142 of 155 people found the following review helpful
on April 1, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
If you've read "Race against the machine" and "The lights in the tunnel" you'll be familiar with part of Lanier's thesis, though Lanier also goes further and ties in the demonetization of information in his predictions about the future. There are some quotable lines in the book, one of which stayed with me even though I hadn't thought of it precisely in this way - something like "the internet destroys more jobs that it creates". In a nutshell, by introducing efficiencies, by disrupting existing markets, the internet makes things more efficient so that a greatly reduced number of people can perform the same tasks. What Lanier also highlights is that the "new jobs" that were meant to replace the ones lost to automation aren't appearing. In part because there has also been as strong push to make "information free", so jobs creating that information that "wants to be free" won't put the bread on the table. Lanier suggests that the Internet is shrinking the economy because by making information free, it's taken the value/wealth that once existed in creating that information out of the economy. That the number of jobs that the internet creates is a fraction of the number that it has automated away.
Lanier proposes some solutions to this problem which would involve a seismic shift in the way that current users of the internet consider the cost of information. He suggests that the Internet could create jobs if only the creation and distribution of information could be monetized. He provides some ideas in this direction. He also makes some predictions about what happens if something doesn't change.
I felt that Lanier described the problem well without going into an approach where he over did it. While I agree with the problem and think his predictions make sense, I also suspect that the people who have pushed hard to demonetizes information are about as likely to change their policies as the oil industry is in light of "peak oil". That is that the problem is understood in an academic sense, but they are still making truckloads of cash, so why change the system?
At the moment the received wisdom is that the internet creates jobs and that anyone who disagrees is a luddite. I think books like Lanier's, Race Against the Machine, and Lights in the Tunnel are providing a different interpretation of the future, but one that won't be seen as prescient for a decade or so.
214 of 256 people found the following review helpful
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
I REALLY wanted to like Lanier's new book, as I liked - and positively reviewed - his previous work, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (Vintage). I like and admire several points Lanier made there, but alas, there are simply too many fallacies in this book for Lanier's conclusion to hold. Also, stylistically, the book is poorly laid out, very repetitive, and prone to meandering.
First, the positive: as with Lanier's last book, I think he is on the right track in criticizing the insane mantra that "informatoin wants to be free." (First, information isn't sentient enough to want anything, and second, those who produce information often want to be paid because the production isn't costless.) Second, several of Lanier's points about siren servers' ability to lock customers into their particular ecosystem to access content (think Apple's ios, or amazon's cloud for ebooks and mp3 music) are very well taken and need to be taken seriously. Third, as big an "open source" enthusiast, I can see at least some danger in allowing (or encouraging) individuals to create and make available information "for free" (though I don't think the results will be nearly as dire as Lanier predicts).
Now, for the negative. First, his argument is premised on the idea that for economies to be healthy, the existence of a middle class is required. I am not an economist, but I know enough economists to know that this is a contentious point and very probably a tautology (the truth seems to be that an economy where products can be geared toward a middle class needs a healthy middle class.) Not that there aren't good reasons to want to see a healthy middle class, but "economies need them" is either not a good reason, or a good reason that requires more argument than Lanier gives.
Second, Lanier is certainly no luddite, but his argument is identical to the luddite arguments of the past...the ones which have all proven wrong - that the new technology will simply destroy more jobs than it creates. Why have these arguments proved wrong? Because they are based on the assumption that the current marketplace (and the demand consumers express in it) is what the future economy will just look like, and that our lack of ability to guess at what people may demand in the future (once technology renders some current occupations and products obsolete) means that those possibilities probably don't exist. Take his brief discussion of how technology will destroy, or seriously dent, higher education. He talks about how new technologies that can scale instruction in a way that will render the existing model of higher education largely irrelevant spells doom for the higher education industry.That may be, but if this new education costs less than current education, we must imagine that the money that people WOULD HAVE spent on higher education will go somewhere - either saved (and invested) or spent. Where? We can only imagine. Lanier really does write as if he believes that people will just stop demanding things when present demands become easier to satisfy.
