Who Owns the Future?

Who Owns the Future?.jpg“If technologists are creating their own ultramodern religion, and it is one in which people are told to wait politely as their very souls are made obsolete, we might expect further and worsening tensions….People must not be gradually equated with machines if we are to engineer a world that is good for people. We must not allow technological change to be driven by a philosophy in which people aren’t held to be special.” Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier

I’m glad I found my way to this book and Jaron Lanier. Although Who Owns the Future? was at times frustrating, perplexing (and even annoying), Lanier’s message is an important one. If you care about where the human race is heading in light of the highly disruptive information revolution that is only speeding up, I encourage you to become familiar with Lanier’s views and think about the issues he raises.

A computer scientist who pioneered virtual reality and a co-founder of start-ups now part of Oracle, Adobe, and Google, Lanier currently works at Microsoft Research on top-secret projects. In Who Owns the Future? he hints at a project involving the manipulation of fault lines in the earth to prevent quakes. Big stuff like that. Lanier is a musician and composer too, and his music has been performed all over the world.

Lanier proposes that we work toward “a humanistic information economy that rewards ordinary people for what they do and share on the web.” (Italics are mine.) If you follow my blog, you know I’ve been reading Wendell Berry, who writes about the displacement of farmers, small business owners and families in rural America by industrial-scale farming. Massive displacement of much broader swaths of society by technology is coming if we don’t make adjustments, and this is what Lanier is concerned about. I see Berry, who is in his 80s, and Lanier, a Gen X’er, as kindred spirits sounding the alarm about our cold, competitive, mechanistic society and its degradation of the human spirit.

Lanier does not think “Luddite” is a derogatory term. He believes the Luddites were onto something.

Technology has made it increasingly difficult to earn a living in music, photography, publishing, and journalism. Lanier warns that this could eventually be the case in manufacturing, medicine (robots performing surgery and caring for the elderly are two examples) and other mainstream fields. He predicts the middle class will continue to hollow out, with money and power concentrating among “Siren Servers” such as Facebook and Google, financial and insurance companies, national security agencies, and other powerful corporations that gather vast amounts of data for free and profit enormously by it. If the middle class implodes, so will the Siren Servers and everything else.

“A Siren Server…is an elite computer, or coordinated collection of computers, on a network. It is characterized by narcissism, hyperamplified risk aversion, and extreme information asymmetry. It is the winner of an all-or-nothing contest, and it inflicts smaller all-or-nothing contests on those who interact with it.

Siren Servers gather data from the network, often without having to pay for it. The data is analyzed using the most powerful available computers, run by the very best available technical people. The results of the analysis are kept secret, but are used to manipulate the rest of the world to advantage.

The plan will always eventually backfire, because the rest of the world cannot indefinitely absorb the increased risk, cost, and waste dispersed by a Siren Server.”

Lanier gives an example that is close to home. As Kodak, headquartered in my city, downsized nearly its entire workforce of 140,000 employees, Instagram arose, a social media giant where amateur and professional photographers post their photos for free. I love Instagram; I post photos there often. At the time of its founding, Instagram employed thirteen people.

A few other personal examples: 1. I have a loved one in photography. He and his colleagues are finding it increasingly difficult to earn a living. 2. My brother was laid off from his city’s newspaper as it hemorrhaged journalists and printing staff. 3. The house and shop where I grew up became worthless nearly overnight because of the mortgage crisis in 2008; Lanier says the housing crisis came about, in part, because of high-speed, networked financial transactions.

To make a long, complicated book short, Lanier believes people should be paid micro-royalties for the information they give away for free on the internet. It wouldn’t be difficult to make this possible from a technology standpoint, and Lanier delves into the accounting aspects, too, which I skimmed over. These micro-payments could be a viable way for people to earn a living, as they are reimbursed for the value they now provide for free. I can’t help but think of Henrietta Lacks, who was never given a cent for her “immortal” cells; they have been replicated around the world and have contributed enormously to medical research.

Lanier admits that, like many other Silicon Valley techies, he bought into the utopian vision of how wonderful it would be when information flowed freely to everyone on the Internet. Years ago, I drank the Kool-Aid, too, though grudgingly, because I’d made a living at writing. I have not been overjoyed to see writers go unpaid. Lanier contends that the rewards we get–such as free services like Facebook and WordPress for blogs such as this one–are not, ultimately, enough remuneration for what we’re contributing. Universal health insurance and other social fixes, if they ever come about, will not be enough.

Many disagree with Lanier, but my gut tells me he’s right. I find his message liberating. If, for example, I publish a quality memoir, I don’t want to give it away for 99 cents, or for free. I really don’t.

If I choose to have my DNA analyzed, what will be done with this unique, precious, and sensitive data now owned by some company?

I don’t want to spend hours in front of a screen, either, as so many of us do now, while Amazon and Facebook grow rich from the data we give away. This is no way to live. For a variety of reasons, I find myself trying to cut back on screen time; I’d rather be hiking or gardening or otherwise living my life out in the world.

“When enough people lack economic dignity, there’s no way for the economy overall to function well. ….Some decades from now all those idealistic people who contributed to open software or Wikipedia will be in the same position as today’s aging jazz musicians….In a humanistic information economy, as people age, they will collect royalties on value they brought into the world when they were younger. This seems to me a highly moral use of information technology. It remembers the right data. The very idea that our world is construed in such a way that the lifetime contributions of hardworking, creative people can be forgotten, that they can be sent perpetually back to the starting gate, is a deep injustice.

Putting it that way makes the complaint sound leftist. But today there’s also an erasure of what should be legitimate capital. The right should be just as outraged. The proposal here is not redistributionist or socialist. Royalties based on creative contributions from a whole lifetime would always be flowing freshly. It would be wealth earned, not entitlement.”

