Who owns the future? Not you

It’s taken me a while to get through Jaron Lanier’s 

It was highly recommended to me and I found it an interesting read. But as it’s a book about digital economics by a non-economist, and therefore written in a language foreign to the way I think about the issues, it was a surprisingly difficult read. I don’t think normal people would have the same difficulty.

[amazon_image id=”0241957214″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Who Owns The Future?[/amazon_image]

The theme of the book is that the economy has developed in ways that enable what Lanier calls ‘Siren Servers’ to appropriate the past and present labour of many other people for themselves, and thereby hollow out the middle classes. This situation is the result of the way the Siren Servers – he means Amazon, Facebook, Google etc – have used the presumption that “information is free”, specifically the data they all gather about all of us and by all of us, but advertising is paid for. Lanier quite rightly points out that the customers of these titans are the advertisers, not the individual users. Lengthy user agreements that nobody reads means the corporations take no risks, only revenues.

Lanier seems to believe that eventually this economic structure will become unsustainable because it is destroying normal middle class livelihoods and there will be nobody to buy the products being advertised. The Siren Servers become so big that they eat their environment (just as the financial markets did).

His proposed solution is nano-payments attached to information generated by individuals, whether that’s their ‘data’ or their creative or digital products. “If the system remembers where information originally came from, then the people who are the sources of information can be paid for it.” He points out that HTML, although marvellously convenient, only links one way, while Ted Nelson, an early thinker about linking, argued for two-way links. This is less convenient because of the additional updating required. In fact, the book left me completely unclear how two way linking to enable nano-payments would work in practice. However, Lanier argues: “This is the only way that democracy and capitalism can be in alignment.” Without greater symmetry between supplier and acquirer of information, the information economy will collapse.

I have an instinctive sympathy with the book’s argument, but do not think the unsustainability in capitalism we all can see at present boils down to the absence of micro-payments implemented via two-way hypertext linking. One question is Jean Tirole’s: will new digital giants benefiting from network effects come along and displace Google et al? If that hasn’t happened within, say, a decade, then the time would come to regulate these vital utilities to ensure they serve the public interest. More generally, I would look at beefing up competition policy as one of the levers to loosen the political power acquired by ‘Siren Servers’ – in which category I’d include the financial sector as well as the ICT sector.

The question of distributing productivity gains to the population as a whole is not confined to the digital economy either. While it’s right to be concerned about the jobbing musicians and journalists whose jobs are being destroyed by “free” online content, there are lots of other standard middle class jobs seeing living standards decline, so the economic and political issues go far beyond what’s covered in 

For of course this started some time ago with blue collar jobs. However, it’s an interesting book, and it’s always worthwhile to hear what experts in other fields have to say about economic issues, for their different perspective. I think Lanier’s diagnosis and solution will have quite wide appeal.

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2 thoughts on “Who owns the future? Not you

  1. This is looking at digital matters but it has and is going much wider than that. It is also the ordinary computer and digital use that is wiping out so many former white collar jobs at several levels. Gone are the multi layered structures of supervisory and middle management. Gone are the armies of clerks and typist. Gone are most of the filing cabinets. In the shops gone are layers of staff and the numbers. So just when we are pushing youngsters into ever longer education we are wiping out the jobs that they might have done in an earlier generation. This is not going to end well.

  2. I read this some time ago – Jaron Lanier was a hero of mine when I was in the virtual reality business back in the 1980’s and he invented the technology. He has now written an extraordinary book that attempts to refashion economics around the siren servers – the new masters of the virtual universe. It is an in-depth analysis of how to reverse the power law temptation of society in the new online age of Google, Facebook and the like. This power law has taken over from the binomial distribution of wealth that characterised society for the last hundred years and threatens to take out the middle class completely – leaving the rich to be ever-richer as the siren servers dominate society and as we give away our information to them for free. The challenge he sets is a massive one – for society to work out how to begin payment for online information that will allow a middle class to ensue – thereby helping themselves and the masters of the virtual universe before the economy runs out of customers that can afford to buy anything. Well written if sometimes more hopeful than real. Jan Lanier is a great thinker and he has right on his side.

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