takes-all beauty contest that only the big guys can win. You're being watched, you're being mined, and Lanier suggests that the bargain free services you're getting in return are undermining a lot of what's made capitalism a successful system for more than just a ruling elite.

Almost everything in the economy — from manufacturing, transportation, and energy to healthcare — will ultimately be about information, thanks to 3D printing, self-driving cars, robotic mining equipment, robot nurses, and the rest of the technology we're developing by observing and analysing human behaviour. If software is the final industrial revolution, Lanier argues, it won't be sustainable to hand over the data you produce in return for free services instead of payment.

Moore's Law has given us "cheap treats" — yesterday's unattainable luxury hardware is today's throwaway phone feature. But the limit on Moore's Law that Lanier points out isn't the usual issue of heat and quantum efficiency: it's that people who want to get paid for what they do seem very expensive when computation is so cheap, and the technology industry forgets that what those people contribute is actually valuable.

Middle class disappearing act

The middle class is vanishing in industry after industry. It's gone in music production and distribution, and machine learning-powered translation will get good enough to put a lot of human translators out of business. That's ironic, because their translations are what the machine learning has used to build translation algorithms. Shouldn't they get micro-payments for their contributions to systems that make the siren servers so much money? Shouldn't we all be getting paid for information gleaned from us, if that information turns out to be valuable?

Almost everything in the economy — from manufacturing, transportation, and energy to healthcare — will ultimately be about information, thanks to 3D printing, self-driving cars, robotic mining equipment, robot nurses, and the rest of the technology we're developing by observing and analysing human behaviour.

If a nurse observed by machine learning demonstrates an efficient method that a robot nurse can learn, should she get paid for that? Suppose you meet your partner on a dating site, and twenty years later, you're still married. If the dating site algorithm analyses you both and uses that information to help refine the algorithm for pairing people up, you should get a cut of the profits. And instead of selling your eyeballs for ever more targeted ads, you'll actually pay for some of those services you use. "Information wouldn't need to be free if no one were impoverished," Lanier points out.

Lanier returns to the original ideas about networked information from pioneer Ted Nelson, whose Xanadu system would have had two-way links and two-way transactions, and suggests an alternative network economy where information stays connected to its source. He also takes a remarkably sensible look at who might built this kind of system and what would motivate them. There are caricatures of the different industry players and participants here — but unusually, for a book about technology, there are also recognisable human beings acting and reacting the way humans actually do rather than the usual idealised marketing personas.

Wide-ranging, discursive, and provocative

This is a wide-ranging, discursive, and deliberately provocative book. Lanier is even-handedly critical of social networks (both Reddit and Facebook), search engines, intelligence agencies, singularity enthusiasts, naïve utopian libertarians ("network entrepreneurs and cyber-activists alike seem to imagine that today's elite network servers in positions of information supremacy will eventually become eternally benign, or just dissolve," he observes), and big banks.

Lanier makes no secret of the fact that he works at Microsoft. His disclaimer that his criticisms of Amazon's ability to reduce its own risk and increase risk for smaller sellers by always under-pricing them, and that it is nothing to do with Microsoft's partnership with Barnes and Noble, is refreshingly clear and honest. "There is no way for anyone who is deeply engaged in the perversely intertwined world of tech to write about the big issues and not have conflicts of interest ... my choice is to be engaged, even if that means I am tainted ... What I can offer is being open about what I think."

Lanier's role in pioneering virtual and augmented reality gives him the kind of insider insight that normally precludes this level of criticism. In just one role in a long and varied career, he founded a startup that was bought by Google and formed the basis for Google Glass. His analysis of the personal benefits of life logging, and the way in which it can turn creepy, is prescient and insightful — but then, he was also a consultant on the film Minority Report.

"Discursive" might be an understatement: The "interludes" that break up the book's main sections include a look back at Aristotle wondering if automation might mean we'd need population control; an analysis of the way Steve Jobs used the techniques of an Indian guru, and the impact of the self-actualisation movement on Silicon Valley; a paraphrase of Marvin Minsky suggesting that the rich should fund projects to develop artificial hearts; and an account of an obscure composer called Conlon Nancarrow as a precursor of Iain Banks-style post-scarcity cultures of technological abundance. Along the way, you'll learn as much about philosophy, economics, and thermodynamics (courtesy of Maxwell's demon), as you will about 3D printers and why IBM's Watson is just a machine for producing answers rather than any kind of real artificial intelligence.

All this makes the book a fascinating, compelling, and thought-provoking read. You might not be as worried about any individual service as Lanier is about the whole idea of siren servers, and you might not find the idea of two-way transactions comprehensive enough to be our economic salvation — it's arguable that implementing them would have been complex enough to prevent the world wide web ever getting adopted. But Lanier makes it clear that this is a first look at a solution — what he calls "a whiff of a possibility". Even if you're not convinced, it's encouraging to see an alternative to a disrupted and digitised future that turns us all into digital serfs, valued only for our eyeballs and our sharing ability.

Who Owns the Future?
By Jaron Lanier
Allen Lane
384 pages
ISBN: 9781846145223

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