Jaron Lanier, Who Owns the Future?, New York, Simon & Schuster. 2013. http://www.jaronlanier.com/futurewebresources.html
Jaron Lanier is a strange and interesting guy. I’ve never met him in person, but he’s been around forever, and always seems to be doing something interesting. His new book, “Who owns the future?” is a blockbuster, hitting on a bunch of things I’ve been worrying about, with authoritative insight. Like me, he is implicated in the development of today’s Internet, and like me, he feels a responsibility to try to make it better (a “humanistic information economics”, in his case). Unlike me, he has some fairly deep and broad ideas that deserve to be implemented.
To summarize the problem as Lanier states it, today’s networked systems are built wrong, designed to create winner-take-all super servers (which he terms “Siren Servers”). The problem with this is that the servers make money by taking data from everyone for free, and passing risk to everyone else. Too much is “forgotten”, taken off the books, no longer counted as “value”, and otherwise fraudulently not accounted for. This is not just wrong, it is unsustainable, because it is demonetizing the value created by most people, shrinking the overall economy. Even the super servers can’t last long in the business of destroying value.
Lanier wants to create a “humanistic” architecture, with humans at the center. “Information is people in disguise, and people ought to be paid for the value they contribute that can be steered or stored on a digital network.” (p. 245) From this principle, the whole argument flows.
Of course, you must read his book to get the details.
As technologists, we cannot be content with just complaining, nor can we pretend that the horse can be returned to the barn. Lanier gives a thoughtful set of “tweaks”, which change the way networks do business. The crux of the matter is to pay for everything of value that happens. Concretely, this means that any data that is produced by you, will earn you a micropayment. On the other side of the coin, everyone must pay reasonable amounts for what they do on the net. The argument is that this will vastly enlarge the digital economy, and will provide a way for humans to create a dignified life.
I liked this book for many reasons. Some of the technical details hit on topics I’ve encountered in my own career. The basic technical feature missing from the WWW is two-way linking, which was posited in Ted Nelson’s Xanadu from the 1960s, if you can believe it. (I think Lanier might want to be a “nelsonite” if such things were possible. “Our huge collective task in finding the best future for digital networking will probably turn out to be like finding our way back to approximately where Ted was at the start.” (p. 221))
Two-way links never get stale, and you automatically know who is linking to you, so you can trace back. This feature is so important that, as Lanier points out, Google and others scrape the whole web every day to compute these relations, which should have been engineered in in the first place. Sigh.
I clearly recall discussions at NCSA in the early days of Mosaic about one-way links (the WWW) versus two-way links (favored by information scientists, librarians, and anyone who understood actual information systems). We could have built in two-way links, but we didn’t because it would have been difficult and would have slowed the viral dissemination of mosaic and related technology. Even then, zillions of free downloads was the metric of success, regardless of sustainability.
I’m not the only one who knows this. The noise about the “semantic web” is mainly due to the fact that it enables arbitrary, multi-way linking—even better than two way links. Even Tim Berners-Lee quickly realized the flaw in his one-way link architecture (Berners-Lee, T., J. Hendler, and O. Lassila, The Semantic Web. Scientific American, 284, 5 (2001) 35-43.).
Lanier also nods at the importance of provenance, which I learned much about from another sensei, Jim Myers in 2005-11 (e.g. Myers, J.D. The Coming Metadata Deluge. In: New Collaborative Relationships: The Role of Academic Libraries in the Digital Data Universe Workshop. (2006)). Also, Lanier’s micropayments concept has been invented as a solution to the related problem of citations and attribution in scholarly work (e.g, see the work out of Ben Shneiderman’s lab (Jennifer Preece and Ben Shneiderman, The Reader-to-Leader Framework: Motivating Technology-Mediated Social Participation. AIS Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction, 1, 1 (2009) 13-32.
By the way, Lanier has much to say about 3D printing (I hadn’t thought about the coolness of “unprinting”–using the 3D print programs in reverse to recycle objects. Wow!) But even he is falling behind: at one point he wonders if you will go to your local library where there will be public access 3D printers. The answer is “yes”, and in fact you already can. For example, our local public library has fabrication equipment, though they are still working out what kinds of services to offer.
Basically, I’m saying Lanier’s technical analysis is sound, whether he cites all the academic sources or not.
Of course, as a grumpy old guy, I was greatly entertained by JL’s dope slapping the business practices of today’s “siren servers”. Lanier is not amused by almost anything on the Internet, and knows exactly how they work, so you would be well advised to read his critique. He gives us a blistering faux EULA (pp. 79-82) and gets grouchy about the future of the book (pp. 354-8), and starts everything off with a very dark science fiction future vision of the virtual world (pp. 1-3). Ouch.
