Friday, May 10, 2013

The Internet and Its Discontents: Jaron Lanier and the iEconomy

Who Owns the Future?
By Jaron Lanier
Simon and Schuster 2013

I can recall reading an article by Jaron Lanier, sometime way, way back, probably in Whole Earth Review or CoEvolution Quarterly or one of those iterations of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. In it, Mr. Lanier speculated on the importance and earthshaking consequence that computers and information technology would have in the near future – actually, probably now, in our Present. There was a fascinating, utopian sheen to his brilliant riffing, which, as I remember, suggested that technology would bring forth a new form of labor, in our struggle for our daily bread, that combined work and leisure, or perhaps, as he might phrase it, work and fun.

Somewhere along the way, of course, the forces of technology, computing, and information theory were diverted, for reasons no doubt both innocent and devious, to make large piles of cash for the few, as part of the inexorable march toward advanced capitalism. And with the crash of 2008, and the realization that the financial crisis, coupled with the increase in automation, and the absolute dominance of the ideology of the marketplace, suggested that we were no longer ascending toward utopia, but rather at a tipping point where those who have lots of money are much better positioned than those in society who need to work for a living. And with diminishing employment prospects, resulting from globalization, automation, and the apparent trend, as Mr. Lanier points out in “Who Owns the Future?” where multi-billion dollar corporations arose that could make a lot of money processing and organizing the information that was freely shared by the users of the service, has led to a twisted curve where enormous wealth is enjoyed by a few, but a dismal economic future for the many.

With the enormous growth of the financial services center in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, it seemed clear to this observer that advanced capitalism in the West promised to make it unnecessary for our society to do all of those manual, “dirty” tasks in manufacturing, etc., that we used to do. Those could be exported, and enormous industries would rise up dedicated to “financial engineering” of various sorts. Of course, the promise of an American utopia, uplifted by the invisible hand of the market, proved a fatal flaw.

All of the above goes to say that Mr. Lanier’s extremely timely, thoughtful, and provocative just-published book may also have been called “Who Exploits the Future?” since most of the beneficiaries of this enormous wealth seem to be the technical visionaries, their circle, and their investors, who contributed to the development of the new cyberculture and internet environment. As Mr. Lanier points out, the true currency of the web is its content and information which is provided free by users. However, our information is valuable and the information economy should reward people for either the content the provide or the information that is taken based on their web-presence. Millions of unpaid users – not just the teams of companies like Facebook or Google – are responsible for their value. In avery real way, we are all employed by the applications and social media on the web that we use – it’s just that the vast majority of us are “interns” and the lucky few are paid very well thank you to process the resources taken from our personal data.

Mr. Lanier in the past has railed against “Digital Maoism” in decrying the destruction of civil discourse on the internet resulting from anonymous commenting and posting. He is not a radical in that sense. But his vision is nothing if not ambitious as he challenges the manner in which the internet has evolved – where information is “free” but subject to exploitation by the corporations that funnel and channel it. As Mr. Lanier indicates, “The Google guys would have gotten rich from the search code without having to create the private spying agency.”

His argument, which appears extremely radical given that the toothpaste is out of the tube and the internet as it exists is so ubiquitous, is that ordinary people should earn royalties (perhaps microroyalties) for what they do and share online. This would allow us all to get a stream of income, thereby creating a future in which our participation online generates wealth, rather than simply helping advertisers conduct market research for free.

Like it's predecessor, "You Are Not a Gadget", Mr. Lanier's Who Owns the Future? is a humanist and valiant effort, and a big risk since, given the jaded worldview of advanced capitalism, he clearly is willing to appear na├»ve to his adversaries (although clearly he is not). Given his role as a computer scientist and an inventor of virtual reality systems and technology, he is clearly part of the same circle of the technological elite. But he sincerely (and open heartedly) assumes the role of renegade, eagerly challenging assumptions and business models as he lifts the covers and acknowledges that the internet is more than just free lunches and  jars of M&Ms at IT start ups or Friday afternoon keggers or massages at Google or Facebook for employees.  For, where the internet has created staggering and enormous wealth (and well-paid employment) for the few, given its wealth it has an obligation to society as well.

However, as Mr. Lanier’s excellent book suggests, we may well be approaching a precipice. While the stock market continues to climb, the available jobs are not truly increasing at a comparable level. Those who are “peasants” (basically anyone who has to work for a living and does not possess substantial wealth that makes working for subsistence unnecessary) and who finds him or herself without pensions, jobs, healthcare, etc., could conceivably make life very chaotic for the future. This may not be a perfect solution, as Mr. Lanier is first to admit, but he is to be credited for analyzing the economic realities and dislocations to which the internet is contributing. How can something so fascinating and wonderful create such devilishly confounding problems ?

As DITHOB has observed here in early postings – something’s gotta give. Cutting taxes and support systems is not creating jobs. Corporations are not creating enough jobs. People do not have the money to start small businesses and often these alone are not lucrative enough. “Who Owns the Future?” by Jaron Lanier dares to challenge the assumptions arising out of the economics of the internet that are accepted as the way things have to be. Clearly they do not. But this book deserves to be read, both for the potential prescriptions it considers and proposes, but also as a means of stimulating new ideas, new directions, and new possibilities, in a technological society, mired in its own political and existential inertia, that is facing extremely serious problems seemingly without solutions.

--Anthony Napoli, Deep in the Heart of Brooklyn

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