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(Probably Not You) – A review of Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future?

These days there is barely time to get a firm grounding in the latest technological status quo before the whole situation changes again – often dramatically. A person can just get their privacy settings right in time for the next overhaul of a platform’s terms of service, or they may just master all of their smart phone’s functions before planned obsolescence encourages them to trade it in for a newer model, and this is not even to account for the range of new devices (Google Glass) waiting in the wings that shall turn the current devices into objects of technophile’s derision or fawning nostalgia. People, and society, may become so wrapped up in this constant flow of changes that it can oft be forgotten that these changes and advances are the result of conscious decisions. Indeed, the future that we are digitally driving towards is not accidental it is a path towards which our society is being steered.

But who is steering? Who is making these decisions? What group is it that gets to decide to redefine your privacy with the latest updating of a social network platform’s terms of service? Who is choosing the course we sail? Or, to put it another way, who owns the future?

Which incidentally is the title of Jaron Lanier’s recent book (Who Owns the Future?).  It is not the simplest of questions to contemplate and thus it is not the simplest of questions to answer – otherwise there would be little point in somebody writing a book on the topic. Though, truthfully, the reason that the question is worth asking is that it is not one that has the clearest of answers as of yet. This is not to suggest that people cannot make an educated guess as to who will own the future, it is simply to say that the way in which the future is owned may be more complex than one would initially think. And at the very least, it is by pondering this question that one may be able to see the potential perils in contemporary society that point towards a particular future, and thus suggest alternatives that might result in the ownership of the future being shared a bit more equitably.

As a fellow with a deep involvement in the technological world, and with an abiding affection for technology, Jaron Lanier’s book presents an optimistic gaze towards technology that is simultaneously rather weary of some of the side effects that technology has brought with it. To reduce the entire book to a single sentence: Lanier’s claim is that embracing technology (particularly those reliant on the Internet) has altered society – including the economy – and if people want to continue enjoying their gadgets (and the ever more exciting devices that will appear soon) there needs to be a new approach to the economics surrounding technology – otherwise there will be nobody left to afford the devices. The previous sentence is an oversimplification, but it locates the central premises of Lanier’s book, namely (in his account): technology is overall a positive thing, we cannot (and should not) attempt to halt technological progress, a successful society depends upon a vibrant middle class, new technologies need to better support the rebuilding of the middle class, and (this is a less clearly stated point) technologists are special people – others are as well – but Lanier clearly has a particular affection for his comrades at keyboards.

Granted, Lanier does not seem to want to describe his book as being about technology (as such), instead it is about:

“futuristic economics, but it’s really about how we can remain human beings as our machines become so sophisticated that we can perceive them as autonomous.” (9)

Lanier is confident that the impressive advances of computer technology are going to advance, not slow, and thus the decades ahead will likely see most people’s lives (at least in industrialized nations) change ever more. From reality augmentation glasses (such as Google Glass), to most production being done by highly advanced 3-D printers, to the possibility of consumer biotechnologies, the future that Lanier seems to have glanced in the development labs of Silicon Valley is not upon us yet, but it is only a matter of time. What concerns Lanier, therefore, is his vision of what has occurred along with the surge of technologies over the course of the last decades – for even as consumer electronics have put computers in people’s homes (and then in their backpacks [and then in their pockets]) many of these same people have seen the middle class incomes upon which they once depended evaporate. Yet there is still tremendous wealth in the world – much of it in the coffers of tech firms – and this money has not come solely as a result of selling actual products. Rather these companies have largely made fortunes by monetizing an extremely precious commodity: you. The information that ordinary people feed into Google, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, iTunes, and so forth is the source of those companies’ riches, they have monetized your information, but have you been paid your cut?

No. Which is a central feature of Lanier’s argument, as he writes:

“In a world of digital dignity, each individual will be the commercial owner of any data that can be measured from that person’s state or behavior…in the event that something a person says or does contributes even minutely to a database that allows, say, a machine language translation algorithm, or a market prediction algorithm to perform a task, then a nanopayment, proportional both to the degree of contribution and the resultant value, will be due to the person.” (20)

It is true that “a nanopayment” does not sound like very much in the way of an income, but these payments are the result of users who contribute “even minutely” and thus it stands to reason (at least in Lanier’s writing) that most people would be earning a steady enough flow of “nanopayments” so as to help rebuild the middle class. Furthermore, these “nanopayments” may even be relatively retroactive so that some of those who have been automated out of jobs may still receive remuneration (after all, the machines that replaced them were programmed based on some notion of what the original workers were doing).