Lanier also provides an interesting perspective on “Big Data”, differentiating between “Big Science Data” (which is accurate and very hard work) and “Big Business Data” (which is sloppy, possibly not correct, but very valuable) (see Chapter 9). It is also “stolen”, in that the sources are not paid. This is actually a very useful distinction, because the terminology is so confused, and mixed very legitimate advances (e.g., scientific modeling) with bogosity (e.g., fiddling with pricing on a Web store).
I also enjoyed his insider’s version of life in Silicon Valley. I never moved to California (my version of “humanistic” living involved having a home town), so I never did understand a lot of the crazy stuff coming out of there. Lanier gives some history, showing the ties between the Bay Area New Age culture, and the Internet, quite visible now in the form of the Singularity University and related religious manias. If you read only one part of the book, read pp. 211-231. Seriously, it’s worth getting the book, just for this section.
If there were any doubt that this is a current topic, see George Packer’s article in the New Yorker about Silicon Valley’s political culture and its surprisingly incompetent entry into US politics (George Packer, Change the World: Silicon Valley transfers its slogans—and its money—to the realm of politics, in The New Yorker. May 27, 2013, pp. 44-55 ). Packer notes the isolation of the techies from the communities they live in, starkly apparent in their sealed, inwardly facing campuses. How could we expect anything sensible from such a broken environment? Yet they believe they are the future for everyone
For that matter, judging from reviews , Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s new book, The New Digital Age (Schmidt, E. and J. Cohen, THE NEW DIGITAL AGE: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business, New York, Alfred A. Knopf. 2013.), has a lot to say on the same topics. (Sorry, I haven’t read it yet.) I seriously doubt that he will agree with Lanier on most points. (As much as I distrust Mr. Assange, I suspect his review of TNDA is probably much more interesting that the book itself.)
And while we are on the topic of “humanistic” computing, let’s look at Kevin Kelly’s massive “What Technology Wants” (Kelly, K., New York, Penguin Group. 2010). (You can tell it’s going to be interesting, because Jaron Lanier provided a cover blurb, “It isn’t often that a book is so important and well crafted that I feel compelled to urge everyone to buy it and read it even though I profoundly disagree with aspects of it. … You can’t understand the most important conversation of our times without reading this book.”)
Kelly’s general thesis is to take the viewpoint of technology as if it were an autonomous being, to try to understand what it “wants”—where it comes from, where it is going to, how it really works, why it sometimes fails spectacularly.
I’m not sure I agree with Kelly’s approach, but I liked it a lot for his social psychological perspective. In particular, you should read Chapter 11, “Lessons of Amish Hackers”. Kelly has spent considerable time with Amish friends, and presents a revealing and helpful explanation of how they approach technology. “In contemporary society our default is set to say yes to new things, in Old Order Amish communities the default is set to “not yet”.” (p. 218) At the bottom, “…is the Amish motivation to strengthen their communities.” (p. 218) Buy the book for this chapter alone.
Part of Kelly’s point is that everyone should be as conscious as the Amish are about technology, in particular about technology uptake. This is a brilliant insight, and has made me feel much better about my idiomatic adoption of tech. I’ve been acting Amish, and not even knowing it.
So, by our own different paths, Brother Kevin, Brother Jaron, and Brother Bob all end up in just about the same place. There must be something there, huh.
So what have we learned?
Let’s look at something that crossed my eyeballs earlier this week. Apparently Google is “teaching” people how to organize their content in ways that will help Google. Google isn’t clear why I would want to do this, but I get the idea from guru’s such as Terri Griffith, “How we can help Google better track our websites”. I guess this is supposed to be a reasonable motivation.
Let’s look at this offer with Lanier’s “humanistic” principle. The Siren Server (in this case Google) wants you to donate your labor to help them make money. Your benefit, if any, is that they will be able to use your data better, maybe get a few more people to look at your content–via Google who gets their eyeballs first. The value you have added to Google is demonetized, and you do not get any of the wealth Google might generate.
Let’s look at how Bob’s grumpy bad attitude would apply. What would I charge if Google wanted to hire me to provide structured content for them? Well, who knows, but my general rates for corporate consulting are, like $250 per hour. So why would I give this to Google for free? I don’t get it.
To borrow from Laniers blurb for Kelly,
You can’t understand the most important conversation of our times without reading ‘Who Owns the Future?’.
[Note: This post was updated on 24 March 2014 to fix a couple of broken links.]