We’re reading WHO OWNS THE FUTURE? by Jaron Lanier

15 May

Queensberry rules be damned: Paul Graham Raven reckons it’s high time the tech pundit and critic Jaron Lanier took his gloves off.


Who Owns the Future?
Jaron Lanier
Allen Lane, HB £20.00 / Simon & Schuster, HB $28.00

So, you wanna know who owns the future? That’s an easy one: the Siren Servers own the future, at least for now.

Named for their ability to seduce us onto the rocks with false promises, rather than for any intrinsic lethality, Siren Servers have some similarities to Bruce Sterling’s “Stacks”: Big Data ecosystems that have eviscerated whole market sectors like saprophytes hollowing out a sequoia. Siren Servers include any business model that hoovers up “free” data and monetises it without sharing the profits with the data creators; any business model that radiates away all risk (e.g. through highway-length EULAs and other T&C click-wrap crapola) while it centralises and leverages as much data (and profit) as it can. These aren’t just your Gorgles and your Farceborks, but also your Craigslists and Wikipedias (being a non-profit doesn’t get you off this hook). Slso your Enrons and your HFT agencies.

The problem, you see, is rooted in the free-wheelin’, free-sharin’ culture of our increasingly information-centred economy; hoodwinked by our own misplaced network idealism, we’ve cheerfully strewn a billion billion tiny nuggets of data around the net, thinking they’re worthless – and with some justification, as we don’t yet have an information economics able to (or willing to) add the value of those intangible data-crumbs into the ledgers. But we do have businesses – the Siren Servers – capable of monetising that data, and they do, getting richer off stuff that they’re keen for us to keep thinking is worthless, promising us the opportunity to be “found” by “our audience” if we’ll just surrender the crumbtrail to their almighty indexes.

The result is the colonisation and shrinkage of market sectors (which is what that euphemistic SilVal buzzword “disruption” really means) by monopolies. Not monopolies of the strict sock-‘em-with-an-Antitrust-suit sort, but monopolies based on first-comer’s advantage – monopolies that are not just too big to beat, but increasingly too big to fail, too. (How many web services would be fucked to a fare-thee-well if they suddenly couldn’t use Facebook as a log-in authorisation proxy, for instance?) Informational monopolies, siloing away all the advantage in black holes of economic value, sucking everything into their insatiable maws and spewing out beams of planet-sterilising risk.

As far as the diagnosis goes, Lanier is measured, lucid and logical – even if he takes a rather rigid approach to the Siren Server thing that doesn’t take into account the social good that comes out of a site like, say, Wikipedia, where the contributions of work and/or data may be free, but are made in fairly thorough knowledge of where the contributor stands economically. I found Lanier’s unpacking of information economics enlightening, as he strips it of quant shibboleths and recouches it in the sort of comp-sci/engineering models and metaphors I’m more familiar with. And he links it up with recent technological history and a little bit of sociopolitics. Good work, and long overdue.

After so good a diagnosis, it’s hard not to be disappointed by the prescription, which verges on the homeopathic. Basically, if Lanier can just convince his fellow technologists of the wrongness of an early wrong-turn in the principles of networking (namely the copy function, which on a true network would be redundant, because the whole point of a network is you can all access that one original file from any machine on said network), then they’ll leap to work and get everything fixed up nicely.

What we need, says Lanier, is a “humanistic information economics”; on this point, I certainly agree. Such a set-up requires a few basic planks: duplex attributional linking (to replace the copy function; you can remix, mash up or cite what you like, but there is always a link back to the original work); a universal and frictionless micropayments system (no small order in and of itself, but long overdue; this ensures that the person whose stuff you remixed automagically gets a cut of any profits you make); and a universal single identity system that ties each person to their online activity, and hence to their payments and earnings as they create and consume data in the digital world.

It all makes a great deal of sense, even coming from a guy whose employment history makes him look deeply complicit in the status quo. Lanier is bothered enough by this to feel the need to defend himself in the text. (Lanier currently works for Microsoft, who – while perhaps not “evil” in the sense that FOSS nerds use the term – have had a hand in projects like the NYPD’s infamous and still-expanding ubiquitous surveillance system; that’s about as far from humanistic as it gets.)

