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Who Owns The Future?

Jaron Lanier

In the new economy, ordinary people are undervalued while those at the very top become hypervaluable.

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Cash money forgets the past - it doesn't remember or care how it was earned. A step up from historic methods of exchange based on favours and obligations. But it also creates a future. When you take out a mortgage you are promising to repay a large sum of money in the future. That promise is an asset which the lender can treat as new money.

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This is optimistic view of the future - that it will be bigger and brighter than today. And so far it has consistently lived up to it's promise. Beats just counting what we have now, like gold reserves, and limiting the economy to that.

Technological progress inevitably inspires demands for greater benefits than possible at any given time. We expect modern medicine to be mishap-free and planes to be crash-proof. And yet even a 100 years ago this would be undreamed of.

Marx wanted something that most people don't - a committee to make sure everyone got what's best for them.

Two ways of organising. First is the star system - winner takes all. Stars and wanna-bes but not much in between. The second is the bell-shaped curve with a bulge of average people and two tails of exceptional people, one high and one low.

Computer networks have basically reduced or eliminated the benefits of local. A local baker used to be able to deliver fresh bread better than a distant, cheaper bread factory. A local loans officer was better placed to evaluate who was likely to repay a loan. The future is a robot who will bake you a fresh loaf of bread right in your kitchen, or at the beach, putting both the local baker and the distant bread factory out of work. The beneficiary will be some large computer that spied on everyone who ate read in exchange for ads.

Musicians now restricted to what they can earn personally. This is the peasant's dilemma - there is no buffer if get sick or old, and sooner or later that happens to everyone.

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The services running today's economy work by figuring out how little everyone in the chain can be forced to accept.

Elder care very difficult business. Impossible to give everybody attention as soon as need it - staff always rationed. Hard and uncomfortable work, and difficult for operator to make sure staff doing best possible job. The elderly are easy victims, so petty theft and minor indignities are not uncommon. And in America, constant fear of litigation.

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Robots in care facilities may not be cheaper, but cost far more predictable and reliable.

Expensive art is essentially a private form of currency traded by the very rich.

Social networks rave on about how they are able to micro-target their market. Yet when all they have to do is detect if a user is underage, they are unable to counter the deceptions of children.

All the successful companies that use Big Data are suspect, because there is an incentive to game the system. If it's based on reviews, many fakes will appear. If it's based on individual popularity, then suddenly there will be fake profiles offering illusions of likes. If an algorithm is calculating someone's creditworthiness, expect profiles to be mostly phony. Crowdfunding like Kickstarter began well, but success attracted scammers.

We have this illusion that Big data is a resource, waiting there to be mined. But it's dynamic. If there's money to be made or status to be gained, people will play the game.

You should think of data about people as people in disguise, and they're up to something.

Rich guys with bad hearts should sponsor major effort to make good artificial heart. First ones would be very expensive, but then price would drop rapidly, benefiting everyone.

Sticky sites - very difficult to leave Facebook. Even if you meticulously save all your posts, that doesn't capture the context of what others were saying at the time.

Karl Popper was an Australian philosopher who said that science never achieves absolute truth. Instead it gets closer and closer to the truth by disqualifying false ideas.

(London Times)

Enslavement to the machines we have created is, in a nutshell, the theme of these two for­midable books. Both are utterly convincing assaults on the ideals, ideologies, delusions and even the engineering of the Silicon Valley elites that aspire to remake the entire world and its inhabitants as machine-readable code. Yet they are two quite different books.

Jaron Lanier is a valley aristocrat, a leading engineer, a creator of virtual reality and one of the team that produced Microsoft's Kinect gaming system. He is also a gentle soul, a warm, understanding man whose criticisms are regretful rather than angry. Evgeny Morozov was born in Belarus and is now an academic and policy wonk in America. He is not a gentle soul, he is angry and he goes for the throat. Where Lanier starts from engineering shortcomings, Morozov starts and stays with intellectual incompetence. This is, in short, a clear case of the good-cop, bad-cop routine.