As for tracking all of this information, without bogging down into the technical trenches, Lanier seems to think this might be one of the lesser problems of such a system; huge amounts of information are already tracked (see: Google [or, the NSA]), all that will be required is a clearer commitment to tracking and not losing sight of a given piece of data’s provenance. Repeatedly, Lanier emphasizes that his proposal is a firmly capitalistic one – he wants to see people paid for the value they create – and indeed he sees his proposal as the best hope for a robust system of capitalism to sustain itself. Furthermore, Lanier sees in this constant system of “nanopayments” a way to escape the farce of “free” wherein the price of online content is hidden and many of those contributing a great deal (such as musicians whose work is pirated) are not compensated – not only would people be constantly receiving “nanopayments” but they’d also be making them, thereby (once again) encouraging a more robust capitalism to develop.

Lanier’s proposal of “nanopayments” leads obviously to a larger question – so where is all of this information and money going now? While the answer to this may seem rather obvious – to big companies, particularly large technology firms – Lanier emphasizes that this centralization of power is having a negative impact upon the larger economy (too much money in too few hands). Instead of focusing on the threat posed by huge tech conglomerates or “too big too fail” banks Lanier discusses what he terms “Siren Servers” which he describes as:

“an elite computer, or coordinated collection of computers, on a network. It is characterized by narcissism, hyperamplified risk aversion, and extreme information asymmetry…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. That plan will always eventually backfire, because the rest of the world cannot indefinitely absorb the increased risk, cost, and waste” (54/55)

These Siren Servers (examples of which would certainly include Google and Facebook) vacuum up huge amounts of information, generate value (money) off of this information, and use this information to further strengthen their own position. Indeed, Lanier seems to be warning that the future may very well belong to whichever Siren Server is eventually able to crush its competition. The future coming courtesy of the Siren Servers may well be one in which almost all manufacturing is done by advanced 3-D printers, in which all but the most elite universities have been replaced by some even more futuristic equivalent of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), one in which most people’s privacy is close to nonexistent, and wherein most people are doomed to technologically wrought obsolescence as “the singularity” draws near. The grim specter of a future owned by the Siren Servers is the path society may be on, but it is the path Lanier is warning against, one wherein people have lost control of the information about themselves at the very moment where it has become clear just how financially valuable that information is in the economy. Lanier wants to emphasize that:

“it’s not that the market is saying ordinary people aren’t valuable online; it’s that most people have been repositioned out of the loop of their own commercial value.” (257)

Hence Lanier’s solution is to better recognize the value (human and commercial) of more people, and to turn this value into real money that gets back to those people – thereby creating a form of capitalism that can effectively survive in today’s (and tomorrow’s) technological times. Lanier is cognizant of the fact that the shift to quieting the call of the Siren Servers and towards “nanopayments” is not necessarily an easy one; however, he casts it as the option that must be taken, and it is an option that he is confident society can move towards. Who owns the future? As it stands now, it is those who have owned the last decades and the present moment, but in Lanier’s plan the future could just belong to everybody.

All told Who Owns the Future is an interesting read – Lanier’s knowledge of the technological world is extensive and he speaks with a confidence clearly born of experience whilst writing in a conversational and easy tone (a dense academic tract this is not). Lanier takes great care in locating his proposals in a sort of political middle ground – his ideas may at first sound slightly “left leaning” but he repeatedly emphasizes that his plan is the best route to preserve capitalism, while also repeatedly scolding (if somewhat affectionately) his various friends who would read into his text a more “leftists” proposal. Furthermore Lanier constructs an argument that seeks to insulate itself from being dismissed as just a technical evangelizist, despite Lanier’s clear love of technology. Indeed, Lanier’s book provides an honest attempt to see the shortcomings of the technological status quo and to propose a way forward that will be beneficial for all. At the very least it is difficult to come away from the book without at least finding the idea of “nanopayments” worthy of consideration – after all, this data is going somewhere, it would be wonderful if people had true ownership of their information (for privacy purposes as well as the purposes of adequate compensation).