That said, I’ve not read a book out of the Valley like this one in a long, long time, if ever. How many folk from the SilVal/Techcrunch/VenCap circlejerk would dare publish a book which showed support – even qualified and cautious support, as here – for unions, universal healthcare, a state-provided safety net and a sort of “cyberKeynsian” form of economic intervention? Furthermore, how many would dare waggle a politely disapproving finger at the Jobsian Cult of I, at the venal immortalists and brainfreezers of the Singularitarian Church of Kurzweil? Oh, it’s very polite – more a head-shaking “gee, you crazy guys!” than pitchforks and torches outside Castle Frankenstein – but it’s there, almost as if he knew none of them would be paying much attention.

And therein lies the problem.

The central riff of the book is “How can we shore up and revive the squeezed middle classes with humanistic information economics?” It’s also the central riff of contemporary Western politics, even if in many cases it’s a mask for the question “How little can we get away with conceding to the squeezed middle classes before they start getting angry enough to vote for someone else?” After all, everyone knows the working classes don’t read books or vote (or count; delete as appropriate). Lanier waves away the fate of the underclass in his supposedly humanistic utopia with a half-page “they’ll always be with us” schtuck which suggests that the lazy buggers will be able to get subsidised access to the fruits of the new pay-to-play information superhighway through charities and churches and so forth. He spends at least as many words (if not more) on tilting at the windmill of commandeconomysocialismOMFG!!! On both sides of the pond, this has become such a standard dogwhistle that you’d think there’d be at least one major political force actually advocating in favour of such a thing, while back in reality the soi-disant Left is so scared of getting its fingers slammed in the Overton window that it’s selling the same neoliberalism under a hasty chop-shop spray job. (Even the Red’n’Yellow Peril is rocking a Cantopop remix of capitalism these days…)

The point is, Lanier – again, possibly as a way of avoiding the social-safety-net bugbear, possibly as a genuine oversight – elides the very obvious fact that the best way to protect and shore up the squeezed middle class is to make sure that they don’t drop into street-sleeping poverty when they get downsized out of their job by a Siren Server. The safety-net of a universal welfare’n’healthcare system that looks after the very poorest is the only solid foundation on which a secure middle class can ever be built – which is why watching the middle classes baying for the blood of welfare recipients is one of the saddest ironies of our times.

The rest of the book makes it abundantly clear that, absent one of those nasty populist-socialist revolutions that no one wants to happen (myself included, to be absolutely clear), the power to change things lies in the hands of government lobbyists, technologists and the CEOs and majority shareholders of big multinational corporations… which is to say, in the hands of those already benefitting the most from the rent-seeking business models Lanier so decries.

Lanier is quite open in describing his humanistic future as utopian in character, and argues that perhaps we’re a little hard on utopian thinking; after all, is it so wrong to aspire toward a better, fairer world? He has a bit of a dig at science fiction here, too, arguing that basically everything’s been rubbish since Star Trek TOS<.em> because writers are too busy celebrating the dark mass of dystopia, which is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Lanier’s mistake (which, to be fair, is an error that a certain sort of science fiction writer does little to assuage, and that a lot of readers make as well) is to assume that science fiction is a blueprint for the future rather than a mirror held up to the present, but that’s an argument for another day. The point is that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with aspiring to a better, fairer future – but if you’re doing so without a realistic roadmap for getting from here to there, then it really is οὐτόπος: no place.

There is no clear route to a humanistic information economics. Meanwhile the road to dystopia becomes clearer every day. It’s certainly clearer after reading Lanier’s book, which I’m only ragging on so hard because it comes so frustratingly close to being something vital and important. It doesn’t take a science fiction writer to realise that a few more decades of business-as-usual will leave no middle class left to save. This will leave us with either a global-corporate feudalist drone-boot stamping on a human face for ever, or a bunch of messy, doomed-to-fail populist-socialist uprisings that never work and no one wants. Lanier reckons that things should have sorted themselves out by the last third of the century, once the Boomers and most of the Xers have died off, and maybe the Millennials too.

Call me a pessimist, but I don’t think we have that long.

Right now, I’m not sure we have even a decade. There are few (if any) historical precedents for powerful oligarchies going gracefully into that good night. If we’re hanging our hopes on a change of heart in SilVal boardrooms and other technologist enclaves, it won’t be ushering in the cuddly techno-hippie wootopia of Star Trek, but rather the Dickensian techno-neoliberalism of David Marusek’s Counting Heads.

Lanier has at least described an Eldorado we can start orienteering towards. So grab your compass and hiking pole; there’s some nasty big mountains ahead, and the residents aren’t keen on uninvited visitors.

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