Jaron Lanier, Who Owns the Future? (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013), 396pp.
In his previous book, You Are Not a Gadget (2010), Jaron Lanier contrasted "the lifeless world of pure information" with the rich mystery of being human. He defended human intelligence, judgment, and artistic creativity against the pseudo-wisdom of computer algorithms, search engines, and aggregators. Information technology, he argued, is necessarily a form of social engineering, and the results have been horrible. That book considered dozens of examples, but they are "really just different aspects of a singular, big mistake. The deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits."
The book was important because Lanier has impeccable geek cred. For over thirty years he has pioneered all sorts of computer technology. In the 1980s he was one of the inventors of virtual reality. He's also an artist, musician and composer who has a world class collection of rare instruments. In 2010 Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. The New York Times listed You Are Not a Gadget as one of the ten best books of 2010.
Lanier's new book examines the impact of big data on the economy. He calls it a work of "futuristic economics" and "speculative advocacy." Today only a tiny minority of people benefit from the information economy. "Those who keep the new ledgers, the giant computing services that model you, spy on you, and predict your actions, turn your life activities into the greatest fortunes in history." Lanier calls these "Siren Servers." Google, Facebook, Amazon, and credit agencies are only the most obvious examples. They collect, correlate and sell massive amounts of data about us. A click on the New York Times, for example, activates over a dozen of these spy agencies. Just how many Siren Servers are out there? "My sense," writes Lanier, "is that there are many dozens of unavoidable ones, plus thousands of others that will touch your life on occasion."
This model isn't sustainable and it shrinks the economy (something venture capitalists brag about). He gives dozens of examples. As part of the old economy, Kodak employed 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. Today it's bankrupt, thanks in part to the disruptions of the digital economy. Instagram has digitalized photography, and when Facebook bought it in 2012 for a billion dollars, it employed only 13 people. Music and journalism (cf. newspapers) have been similarly eviscerated, and in Lanier's view every component in our economy is similarly threatened — insurance, transportation, energy, manufacturing, health care, office work, education, etc.
Lanier proposes an alternate economic model. Since our personal data is the raw information of the Siren Servers, we should be paid for it through a "universal micropayment system." He admits that the devil is in the details of his nanopayment proposal, and that he's a dreamer. One footnote says that he's "working on an alternative to space elevators, which is a gigantic lighter-than-air railgun to launch spacecraft." His answers might be easy to criticize, but Lanier's analysis of the economic impact of big data is profound. He concludes: "This is a book of hypotheticals, speculation, advocacy, and the invocation of hope, so why not imagine a thousand top engineers deciding to work together to preserve middle classes and democracy in information economies?"