Yet, Lanier’s book foregrounds a question: Who owns the future? And in the end the book also provides an answer, though it might not really be the answer that Lanier intended to provide. In order to locate the real answer (as opposed to the one that Lanier seem’s to prefer) it is helpful to focus on a line that Lanier sneaks into the text relatively early whilst insulating himself from charges of advocating socialism or in general holding overtly leftist tendencies. The lines are as follows:

“Marx wanted something that most people, including me, don’t want: a committee to make sure everyone gets what’s best for them.” (38)

On the one hand it is easy to note that this is a laughably dismissive, and philosophically (not to mention economically) inaccurate reading of Marx, yet the intention is not here to engage in a debate about Marxism. Rather that line is interesting and troublesome for a particular reason – namely that within it Lanier writes that most people don’t want some obscure “committee” making sure that people get whatever it is that this committee thinks is “best for them,” and yet this is precisely the ethos at the center of Lanier’s book. For Lanier’s book is a lengthy argument for the “committee” of technologists (not unlike himself), who get to “make sure everyone gets what’s best for them.” Consider companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, and so forth – these are firms that are dramatically reshaping the world and their boards of directors, investors, and the legions of technologists they employ are the “committee” which gets to determine “what’s best” for you. Did you elect these people? Did you get to vote on these decisions? True – there is the standard pabulum about people being able to “vote with their wallets” but one of the things that Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA have made abundantly clear is that when a technological society advances far enough ideas about “voting with your wallet” are worthless. You can’t really vote with your wallet against the technologically empowered surveillance state.

Or to restate the problem: Lanier would not want a committee determining that he gets what the committee deems is best for him, yet he seems to have little compunction of he and his friends getting to be the committee that makes the decisions for you. This is a sense that emerges frequently throughout the book as Lanier repeatedly inserts himself into his tale – reminding readers that he has sat beside Google’s Eric Schmidt and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, telling tales of his fond memories of evenings thinking about the future of technology in hallowed academic halls like MIT and Stanford, and mentioning that he has been involved in numerous successful startups that have been sold to firms that are now parts of “Oracle, Adobe, and Google” he proudly notes that one of the companies he was involved with “turned into the seed” for what would become Google Glass (which he calls Google Goggles). The technological world that Lanier worries about in the pages of his book is ultimately one wherein:

“I am not writing about some remote “them” but about a world I have helped to create” (310)

Lanier may not be the chairperson of the “committee” but he certainly is one of the members of the group. It is a position that he seems to revel in, as he forecasts his  solutions for the troubles of the day, for he imagines a definite route to his goals – one wherein:

“we could just do this, without waiting for approval. The management at the various companies would just have to deal with it.” (342)

The willingness to flout “the various companies” seems rather heartening, and yet the problem remains as to who is singled out in: “without waiting for approval.” What about your approval? What about my approval? What about a parent’s approval for their seven year old? It is true that many of these tech companies have behaved in a profoundly undemocratic way, and it could be amusing to see some of them falter – but if Lanier would not want to live with some other “committee” telling him what’s best for him, why must his readers abide by what Lanier thinks is best for them?

The intention is not to be overly harsh on Lanier – he is clearly an intelligent person and his book (along with its predecessor You Are Not a Gadget) should be recognized for attempting to introduce some sanity into the fever dreams that seem to emanate from Silicon Valley. Jaron Lanier does not appear to be an adherent of the Californian Ideology, and indeed he seems to want to offer a humanistic counter to an ideology that he recognizes is frequently driving some of those he calls colleagues and employers. Again, Lanier appears as an eminently interesting and rather likable individual who clearly does seem concerned with “what’s best” – whether or not this means that he and his friends should be empowered to enforce these opinions is another matter.