Second, he writes that people should be paid when they contribute information to, say, Google, Facebook, etc, because they are providing these companies with valuable information (remember, facebook's users ARE NOT the customers; the businesses that use user's information are.) But, is the fact that they don't receive money payments mean they are not paid? What about Google providing me a free word processor, helpful calendar program, a free website creation service, and other things? Yes, Lanier may have a point that users may not realize exactly what information they are giving up, but I do have to imagine that a great many of them would still see the services "gives" them as a payment, even if they were made aware of exactly how much Google benefits from their information sharing. (Even in cases like Youtube, there must be a reason people are willing to create videos and share them freely; maybe the payment is just the knowledge that others are benefiting.) Simply put: just because money doesn't change hands doesn't mean payment doesn't exist.
There are some other flaws in the book, such as Lanier's bizarre talk of how siren servers undermine the idea of free will by creating better and better behavior-prediction software, as if the fact that I can predict what choice you will make means you actually didn't make a choice. (Even if a company can predict what advertisement or price point it would take to 'nudge' you to buy x, that doesn't mean that you had no choice in buying x.)
Stylistically, the book is very rambling and somewhat disorganized. It may well be that Lanier's case is much stronger than I am giving credit for and he just wasn't able to properly express it in this book. He is a very smart man indeed, but reading this book was much like reading someone who had so many intricate thoughts (and saw synthesis between just about every field on the planet) that he had difficulty limiting himself to one cogent argument. I skipped or skimmed a good many pages in the book largely because there were tangents and repetitions throughout.
As I said, I wanted very much to like this book, and pre-ordered it months ago in anticipation. Unfortunately, there are many bad assumptions and arguments here, and the lack of structure just pushed it over the edge into the "disappointing" category.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on March 17, 2014
Jaron Lanier is a creative person, known as the father of Virtual Reality, as a musician and also as a contrarian thinker among computer scientists in the Silicon Valley. He also has the image of one who transitioned the chasm between a computer nerd and a 'rock star-like figure' seamlessly. So, he has all the credentials to advance provocative ideas on the information age and he does so in this book. Here, he takes on the imbalance that exists in the unequal monetary exchange between the information producers and the information aggregators/disseminators in the era of the rise of Social Media. The book is thought-provoking and makes us pause before we sing the praises of the 'Promising New Digital Age'. However, as I reached the end of the 370-page discourse, I felt somewhat underwhelmed because his propositions seemed to be incompletely thought-through on the one hand and also felt that they strike at the heart of the free and open world of computer software and the internet.
The core of Dr.Lanier's thesis starts out on a powerful argument as he introduces the term 'Siren Server' to illustrate his point. Siren Servers are those massive cloud computing infrastructures which are owned by organizations like the NSA, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon etc. He says that a society, which aspires to be fair to its citizens, must have an income distribution that approximates to a bell curve. This means that the people at the fringe - both very poor and very rich - must be on the left most and the right most flat parts of the curve while the majority should be in the burgeoning middle. But this is not what is happening in the information economy. Dr.Lanier says that it is the owners of 'Siren Servers' who make the money with the 'donation' of valuable information by all of us in the form of our consumption patterns, varied cultural and intellectual interests, demographic data, and other behavioural signatures so that we would be allowed entry into the social networks created by these Siren Servers. A company like Instagram, whose entire value comes from the photos and videos and postings that we contribute for free, is bought for a billion dollars by Facebook. But it is the 13 employees of Instagram who make most of the money whereas all of us who contributed the core value make zilch. Twitter, Facebook, Google and Amazon are other examples cited by the author. To counter this neo-feudalism, Dr.Lanier suggests a form of micro-payment for our contributions each time they are made use of. This is a more humane exchange between the producers and consumers of 'Big Data'. The author also laments the sustained loss of jobs even as the Siren Servers gobble up more and more domains like Music, Books, Films etc.
Though I agree with the author on the disproportionate wealth and economic clout accumulated by the companies as a result of our 'donations', I have a couple of misgivings with his arguments. One of the things dear to the software community is the 'Open Source Movement' it pioneered. No other industry seems to have anything comparable and as idealistic, where hundreds of man-years of work is given away for free for the greater good of the industry, society as well as the individual. As a result, we programmers do not tend to think immediately in terms of monetary gain when it comes to helping someone over the net in solving their Linux development problems or putting up an elaborate tutorial on a subject for free to help the programming community. It is this same spirit that is in evidence when I write a review of this book on Amazon. Though I wouldn't complain if Amazon paid me for it, I have to admit that Amazon and Goodreads do provide me a free platform where someone unknown like me can reach many thousands of readers through my reviews. I also have to acknowledge that many of my opinions are also shaped by reading many other authors and bloggers and journalists on the web on any given issue. Once I start asking compensation for my reviews, the question arises as to whether I should compensate others who have influenced my views. This seems to lead to the possibility of the web becoming less open and more commercial, harming all of us in the process. Dr.Lanier also talks about 'accurate and fair compensation' for the data provided by us. It looks to me that in order to be accurate and fair, we would simply need to monitor all transactions even more and specify even more regulations, resulting in even more loss of privacy and proliferation of intrusion. It is perhaps good to remember in this 25th year of the creation of the World Wide Web, the enormous benefits we have received as a result of Dr.Tim Berners-Lee and Dr. Ted Nelson making their work freely available to all without any patents on the WWW and the Hypertext.
