Review -- Who Owns the Future, by Jaron Lanier

Who Owns the Future?
Who Owns the Future offers a pretty bleak look into the future of big data, or as Lanier terms the phenomenon, the rise of the "siren server." Taking lessons from the music industry, Lanier explores how the growing ability to digitize just about anything is shrinking the economy. Simply put, he asks, if information is free and we are living in an increasingly information-based economy, how can the economy survive?

Lanier explores this question with speculative examples ranging from automated dust-like nano particles that respond to consumers' every whim destroying the service economy, driver-less cars destroying the transportation economy, 3-D printers destroying manufacturing, and medication delivering tattoos destroying the healthcare industry. As each of these new technologies would rely on mountains of big data harvested from actual people, however, Lanier argues that real people still stand behind the work even though real people aren't getting paid.

Lanier explores the iniquity of this scenario in depth through the example of translation software. A translation algorithm, he explains, relies on millions of translations that have been done by humans in the past to perform a translation in the present. As a result, the algorithm creates the illusion that the translation has been done independent of people, but the truth is the translation--as well as any other big-data calculation--is based entirely on data drawn from people. This is one of Lanier's central points in the book--behind all technology stand real people.

His argument then is that these real people deserve to be compensated for the use of their data. The solution he envisions involves micro-payments that reward people for all of the information they put into the system. If you update your Facebook status with information Facebook is able to sell to a corporation who successfully uses that information to advertise its products to people like you, for instance, you should receive a small payment.

In addition to arguing for this as a fair bargain, Lanier goes to some lengths to prove that this set up is the only way to maintain a middle class in an ever advancing "free" information economy. The current system, he argues, presents a winner-take-all economy rather than a smooth bell-curve economy.

This winner-take-all economy, he maintains, is a problem no matter what your political leanings are because it is simply unsustainable. If we have fewer and fewer winners in society, the losers are likely to create large-scale social problems--if not revolt entirely--that will be problematic even for the winners. Additionally, he reasons, the winners will likely run out of people to sell their products to when the loser information underclass is unable to buy anything.

Though Lanier does a great job of making the case for how the "free" information economy poses a threat, his proposed solution leaves a bit to be desired. It's difficult to see how his system of micro-payments would or could actually work. On some level, it would seem to make the economy a sort of shell game where money simply gets moved around to enable consumers to continue to consume, but then again maybe all economies are shell games in this way. Regardless, the book could be improved with a more concrete, in-depth description of how this system would work, rather than the many tangents Lanier spins off--such as the 10 humors of technology.

That said, I think Lanier should be applauded for throwing this idea out there. Though he may not have perfected a system for how people should be paid for contributing the information that fuels big data, he makes a compelling case that this should at the very least be considered. At this moment, it's a truly revolutionary idea, and anyone who can make a compelling case for a revolutionary idea is clearly doing something well.
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