Jaron Lanier makes a persuasive case that the manner in which network services such as those offered by Google, Facebook and iTunes operate - by trading information services in exchange for using personal data (click-throughs, ratings, GPS locations, and so on) - will have to change if our economies are to survive the coming automation of many kinds of human work.
Currently, economies are driven predominantly by actions in the real world (work, resulting in the production of goods and services) and not the digital one. As computer systems become more powerful (in raw performance through Moore's Law) and better at reasoning (through increasingly sophisticated software and the availability of larger, ever-growing sets of data from which to draw inferences) human work is increasingly vulnerable to digitalisation and automation.
Of course each of the individual items of data that go into a Google Analytics report or the construction of an eBay reputation are worth very little. But they are the 'raw material' for those and many other services. It is only by processing huge volumes of such data that they acquire value, and that is what the service providers do. But the original 'raw material' belongs to those who generate the data by their actions - everyone who uses internet services.
Lanier's argument is not for privacy per se, but for the attachment of value to the information that we currently supply to service providers in exchange for the 'free' use of their services. It is a sophisticated chain of reasoning concerning the economics of data and its ownership in the future world that Lanier projects in which digital information, its derivation from raw data and its deployment becomes the most important ingredient in a huge range of human activities many of which are currently performed by humans using only limited support from computers.
He illustrates that the economy is already being undermined by describing the impact of internet services on industries that have already been digitalised - books, recorded music, film and video - and goes on to argue that the undermining process will accelerate and is likely to lead to economic collapse when digital information is the basis of most human activity. Lanier demurs from putting a timescale on that in the book; 20 years was a period that I heard him mention during a recent interview. We cannot roll back the technical advances that have led to this and we probably wouldn't wish to. But they will have a profound impact on economic and political structures. A successful economy requires a large majority of the population receiving sufficient income to purchase and enjoy the goods and services that the economy produces.
Lanier writes as a technologist and his social predictions are based on his projections of current technical trends. They chime very well with recent studies and analyses coming from a small but growing group of economists, represented for the purposes of this review by Race Against the Machine
, a recent book by two MIT economists.
Despite the disruptive diagnosis, Who Owns the Future is not a pessimistic book; it celebrates the talented and often delightful behaviour of most human beings and goes on to discuss a world in which humans are at the centre despite the ever increasing sophistication of the technology. But talent and delightful behaviour are not what most people are paid for.
Useful information is derived from raw data (whether it be represented numerically, textually, linguistically, visually or in any other form) by processing. Some processing is rule-based but depends on processing very large amounts of data, often in real time - driving, robotic surgery and other tasks that we had until recently imagined were the preserve of humans. Some processing is much more complex and depends on layered choices and interpretations - writing novels, composing music, proving theorems, teaching mathematics. But the impact of Moore's Law for computing power and progress in software design and construction in the past 50 years has enabled autonomous networked services to emerge that supply valuable information to almost everyone in modern societies and their growth is accelerating.
It is well known that in human affairs the best answers to questions are obtained from a source with access to the widest range of up-to-date information. The internet takes that conclusion a step further - questions are best answered by a service that has access to all the relevant data and can process it in a relevant manner.
Because the internet makes information equally available everywhere, there is a bias in favour of the 'star performers', whether they be musicians or search engines. For many networked services, the star-performing servers will be those holding the largest amount of raw data combined with the best algorithms and computing resources to process the data. Data becomes concentrated in the hands of a few very powerful and successful services. Lanier has coined the term Siren Servers for those service providers - because they lure us to use their services and in so doing, they glean more data from us about our preference and behaviour.
In Lanier's view the problem is not the technology nor the people who created it, nor the people who use it. The problem is the way in which people and technology currently interact in the networked world. What we can do is to ascribe appropriate value to the information conveyed (and stored and processed) by giant server-based systems and the services that are based on them and to reward the originators of the data on which it is based with 'nano-payments'. The author doesn't attempt to describe an alternative network or an information architecture that would fully meet that requirement. But he provides an interesting sketch of one, based on the reconstruction of links by making them two-way (as was originally intended by Ted Nelson, the inventor of hyperlinked information). That would enable credit to be ascribed where it's due by tracing the reverse links back to the originators or owners of each piece of data.
The social model conjured up is a lifestyle of 'active leisure' in which the most active and the creative are the best-rewarded, but the average citizen receives more than a living wage. All in the form of nano-payments. The realisation of this model would depend on the establishment of a market for data created continuously by people's activities, some deliberate and with the intention of receiving financial reward but much of it unconscious. The book says only a little about how such a market would be constructed and how a transition to it would be managed. It is therefore, understandably, a work in progress impelling us towards the construction of solutions to the disruptions it describes.
The book is an an impressively imaginative leap in thinking about our digital future, replete with examples, technical insights and carefully-developed scenarios ('Interludes' in Lanier's terminology). It is idiosyncratically written but once you get used to the author's slightly elliptical style, highly enlightening and persuasive.
- 'If network technology is supposed to be so good for everyone, why has the developed world suffered so much just as the technology has become widespread?'
- 'Digital information is really just people in disguise.'