Jaron Lanier, the dreadlocked digital media pioneer who is sometimes referred to as “the father of virtual reality,” has been looking hard at the online world we now live in, and he doesn’t like what he sees…even though he freely admits he helped create it. In clear, engaging, and for the most part non-partisan language, he worries about a future of digital haves—the Silicon Valley elites whose super servers collect our valuable online behavior—and have nots—all of us who freely give away that data in exchange for a free Google search or Facebook friend. Lost in the shuffle, he fears, could be a rapidly disappearing middle class whose jobs are taken away by robots and 3D printers that do everything from write articles to build guitars.
Up until about the turn of this century we didn’t need to worry about technological advancement devaluing people, because new technologies always created new kinds of jobs even as old ones were destroyed. But the dominant principle of the new economy, the information economy, has lately been to conceal the value of information, of all things. We’ve decided not to pay most people for performing the new roles that are valuable in relation to the latest technologies. Ordinary people “share,” while the elite network presences generate unprecedented fortunes.
How does Google do translation, for example? By feeding off the free work of millions of people who have provided enough examples online for Google’s algorithms to have enough information to go on.
One way the middle class can save itself, Lanier asserts, is by demanding to be paid for the information it gives to what he calls “siren servers,” those Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and Instagram data centers that capture and analyze our online lives. Why not institute a massive micropayment system that infuses a site like Google with raw capitalism. You make a micropayment with every Google search, but Google pays you more for your presence, and your online behavior starts to turn a profit for you. Think about it, Lanier says. Why should you be “sharing” online when you could be “selling?”
Lanier knows how to rant provocatively. “Great fortunes are being made on shrinking the economy instead of growing it. It’s not a result of some evil scheme, but the side effect of an idiotic elevation of the fantasy that technology is getting smart and standing on its own, without people.”
While it may be tempting to dismiss Lanier’s thesis as a sort of far-left “workers of the world unite and burn down Google” screed, the reality is quite the opposite. Lanier is arguing for powerful market forces to exert themselves and value everyone’s participation in the digital economy appropriately. If they don’t, he warns, the gap between the digital elite and the masses will widen to the point where someone does indeed burn something down, and that’s not the outcome we should be hoping for.
Who Owns the Future?, by Jaron Lanier, hardcover, 396 pages. Published by Simon & Schuster.