6/20/2013 - “Who owns the future?” Jaron Lanier asks, and then takes nearly 400 pages to not answer the question. This dense new analysis of digital culture is like a laser skittering around a dark room: disconnected, agitated, maddeningly difficult to follow, yet after a while your eyes can see nothing else.
Startling, provocative and prescient, Who Owns the Future? may be the worst book that everyone should read.
If it wanders , well, then, so does its author, whose career cannot be summed up tidily in a few words. His publisher tries, calling the dreadlocked polymath “a computer scientist, composer, visual artist and author” and “a pioneer in virtual reality,” the latter a term he’s credited with coining. Let’s just say Lanier is the Tony Stark of ideas, an itinerant guru of the Web who appears to makes a nice living thinking, without benefit of a LinkedIn profile. To judge the quality of thought, you need only know that this is a guy who convinced New Mexico State University to admit him at age 13.
Then again, Lanier doesn’t hold an earned college degree and believes they’re unnecessary these days. “Why are we still bothering with higher education in the network age?” Lanier asks. “We have Wikipedia and a world of other tools. You can educate yourself without paying a university. All it takes is discipline.” Of course, this was true when Abraham Lincoln was alive, but unlike then, “Higher education could be Napsterized and vaporized in a matter of a few short years.”
In this, his longest critique of what the Internet hath wrought, Lanier observes that the middle class is vanishing not because of the housing collapse or failed public policies but because we’re all insisting that information should be free. This has already led to the implosion of what Lanier calls “the creative classes” — journalists, photographers and musicians — but it won’t stop here. Most everything can be done by technology now: the steering of cars, the removal of gall bladders, care of the elderly. But as we succumb to the big easy that is the future, we are destroying massive numbers of jobs along the way.
Take music, one of Lanier’s many careers. (He’s a pianist and a composer who collects unusual instruments from around the world.) Before MP3s, the act of obtaining a popular musical selection involved factories to produce tapes and discs, trucks to deliver them, cashiers to collect money and to bag. “There used to be a substantial middle-class population supported by the recording industry, but no more,” Lanier writes. “The principal beneficiaries of the digital music business are the operators of network services that mostly give away the music in exchange for gathering data to improve those dossiers and software models of each person.”
Then there’s Kodak, which created the digital camera, and which once employed 145,000 people. Instagram employed 13 when Facebook bought it for $1 billion last year.
The utopia of abundance that Silicon Valley has promised the consumer — for free — has a price even greater than an unemployed middle class, and it is privacy. The elite technologists of Lanier’s acquaintance believe it’s OK to usurp the privacy of the common man on the way to usurping the privacy of everyone, because in the future, everything will be transparent: “no more secrets, no more barriers to access; all the world will be opened up as if the planet were transformed into a crystal ball.”
Just like you can now know everything about a used car you’re considering buying, or about the cost, floor plan and type of flooring of a stranger’s house, we will know everything about everyone; privacy as a concept won’t exist, and future generations won’t know to bemoan this. They will, however, still have the quandary of what to do with the excess humans, people whose skills and contributions have become unnecessary.
The author’s main complaint is that in the Information Age, information should not be free. The “Siren Servers,” the massive computers that trawl our clicks and downloads for saleable information, net their operators lots of money, while the source of the information — we, the users — go unpaid (and increasingly, unemployed). One solution Lanier proposes is that ordinary people should earn royalties — nothing substantial, micro-payments — for online content we generate, even after we’re dead. To find out how he proposes to do that, you’ll have to not only read the book, but furrow your brow and scratch your head for a long period of time. Who Owns the Future? is the anti-beach-read — difficult to digest, but important — and it asks the really big questions, such as “Should I quit Facebook?
The answer’s on page 366. B
— Jennifer Graham