Gentle as Lanier may be, his alarm is apocalyptic. Hyper-unemployment, even greater levels of wealth inequality, negative growth and social unrest will be the price we pay if we persist with the current design of the digital world, he says. In essence, the digital economy is based upon an act of theft with which the victim enthusiastically colludes. The stolen goods are the information that is acquired daily from each of us as we interact with our oh-so-seductive gadgets - 'trinkets tossed to the crowd', he calls them. So the primary asset of the great internet companies - Google, Apple et al - costs them nothing and does not, therefore, enrich the rest of us.

As a result, the economy is being hollowed out. The wrecking ball of internet technology has already destroyed the musical middle class - the engineers and so on who used to make records - and is now threatening to do the same to all forms of pub­lishing. Furthermore, the process, Lanier points out, has barely begun. Healthcare, transportation and, ultimately, the entire economy will soon be taken over by information-stealing software. More jobs will be destroyed and wealth will become even more concentrated in the top 1% of the population. Our present technology produces shrinkage rather than growth.

It need not have happened. Lanier argues convincingly that the design of the net is at fault. It is a one-way system, so the user cannot actually see what is going on. In a two-way system you could, in theory, see everything - every theft of your information, every time your mortgage was traded between banks, and so on.

So the good news is, it can be fixed. One way would be the collapse of the present system. Google may be eating its own tail - by making information free to itself, it will impoverish the targets of the advertising that is its revenue lifeblood.

A better way would be an agreed re-engineering of the system. But can it happen? Under the present dispensation, the answer is almost certainly no.

This brings me to the big link between these two books - their profound distaste for the under­lying, quasi-religious ideology of Silicon Valley. For Lanier, this begins with the superstition that it is a law of nature that information must be free and that the whole notion of privacy is 20th-century nonsense. But this is because free information is what the machines like and privacy is what they hate. The valley is, above all, pro-machine and anti-human.

But it is also, to turn to Morozov, profoundly stupid. His book is, among other things, a brutal assault on the ideologues who affirm the righteousness of the valley way. Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, Eric Schmidt, Ray Kurz­weil and countless others are picked up, examined and then tossed aside.

Morozov's great strength is his range. He sees the world-transforming dreams of the ­valley for what they are - a new version of the scientistic, technocratic, utopian fantasies that have periodically surfaced over the past few centuries. Perhaps the most grotesque and laughable of these current versions is the Seasteading Institute, a project part-funded by Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and prime investor in Facebook, to establish a government-free zone on an island 200 miles off the coast of San Francisco. This is apparently a libertarian enterprise, though, as Morozov shows, the liberty involved is only for a tiny elite.

The valley elites are - Morozov does not use the term but Lanier did in his previous book - neo-Maoists. They believe in the extirpation of the past, the better to embrace the inevitable arrival of the machine-made future of which they dream. Like Mao, they believe this because they are convinced they are in possession of a higher truth. This truth is embodied in the utterly daft but surprisingly mainstream idea of the singularity, the moment - in a couple of decades, say the geeks - at which machine ­intelligence takes over the world and all the tribulations of human politics and decision-making are forgotten. And it all looks so easy and so inevitable as we lap up the ever more intimate and insinuating gadgetry that will make it possible.

"It's never been cheaper to act on one's stupidity," Morozov observes with typical mordancy.

Resistance is necessary but difficult, as we are so gleefully allowing ourselves to be seduced into making ourselves as dumb as our machines want us to be. The trick is to smarten up - on this both Morozov and Lanier agree. The former wants machines that don't just tick away invisibly in the background of our lives, but which challenge us to think for ourselves; the latter wants machines that defer to human specialness; that are, in fact, our slaves.

I find Lanier a touch more convincing, perhaps because he knows in detail how the machines are connected, but Morozov's intellectual onslaught is essential to the anti-valley cause. Preferably you should read both, because stopping the march of the machines is the most urgent task of the moment.

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(Morozov's book) To Save Everything

(NY Times)

As its title indicates, Jaron Lanier's new tech manifesto asks, Who owns the future? But for many of those who will be captivated by Mr. Lanier's daringly original insights, another question comes first: Who is Jaron Lanier? He is a mega-wizard in futurist circles. He is the father of virtual reality in the gaudy, reputation-burnishing way that Michael Jackson was the king of pop. Mr. Lanier would undoubtedly be more of a household name if he were not a large, dreadlocked, anything but telegenic figure with facial hair called 'mossy' in a 2011 profile in The New Yorker.

