In his second book, Who Owns the Future?, pioneering virtual reality researcher turned philosopher of the digital economy Jaron Lanier attempts a tricky maneuver: urging us into both a more purely capitalist direction, while also encouraging us to be far more humanistic. It may strike leftists as too acquiescent to the exponential stranglehold that capital has over human potential, and it may strike rightists as excessively concerned with spreading financial security to a wide base. But that’s the strength of the book–it is revolutionary, but modestly so, in a way that might actually apply to the rapidly approaching digitized future.
Capitalism, digitization, and human dignity need not be thought of as incompatible. Who Owns the Future? is a unique blend of clearheaded realism about digitization’s exponential narrowing effect on our economy, with a decidedly hopeful and far from dystopian tone.
In 2015, we spend countless hours contributing to the hive mind and the general pool of content through Facebook posts, tweets, upvoting/generating reddit content, uploading YouTube videos, Yelping, reviewing Uber drivers, running fan sites, message boards, movie review blogs, and a thousand other ways. All of this is done for free, because that is how it started out–people simply jumping on the internet and doing things.
As the context that this free content was delivered into grew more sophisticated, however, tremendous profits started being derived from it. Lanier asks why the people giving information that is combed through for huge value by a small cadre of firms he dubs Siren Servers haven’t partaken of the massive upswing in value taking place online.
The familiar saying underlying Web culture is that information and content “want to be free”–Lanier suggests that, while this may be true, the human beings from which that information and content originate should not want to work for free. This bracingly sane idea is Lanier’s concept of “humanistic information economics.” Information wants to be free, but people want to be paid.
The base of digital value is as vast as the population , yet the actual money is filtered through the Siren Servers, leaving the real creators of value out in the cold. Lanier asks us to reconceive of what kind of behavior merits monetary compensation. Why should only the firms that have figured out how to sell the value offered in staggering volumes by the masses have all the money, while unemployment and underemployment grow, the labor force shrinks, and hopelessness reigns?
We need to reconceive of what value is, as the traditional economy is so obviously devoid of it, while the new economy has such an obscene overabundance of it, the overwhelming majority of which is divorced from monetization.
We have enabled advertisers to specialize their outreach to us in ways that Don Draper could only dream about. Lanier’s book is filled with galling examples of how Siren Servers like Facebook and advertising technology are being leveraged to tailor consumer experiences directly to you, like “differential pricing.” This is the practice of algorithms based on information obtained about you through your Facebook activity that will allow firms to judge how much you are capable and willing to spend on an item. Someone else, buying the exact same item online but whose digital footprint indicates that they are less inclined and capable of paying more, will be charged less.
The current economic outlook is that the dignity resulting from having money should go only to those cunning enough to be successful predators, leeching off the digital information offered by the public. The masses are merely low level actors providing ever increasing opportunities to be exploited.
The humanism in Lanier’s thesis is that people who share information that could come only from them, even if it is unsolicited, are contributing to the overall pool of value, and should be compensated. Money should not only accrue to those who find ways to exploit, but to those who create of their own volition on their own time.
Lanier’s concrete suggestion for how humanistic information economics would actually work hinges on the idea of two-way linking, deriving from pioneering but insufficiently influential technologist Ted Nelson. A direct path would always be present between an originator of even the most trifling bit of content and a firm that utilizes it for a potentially monetizable practice.
This would also require a reconception of how money accrues to people. The way we spend money, dribs and drabs throughout the day and the week, with occasional big purchases every few months or so, would also be how money comes in to us. For each bit of content or information we offer online that is used to make ad tech algorithms more robust, we would receive a micropayment.
Value should not be viewed as it is traditionally, in terms of great big spurts, but rather in the steady, accretive ways that take place every day. In his novel The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil conceives of a human being, and by extension a modern city filled with people, as a machine with countless parts constantly in motion generating an incredible amount of energy: “A man going about his business all day long expends far more muscular energy than an athlete who lifts a huge weight once a day. This has been proved physiologically, and so the social sum total of everybody’s little everyday efforts, especially when added together, doubtless releases far more energy into the world than do rare heroic feats. This total even makes the single heroic feat look positively miniscule, like a grain of sand on a mountaintop with a megalomaniacal sense of its own importance.” This is how energy, value, and force are really generated, so it’s about time we use our amazing new technology to monetarily validate that fact, rather than praising the Siren Servers that, in the nascent days of digital economics, figured out how to siphon value.
The work of offering valuable information that tech spy companies make billions from should be treated as the source of wealth that it is. We need to evolve past our culture that lauds self-aggrandizing, heroic, ambitious billionaires, since the value and power they are capable of pales in comparison to the little bits of energy generated by each and every person throughout the day.
More of our activity should be monetized, not less, which is both an admission that commerce is the soul of our society, and an appeal to offer chances for being paid to far more people than now. This is the unique blend of capitalism with leftist populism in Lanier’s thinking.
The core of this process is in rethinking the meaning of ‘rights.’ As of now, civil rights, our rights simply as humans qua humans, are what we mostly mean when we think of rights. This was more appropriate in earlier phases of socioeconomic development, before the current phase of neoliberal capitalism, in which people have limited value simply for being people, and more as vectors through which money can be generated.
So because of this, commercial rights need to become as ubiquitous and vocally defended as civil rights, indeed perhaps more so. Commerce is the soul of capitalism, and having dignity in a capitalistic system requires comprehensively detailed commercial rights for each and every citizen. Each aspect of a person’s life is fodder for generating revenue by some ad tech company, so a person should be protected and compensated for every instance of this happening. Lanier excels at giving examples of this: “If you are tracked while you walk around town, and that helps a government become aware that pedestrian safety could be improved with better signage, you’d get a micropayment for having contributed valuable data”.
Who Owns the Future? does seem longer than it needs to be, at 367 pages, the last eighty or so of which devolve into a hodgepodge of related thought fragments. This latter part of the book is very much Lanier throwing ideas out into the world, for us to benefit from, yes, but it also seems like he is trying to sharpen his own grasp of his thesis. Much of these later sections read like notes, but in fairness he is first and foremost a computer scientist, and for one of those, he is a great writer.
In his second book, he shows all the signs of maturing as a thinker that you would want. His first book, You Are Not A Gadget, while great, was more focused on individual cases of how specific internet tendencies were narrowing the realm of freedom, expressivity, and creative potential. This book, while still filled with specific, concrete examples to build its case, exhibits more comfort with big picture thinking, which is a welcome sign.