Jaron Lanier: Who Owns the Future?

Jaron Lanier is definitely one of the more popular tech gurus. In the video embedded above he discusses his recent book Who Owns the Future. The book takes very broad strokes at discussing the computational dimensions of the political economy in the early 21st century. In the most general sense, his argument is about what an updated version of the labor movement within the digital era might look like. Central to his argument, are several key ideas:

Siren Servers – Behind every large company or political project, you’ll quickly find a super computer. Within the commercial context, the siren server’s primary function is to calculate market variables in order to maximize profit and externalize risk. In Lanier’s view, siren servers are central to the concentration of economic and political power, and the erosion of livable wages, and stable jobs.

Levees – Historically, the labour movement, unions, tenure, etc, have functioned as “levees” regulating the market and protecting middle and working class interests. Building off the notion that free-markets are not so free, but in fact require regulations to function, Lanier asks how do we create digital levees to protect the economic interests of the general population?

User Data Compensation – Lanier argues that if corporations are going to collect user data and profit from it, then users should be compensated for their data. This is one of the key concepts he proposes as a possible levee. He presents this notion of paid-for data and content in contrast his longtime involvement in the open source and free software movement, which in his view has failed, insofar as it has been instrumental in helping to birth siren servers.

Who Owns the Future is a quick-lucid-fun read, but there some shortcoming to his argument. While the notion of user data compensation (or micro-exchanges within the internet) is a provocative one, it isn’t the magic levee he hopes it to be. Social media is one of the domains where he proposes such a system of micro-exchanges would promote economic distribution, but other researchers have looked into this possibility with FaceBook, and concluded that such compensation would come to roughly $50/year for each user. While most people wouldn’t turn down fifty bucks, it’s hardly going to roll back the economic losses that neoliberal policies have ushered in.

Lanier is a captivating speaker (I recently had the opportunity to see him speak, and play music, at UCLA), but from his live lecture it became clear that his argument is largely grounded in a libertarian notion of a self-regulating market. As he put it, these digital levees would transition digital capitalism towards being inherently more equitable in the distribution of resources. That is to say, he privileges the notion of technical innovation over state regulation. Such a distinction is fuzzy at best, and in the context of a longer post would lead to the topic of Values in Design, or how certain cultural and economic ideals are built into systems and architectures.

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