In Who Owns the Future? Lanier sometimes used terms and references new to me. Techies and younger folks will probably have an easier time, and there is a glossary that’s helpful. Lanier’s style and syntax are different, too, but I persisted, because I’m intrigued by how we might work toward a future that is ethical, human-centered, and filled with meaning. What I found dispiriting was his statements about baby boomers. If Lanier’s vision comes to fruition, he predicts it will not be until we have come and gone. That may be true, but the way he expresses this seems insensitive to his boomer readers. I hope to engage online for many years; Lanier implies this will be a largely unremunerated one-way street for my generation.

Lanier devotes a short section to the future of books, too. He offers a mixed outlook, but I’m encouraged by his conclusion. I won’t give it away here.

“My hope for the future is that it will be more radically wonderful, and unendingly so, than we can now imagine, but also that it will unfold in a lucid enough way that people can learn lessons and be willful. Our story should unfold unbroken by perceived singularities or other breaches of continuity. Whatever it is people will become as technology gets very good, they will still be people if these simple qualities hold.”

Do you agree with Jaron Lanier?



9 thoughts on “Who Owns the Future?”

  1. Thank you for this post, Valorie. We need people like Lanier who can see and understand the technological trends that are taking us into the future, and people like you who read with understanding and interest and pass this on to others who may read him as well, but regardless, come away with more understanding than we would have if not reading your blog.

    Yes, we are exploited by facebook and wordpress and publishers and television and so many other technologies. But we exploit them and use them for our own purpose and pleasure as well. Technology can be used for good or ill depending on how we use it and how it uses us. But we have some control over that, how much we let it use us, how much we use it in return, and for what purposes. Does it enhance or lives or demean it? We have choices in how that’s done. It’s all a co-creation. We are being re-written by every word we read, every idea we take in, and we are re-writing the world, or at least that part of it in contact with us by every word we write and idea we share. I find it fascinating.

    I just read a poem by William Stafford called “Vocation,” It ends with this: “Your job is to find out what the world is trying to be.” And by implication, to either further this trend or move it in a different direction.

    1. Deborah, thank you for this thoughtful comment, I really appreciate your close reading of my post.
      What I don’t like is the tremendous amount of data these companies are gathering, which gives them so much power.

  2. Fascinating, Val. I love how you see Jaron Lanier and Wendell Berry as kindred spirits. I think they’d both recognize the Luddites had valid concerns when they resisted being replaced by programmable looms, which were precursors to computers. So much of what passes for work today seems lacking in dignity, or a sense of mastery, cannot be a source of pride to the individual doing the work, and does not even provide a living wage. It does seem reasonable to imagine an economy that compensates people for the value of their data rather than their labor. I would like to see the idea tested to see if it could work. Did you see the video of Lanier’s presentation to a group of contemporary Jewish scholars? It was really interesting. In fact I need to see it again because I want to review what he said about the Talmud being a first and better Wikipedia! This author really gets you thinking! Thank you for introducing me to his writing and thought.
    PS: I love the title of his other book, You Are Not a Gadget. ( I don’t know how to underline or italicize the title of a book on my iPhone …)

    1. I’ll probably read You Are Not a Gadget too, I love that title. A friend who works in textbook publishing told me they excerpted something from one of Lanier’s books for the textbook – not sure what kind of textbook it was. Even if all of this doesn’t come about until long after us boomers, I think he has good ideas. Thanks for commenting, I didn’t really know about the programmable looms.

      1. I didn’t know either until I saw a program on PBS a while ago about the brilliant thinker, Ada Lovelace. (She was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron.) Anyway, there is a connection between her, Charles Babbage, his Analytical Engine, Jacquard looms, punch cards and computers!!!

        I found this quote attributed to Lovelace on the Internet:
        “We may say most aptly that the Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.”

        Just for fun, check out some of the beautiful patterns woven on Jacquard looms in Google images.

  3. “I don’t want to spend hours in front of a screen, either, as so many of us do now, while Amazon and Facebook grow rich from the data we give away.”… I totally agree with this. I don’t think most people are aware of how valuable their data is to many big companies, not just Amazon and Facebook, and how easily we are giving data away.
    Based on your review, I think this would be a very interesting book to read. Your post has already given me lots to think about.

    1. I’m so glad you agree. I never thought about what these companies are getting from us and what they’re actually doing with the data. At first glance, it seems all good, and beneficial to us. I think we need to talk about this in schools and educate kids about it – or maybe that is already happening, I don’t know. As a former librarian, I see this as a critical issue. I’m surprised this entire conversation just doesn’t seem to be happening, except for among a few educated readers and thinkers. I love this idea of a humanistic info economy; Lanier and this book have given me good words and ideas to think and talk about.

  4. I found this is such a valuable piece, thank you Valorie,
    I so recognised all that you said, and that feeling of being up against huge forces of so called progress that are continually shifting the goal posts so that my skills and experience are almost irrelevant in today’s changing world…

    And this in some ways makes me irrelevant too, to my grand children’s generation who humour and pity my technological incompetence and perceived ignorance, but who do not have the knowledge and experience – and even wisdom – that I have, to appreciate that there are other deep, rich ways of being, working and living ….

    1. Thank you, Valerie, for your words. I’ve found that, as a former medical librarian, sometimes younger generations humor us over our perceived ignorance of technology. And yet, librarians have brought so many people into the information age, spending hours and hours teaching others how to use computers, software, search engines, etc. When you think about it, our age group and a bit older and younger are the ones who have had to make dramatic adaptations in our working life and careers because of computers. I think it has been very difficult, and technology, while bringing many benefits, has huge pitfalls too. One example is the outcome of the recent presidential election in the US. I do think various forces related to information technology and media had an impact.

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