There are certainly other elements of Who Owns the Future? that are rather problematic – he may view the “singularity” (that one day we shall all merge with the machine) skeptically and yet the book traffics in a great deal of its own techno-utopian wishful thinking. In the future of 3-D printing, that Lanier envisions, there will also be “de-printers” that can disassemble unwanted goods, thus making 3-D printers eminently environmentally friendly but this is no solution for the mountains of e-waste poisoning landfills at the moment. Likewise Who Owns the Future? could be accused of talking about the “world” while really only focusing on the developed nations – there is a sense that “a rising tide lifts all ships” and yet if it can be hard to imagine Lanier’s plans coming to real fruition in nominally democratic nations it is even harder to see it working out in nations rife with other forms of turmoil – at risk of being crass, Lanier’s solution may better support musicians in the US but what of displaced farmers in India? Yet the largest problem that claws at all of Lanier’s other points is his unflagging affection for technology – Lanier may have gotten in on computing in the wild hacker days, but these days are past. Frankly, one can be justified in doubting Lanier’s “we could just do this” – except insofar as that exact comment is likely what is voiced on an almost weekly basis in the boardrooms of Google, Facebook, Apple, and so forth (and sometimes Lanier might even be in those rooms at the time).

At base it may be that Who Owns the Future? is actually a complex meandering mea culpa – one that hides a mournful confession of sins behind the “good news” of the evangelist. The technological world of Siren Servers, surveillance, and a dying middle class is one that Lanier – by his own admission – helped bring about, his book therefore comes across as his attempt to argue that things can still change. It is a proposal of some serious reforms that would doubtless have serious effects, and yet it is largely an attempt to more or less ensure the survival of the status quo (if in a modified form). Lanier’s proposals regarding “nanopayments” and information ownership could be quite useful – and yet they do rather little to truly challenge the structural systems that have led to this scenario in the first place. The state of affairs hoped for in Who Owns the Future? is one wherein everybody gets to have their cake and eat it too – regardless of the fact that the society has gotten a debilitating disease from eating nothing but cake.

It is against this wild sugary euphoria that we should act, for the problem may not simply be the Siren Servers but the state of affairs that so gleefully celebrates the newest technological toy. The thinker Lewis Mumford was not opposed to technology, like Lanier he saw in technology fantastic potential for the future of humanity and likewise he knew that humans had to be at the front and center of any attempt to consider the future of humanity. And yet Lewis Mumford wisely wrote (in In the Name of Sanity) in 1954:

“Let no one imagine that there is a mechanical cure for this mechanical disease.” (Mumford, 50)

As appealing as it may be, what Lanier ultimately proposes is a “mechanical cure for this mechanical disease” and as he is one of the doctors who has allowed the entire hospital to become infected one can appreciate his desire to set right what he has done. And yet the question still lingers: does the committee that got society into its present mess by deciding “what’s best” truly deserve to be trusted further? Should we not be skeptical of the democratic inclinations of those who proudly note “we could just do this?”

Clearly technologists like Lanier have an important role to play in society; however, it must be only as part of a larger debate that involves all of society, not a result of a group who decides “we could just do this.” In other words: a democracy as opposed to the technologically enabled plutocracy wherein technologists have become the grand viziers and court magicians. Lanier’s book is quite interesting and ample credit should be given to him for his willingness to admit that there is a problem and for his attempting to put forth a solution. It may be that the clearest takeaway from Lanier’s book is that if you don’t want a “committee” deciding what’s best for you than you need to get involved.

So, who owns the future?

Not you (or me).

However it is also not owned by Jaron Lanier.

But it might be owned by Jaron Lanier’s employer.

Don’t let them buy you off with the promise of a “nanopayment.”

The Book Reviewed

Who Owns the Future?
By Jaron Lanier
Simon & Schuster, 2013

Also cited:

Mumford, Lewis. In the Name of Sanity. Harcourt, 1954.

Book Reviews of:

Digital Disconnect by Robert McChesney

Present Shock by Douglas Rushkoff

To Save Everything Click Here by Evgeny Morozov

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

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This entry was posted on December 22, 2013 by in Books, Civil Liberties, Culture, Government, Privacy, Reviews, Society, Technology, The Internet and tagged , , .

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