Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The first half of Lanier’s book is a strong critique of the current trend in computing and business toward aggregation and exploitation of consumer data. He calls companies like Facebook and Google, as well as financial companies that make rapid trades and find loopholes in the markets algorithmically, “Siren Servers.” This is a helpful concept and framing of the problem. Lanier then looks to a future dominated by Siren Servers while technological innovation continues to make humans less relevant and valuable except as inputs to algorithms. This is a dystopic picture, and he calls it science fiction upfront. But, it’s to make a point. He wants to preserve human dignity, psychologically as well as economically.
Lanier’s worried about the loss of the middle class and how that will means not only bad economics but a loss of creativity, when we can no longer support, musicians, writers, or even coders outside of the context of Siren Server optimization. Lanier’s alternative future is defined by what he calls a humanistic information economy. This economy is built on a technological infrastructure in which anything that is created is personally and perpetually connected to its creator. A universal marketplace system allows creators to be paid royalties whenever their creation is used. This is not just physical and intellectual property, but also our clicks and other data exhaust that feed the algorithms powering Siren Servers. We would be compensated for all this interaction, and this would provide both economic and political leverage that might offset plutocratic tendencies. It’s worth a think.
Who Owns the Future? probably could have been a shorter and tighter book. Lanier includes text that most writers would footnote, and then has footnotes that most writers would never dream of including at all. The book also has a series of interludes that expand on certain ideas or work through non sequiturs that may help some readers understand how Lanier arrived at his concerns and ideas but otherwise are extraneous. In the end, it’s hard to swallow his diagnosis and remedy for the world, but it’s an important topic that should be considered by other technologists, as well as economists and policymakers. There are trends in our economics and information-driven spaces that demand creative responses. Here’s one.