And in exchange for free internet searches, discounts on books and other merchandise, posting pictures of family and friends, and playing games, we’re giving it away. Giving away our means to earn a living. Giving away our privacy and most personal information. Giving away copyright protection, our health care data, our time. Making large companies and internet entrepreneurs wealthy. Waving goodbye to economic opportunities that could, in the mind of non-economist but future thinker Jaron Lanier in a creepily fascinating book called Who Owns the Future. From the book jacket, a clear explanation of a complicated book:
Lanier asserts that the rise of digital networks led our economy into recession and decimated the middle class…In this ambitious and deeply humane book, Lanier charts the path toward a new information economy that will stabilize the middle class and allow it to grow. It is time for ordinary people to be rewarded for what they do and share on the web.”
Certainly, creative professionals have seen new opportunities, but many jobs have disappeared, crumbled, or become so easy for amateurs to do, there is little perceived need for professional work. Two examples: illustration and another is photography. What about people who drive for a living? Lanier: “A great portion of the global middle classes works behind a wheel. Many have entered middle-class life as a taxi driver or truck driver. It’s hard to imagine a world without commercial drivers. A traditional entry ramp into economic sustenance for fresh arrivals to big cities like New York would be gone. Wave after wave of middle class immigrants drove New York taxis. And I’m trying to imagine the meeting when someone tries to explain to the Teamsters that nothing like their services will ever be needed again.” You see this in the battles between the everyone-can-be-a-cabbie service Uber and the people who actually make their living by moving people. Soon, cars will move without drivers. Lanier: “Both cabbies and truckers have managed to build up levees…they’ll be able to delay the change…there might be a compromise in which a Teamster or cabbie sits there passively, along for the ride, perhaps to man a failsafe button…the world of work behind the wheel will drain away in a generation.”
Lanier: “What about liberal arts professors at a state college. Some academic will hang on, but the prospects are grim if education is seduced by the Siren song… The future of “free” will beckon. Get educated for free now! But don’t plan on a job as an educator.”
Lanier’s Siren server combines a Siren’s song with a server that collects information, provides appealing benefits, and causes tremendous destruction as it is managed by a wealthy few. The Siren server is portrayed as a monster stomping the life out of everything in its path. Health care? Empathetic robots empowered by Big Blue’s encyclopedic database of knowledge, the processing speed of a digital chess champion, and unbelievably precise motor skills. The list goes on.
So what’s to be done? It’s tough for anyone to survive in the modern world with a “just say no to the Siren servers!” philosophy. So much relies upon credit cards, EZ-Pass, Android, and, yes, Netflix (now my most-used television “channel”). What’s more, there’s the “Pervasive Creepy Conundrums: online security, privacy, and identity.”
Lanier builds his case for divergence with a disheartening disclaimer: he cannot explain the idea simply. In fact, he can, and somehow, his editor did not delete most of chapters 16-20 because they take too long to set up a very good, very simple idea: two-way links. He appropriately credits an early home computing visionary, Ted Nelson, whose name may be familiar because he was the guy who originated HyperCard, which Ars Technica describes in a wonderful article entitled “25 years of HyperCard—the missing link to the Web.”
Let’s continue down that path: “The foundational idea of humanist computing is that provenance is valuable. Information is people in disguise, and people ought to be paid for value they contribute that can be sent or stored on a digital network.” I agree. For more about why and how I agree, see my recent articles about Google Books.
Simply: “If two-way linking had been in place, a homeowner would have known who had leveraged the mortgage, and a musician would have known who had copied his music.”
Lanier is right: That changes everything!
It’s a complicated fix, a change in the architecture of so many things digital, but it’s worth the shift. Here’s a straightforward example of why: “When you buy a physical book, you can resell it at will…” It is yours to own, sell, repurpose. “You can get the author to sign it, to make it more meaningful to you, and to increase its value.” With an eBook, you have only purchased “tenuous” rights within “someone else’s company store.” And so, “Your decision space is reduced.” It’s just not a fair deal. What’s more, this kind of thinking leads to the kinds of big company, big brother control that makes nobody comfortable (and few people wealth).
Lanier’s theory about “commercial symmetry” places everyone—companies and individuals, governments and other institutions—on a level playing field. Rules apply in both directions. People’s rights are not reduced. There is fair play. I am not required to subsidize ESPN on my cable bill; I don’t watch, and probably will never watch, most of the cable channels that I am required to fund each month. We’re trying to do something like this with health care—patient rights and all of that—but the health care system is not likely to share information about its economics. Students are graded by teachers, but (most of the time), teachers are not graded by students or (much of the time) by their employers or the larger body of taxpayers who fund their salaries, benefits and pensions.
Still, there is that looming question: is the value that we provide to, say, EZ-Pass or Netflix, transferable to real income for individuals who must earn a living. If Netflix discounted its services in exchange the data that we provide, would that result in more or less employment overall? Less, I suspect—but I’m operating within a present-day reality, and if we’ve learned anything from the future’s past, paradigm shifts change all of the rules.
Lanier probably doesn’t have the answers, but he writes in a way that makes you think, and he ignites meaningful conversations like this one. Smart guy, interesting book.