Jaron Lanier has written a remarkable book that stands as a landmark in the emerging debate about the social consequences of Internet technology. Who Owns the Future? (Simon & Schuster) is both a radical critique of the trend toward concentration of economic power in a small number of Internet ventures and a passionate call for the development of a humanistic digital society. The word humanistic is seldom heard from the movers and shakers of Silicon Valley or their financial backers, but it is at the heart of Lanier’s argument. Instead of talking about bandwidth, page hits, advertising impressions, and market share as the metrics of success, he is concerned with human dignity, freedom, and social stability.
There have been similar criticisms in the past, but what makes Lanier’s analysis exceptionally powerful is that he is an industry insider. He has impeccable technology credentials and a prominent reputation in the artificial intelligence community. Lanier’s deep understanding of the technology landscape lets him turn the tables on technologists who claim critics “don’t get it,” by showing how the programmers and entrepreneurs don’t get that their digital empire building is dehumanizing society.
The facile belief that there is a technological fix for everything and that pioneering high-tech firms like Google and Apple will ultimately satisfy all human wants and needs, is widespread among the narrowly-educated hardware and software wizards who populate the cubicles of such companies - the developers working on artificial intelligence, wearable computers, driverless cars and nano-tech medical devices. This belief arises from generalizing from conventional computer system design work to the vastly more complicated problems of human society. Lanier has no patience for this destructive myopia:
"Thinking about people in the terms of components on a network is—in intellectual and spiritual terms—a slow suicide for the researchers and slow homicide against everyone else."
The main target of Lanier’s social critique of Internet technology is the concentration of wealth and power around what he calls “Siren Servers,” enormous networked data processing facilities, like those operated by Google and Facebook, which gather and exploit vast amounts of personal information. Like the enticing sirens of mythology, the free services offered by these companies exert a powerful attraction, leading us to give up valuable information about our activities, relationships, and product preferences. Lanier argues that the long term impact of Siren Servers on society is destructive, because these ventures shift economic rewards away from individuals and concentrate them in the hands of a small number of entrepreneurs.
"You get an incredible bargain up front, like super-easy mortgages, insanely cheap retail items, or free online tools or music, but in the long term you also face reduced job prospects."
How do the mighty Siren Servers destroy jobs? Their global reach and ever increasing feature offerings are displacing conventional small-scale businesses. Amazon is slowly destroying bookstores. TripAdvisor is displacing travel agencies. Google is steadily diminishing the need for paid expertise and advice. But this is just the start. The relentless advance of Internet technology means that our homes, our appliances, our automobiles, and eventually even our bodies will be connected to Siren Servers.
3D Map of the Global Internet
Beyond the destruction of jobs, Lanier finds a further problem in the concentrated power of the owners of Siren Servers: the potential for abuse of this power:
"We are not building a society of mutuality, where everyone is a first-class citizen in the information space. The way digital networks have been designed by fashion, though not by necessity, creates ultra-valuable central nodes that spawn temptations for bad actors."
Consider Facebook, a social network with over one billion participants, in which individuals invest considerable time and effort to construct a circle of hundreds of friends and acquaintances with whom they are in frequent communication. The threat of losing access to this community is sufficient to tolerate incremental losses of privacy that are favorable to Facebook’s profitability. Facebook users are effectively trapped by agreeing to the terms and conditions of the service, terms that Facebook can change unilaterally.
"The reason people click “yes” is not that they understand what they’re doing, but that it is the only viable option other than boycotting a company in general, which is getting harder to do. It’s yet another example of the way digital modernity resembles soft blackmail."
Lanier proposes an ambitious alternative to the unchecked expansion of the Siren Server model: a scheme for valuing individual contributions based on micro-payments for information. The goal would be to restore a balance of equity and power between the controllers of large information networks and the individuals who create the valuable content those networks deliver. Although implementing such a system would be difficult and complex, it is technically feasible because of the steadily increasing computing resources of the Internet.
At the heart of this system would be a mechanism for tracking both information supplied by individuals and subsequent utilization of that information. For example, the writer of a book review on Amazon or a restaurant review on Yelp would be paid based on the number of times the review is read by other individuals. Similarly an individual posting an image on Facebook or Pinterest would receive micro-payments based on the number of times that image is viewed. Although Lanier provides considerable detail on how such a scheme might work, he does not offer a comprehensive plan.
I have many reservations about the feasibility of Lanier’s micro-payment model. I don’t believe the returns to most individuals would be substantial enough to restore a balance of power between Siren Server owners and users. And it would be difficult to implement, maintain, and fairly administer the intricate infrastructure required to enable such a vast scheme. Nonetheless, I am thankful to Lanier for showing that there are significant alternatives to the status quo and for his steadfast declaration that humanistic concerns take priority over technology exploitation.
One of Lanier’s most important accomplishments in “Who Owns the Future?” is a cogent repudiation of the fatalistic ideology of technological inevitability that is widespread among Silicon Valley innovators. According to this belief, the complexity and accelerating tempo of technological change renders human efforts to direct its course irrelevant.
We are all being swept along by the high-tech tide and it will bring us to a glorious utopian future of immortality and unlimited wish fulfillment. The most extreme expression of this ideology is in Ray Kurzweil’s theory of the “Singularity,” a predicted fusion of human and machine intelligence that will effectively transform mankind into a new immortal species.
In Kurzweil’s hypothesis, around the year 2045, computers will have been developed that possess artificial intelligence surpassing that of human minds. Catalyzing profound changes in the human condition, these machines will introduce a new stage in man’s evolution, the Singularity, an era in which we augment our minds and bodies with powerful new machine-enabled faculties. All major diseases will be cured, poverty will be eliminated, and leisure will become the main human activity. Life expectancy will be unlimited, and even accidental death may be surmounted by uploading our minds into artificial brains.
Lanier views Singularity advocates as a cult of anti-humanistic dreamers who have grossly simplified the challenges of artificially implementing human mental processes. His greatest objection to Singularity cultists is that they exhibit a kind of political impotence that causes them to abandon social responsibility.
"A sanctioned malaise has been in effect for some decades now; it is accepted in some circles that future history will not be coherent. From here on out the human story will no longer unfold in a sensible way. We are said to be entering into a fate that will resist interpretation. Narrative arcs will no longer apply."
There is great danger if our society comes to believe that anything created by technologists is a legitimate consequence of an unstoppable evolutionary force. Such a naïve faith not only opens the door to dystopian outcomes, it also favors the enormous concentration of wealth accruing to owners of Siren Servers and, no surprise, is consistent with the Libertarian and anti-government leanings of many high-tech entrepreneurs.
The most refreshing and stimulating thing about “Who Owns the Future?” is Lanier’s commanding macro-view of modern society. Here is a thoroughly modern man who thinks and writes like an American Founder. Our society has distanced itself so far from the framers of the American Republic that we view them like a superior alien race that descended from the skies and left us with a perfect government. We can’t believe that there are contemporary Jeffersons and Madisons living among us. Indeed, our current political discourse is hobbled by assumptions that major change is impossible. If we are to continue to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we need a new generation of thinkers like Lanier to model a society that is both networked and humanistic.
Who Owns the Future is available in paperback and Kindle at Amazon. Click on the book.
Haig Hovaness has been observing and writing about information technology for three decades. He has worked as an IT professional in Fortune 500 companies and was a columnist for Corporate Computing Magazine. As an IT consultant at KPMG Consulting, he worked with media and Internet clients and headed KPMG's Digital Media Institute. Haig was a speaker at Harvard University's first conference on the Internet and Society. His current interests center on emergent cultural phenomena in a hyper-connected world.