While working on intriguing unannounced projects for Microsoft Research - a gigantic lighter-than-air railgun to launch spacecraft and a speculative strategy for repositioning earthquakes - Mr. Lanier found time to follow up on his first book, You Are Not a Gadget (2010). That was a feisty, brilliant, predictive work, and the new volume is just as exciting. Mr. Lanier bucks a wave of more conventional diatribes on Big Data to deliver Olympian, contrarian fighting words about the Internet's exploitative powers. A self-proclaimed humanist softie, he is a witheringly caustic critic of big Web entities and their business models.

He's talking to you, Facebook. (What's Facebook going to do when it grows up?) And to you, Google. (The Google guys would have gotten rich from the search code without having to create the private spying agency.) And to all the other tempting Siren Servers (as he calls them) that depend on accumulating and evaluating consumer data without acknowledging a monetary debt to the people mined for all this 'free' information. One need not be a political ideologue, he says, to believe that people have quantifiable value and deserve to be recompensed for it.

It's true that Mr. Lanier was once driving in Silicon Valley, listening to what he thought was some Internet start-up trumpeting the latest scheme to take over the world, when he realized he was hearing Karl Marx's Das Kapital. ('If you select the right passages, Marx can read as being incredibly current.')

He is no 'lefty' (to use his word); he sees high-tech thievery as an apolitical problem. And he is too much of a maverick to align with anyone's thinking, even his own. Whether it is a boast or a mea culpa, Mr. Lanier acknowledges: 'I was an early participant in the process and helped to formulate many of the ideas I am criticizing in this book.' And 'to my friends in the 'open' Internet movement, I have to ask: What did you think would happen?'

Who Owns the Future? reiterates some ideas in Mr. Lanier's first book: that Web businesses exploit a peasant class, that users of social media may not realize how entrapped they are, that a thriving middle class is essential to keeping the Internet sustainable. When ordinary people 'share,' while elite network presences generate unprecedented fortunes,' even that elite will eventually be undermined. Mr. Lanier compares his suggestions for reconfiguring this process to Jonathan Swift's Modest Proposal, but the last thing he worries about is writerly grandiosity. Understand that in the context of the community in which I function, he says of Silicon Valley, my presentation is practically self-deprecating.

Mr. Lanier's sharp, accessible style and opinions make Who Owns the Future? terrifically inviting. What is he calling for? Just The Ad Hoc Construction of Mass Dignity. He much prefers sweeping formulations to qualified ones, although, as he points out, being an absolutist is a certain way to become a failed technologist. This book may not provide many answers (It is too early for me to solve every problem brought up by the approach I'm advocating here), but it does articulate a desperate need for them.

Who Owns the Future? overlaps with The New Digital Age, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen's much more polished work of Web analysis. Their book focuses more on global issues, but disagrees with specific points.

The New Digital Age looks forward to self-driving trucks that can ease the strain on Teamsters; Mr. Lanier rambunctiously writes of Napstering the Teamsters out of work, and of how such technology could go terribly wrong. The books also disagree on whether surgeons' work will be enhanced or diminished by robotics.

And where Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Cohen see promise in technology's effect on the Arab Spring, Mr. Lanier is sick of the back-patting about social networking. Revolutions can happen without it, too, he says.

Mr. Lanier may not have any personal animus against Mr. Schmidt. But he describes listening to him and Amazon's Jeff Bezos discuss the future of books just as he, Mr. Lanier, was struggling to write his first one. This prompts an attack on how Siren Servers could undermine and impoverish the world of reading, just as they did music. (Mr. Lanier is also a musician. He specializes in the arcane and innovative, as might be expected.) More generally, and very quotably, he warns against being seduced by 'dazzlingly designed forms of cognitive waste.'

Finally, Who Owns the Future? takes some of it biggest swipes at those who do presume to own the future: fans of the Singularity (the hypothetical imminent merger of biology and technology), Silicon Valley pioneers seeking 'methusalization' (i.e., immortality), techie utopians of every stripe. Yes, Mr. Lanier happens to be one of them. But he is still capable of remembering when, in his boyhood, prognosticators foresaw Moon colonies and flying cars. Now they think about genomics and data. Mindful of that way-cool past, he says, 'I miss the future.'

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