The Future is Ours to Lose

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.”

futureukuscomboCertainly, 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.”

hypercard_tutorial_posterLet’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.


Einstein through a Distant Mirror

Context matters. Today, Einstein is the very model of a modern genius. That’s an easy image in the era of the internet, when folks can say and do pretty much whatever they please. A century ago, when the young theoretician conducted “thought experiments,” things were different. In a world where “innovation” appears in just about every business magazine, it’s difficult to imagine just how different life might have been in those days before the First World War.

Albert Einstein in 1921, the year he won the Nobel Prize, and first visited the USA.

That’s the key learning from Einstein’s Jewish Science by Steven Gimbel, a professor at Gettysburg College. The author and his book do a wonderful job in framing the time, and the science, and the politics, and the religion, but neither musters much energy from its underlying question. (Spoiler alert: In the end, the author concludes that relativity is not an especially Jewish science.) He explains:

Einstein came to the scientific stage at a time when Western culture was in flux. Old social, political, artistic and intellectual structures were failing. Assumptions that had been protected for centuries were suddenly rejected despite all attempts to maintain them. And here, offering a new and bizarre way to see the entire universe was Einstein. The theory of relativity stands as a symbol of Gestalt shift, a complete change in perspective where you can never view the familiar in the same old way.”

(As I type, I wonder whether the shift that we’ve experienced via the Internet–which now offers instantaneous connections between billions of people all over the planet–would also be “a complete change in perspective where you can never view the familiar in the same old way,” and, if it is (I think it is), why it doesn’t quite feel that way. Maybe because we’ve been consumed by its everyday, now routine, integration into social and commercial life?)

Professor Gimbel of Gettysburg College, author of Einstein’s New Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion

Mr. Gimbel goes on, and I continue to wonder about Einstein 2.0, and how he might fare today:

Einstein was vilified by those who clung to the old order. His science, his politics, and his views about religion were all made public in ways that made them difficult to ignore.”

And, my favorite quote from Gimbel:

We take Einstein to be the epitome of the open mind.

If life was so difficult for Einstein and his radical thinking, why do we absorb change in our stride today?

The best answer I’ve found begins about ten years after Einstein passed away.  It’s the subject of a terrific book about the 1960s counter culture, and the bridge that it provided to the 21st century, the digital century where we now live (and read blogs, often instead of books). The book is entitled What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, and it was written by John Markoff. Read a terrific review of this equally terrific book, written by Jaron Lanier, here. Of course, all of this countercultural change was terrifying, and not without its reactionaries. The most robust response is a U.S. Chamber of Commerce document usually called The Powell Memo. It provides a conservative response to the craziness of the revolution, or so the story goes. The Powell Memo is easier to find on liberal websites than on conservative sites. Still, it claims to be the grand plan, the response to radical thinking and the changing of old ideas.

Step-by-step, Professor Gimbel explores the most important questions about science, Judaism, German culture (Weimar, Nazi, post-War), new (20th) century thinking about science and the limits of Newtonian physics, and provides the details in a smart story that is easily read and absorbed (not so, most other books about 20th century science, or religion, for that matter). Still, the core of the book, the essence of it, encourages the reader to think not only about Einstein, but about Einstein’s reflections in a 21st century mirror. How much has changed since Einstein’s time. How thoroughly Albert would enjoy the internet, and the freedom of thought that we now enjoy as American citizens in a digital age, and how profoundly that freedom has affected thinkers around the world.

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