Having said this, from another standpoint, I am still drawn to support Dr.Lanier's idea of fair compensation for all our work. In this era of Digitization and Globalization, one of the unfortunate consequences is the loss of many low-end jobs and the impoverishment of the working people in the US. At the same time, these people do own smart phones and browse the internet and upload valuable content to many of the web sites, which have prospered through such content. So, it seems only fair to say that compensating these people for their content is one way of combating the increasing problem of 'growth without jobs'. The challenge, however, is to make all this happen without compromising the ideals of an open, cyber environment. I feel that Dr.Lanier has started off a key debate and it is for the rest of us to carry on the discussion and seek a fair, viable and non-invasive solution.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on September 5, 2013
Let's say three and a half stars. Who ever invented the cut down, five star ranking system is a whole lot of stars short of a constellation.
Since the people who run big internet companies are dedicated and predictable a-holes, I know something would come along that would fit Lanier's book like a glove - with a great big foam finger pointing at the company. And dang if it didn't come along:
The Washington Post ran an article about privacy groups latest complaints about FaceBook's recent proposed change of the user agreement. One of the new wrinkles is this:
"You give us permission to use your name, profile picture, content, and information in connection with commercial, sponsored, or related content (such as a brand you like) served or enhanced by us. This means, for example, that you permit a business or other entity to pay us to display your name and/or profile picture with your content or information, without any compensation to you. If you have selected a specific audience for your content or information, we will respect your choice when we use it."
Boiled down, this means "Your images and opinions = our money. Not your money. NEVER your money."
So Lanier's critique of the existing system of big servers, or "siren servers" as he calls them, and the companies that control those servers is right on point. They are pulling off a massive, "victimless" scam on their users. Lanier is right, and every additional voice in the chorus of protest is beneficial.
But then we have the problem of the second half of the book - the solution. As other reviewers note, Lanier proposes micro-payments to users each time a company uses their data commercially. This is indeed technically possible but, once lots of people are involved, it seems inevitable that it would blow up into twenty million battles per year over who owes what to whom.
Add to this that the internet companies would resist till the last lobbyist lay dead in the street. And the last Superpac was disbanded, as the funnel for bribes it is.
Add to this the sorry fact that half the people in congress don't know how anything works, as, for example, the Princeling of the Unknowing, Rand Paul, who said data collection and use was copacetic because users signed a contract agreeing to it.
As if. As if Paul had ever read a EULA or a User Agreement. As if Paul knew whether or not users ever read a EULA or User Agreement. As if Paul had the intelligence to know that if users did read those things, they'd have no time for their spouses, kids, or jobs, let alone time for banging away at their keyboards to provide monetizeable data. Paul's was merely the default response of the right to agree with _anything_ entrenched, concentrated money desires.
So Lanier made a good start, or a good addition to the start of a critique of this aspect of the ongoing privatization of profit / increased socialization of risk, labor, information, and everything else. IMHO, more work is needed to figure out a solution
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on May 28, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
I've read many books on society's current economic predicament resulting from networked information technologies clashing with outmoded political economic systems, but Jaron Lanier tries tackling the problem from a prescriptive engineering approach which I find refreshing and fruitful. To clarify, by taking an engineering approach I don't mean simple technocratic reductionist thinking which presupposes technical fixes to be silver bullets that trump political or social advances, I mean a holistic and humanistic engineering of technosocial systems that incorporates social and political dynamics into the foundation of our networked technologies. Larry Lessig coined the phrase 'code is law', and Lanier builds on this idea in his new book to show us that 'code is economics'.
Ironically, one of Lanier's major gripes is centered precisely on the free/open source/creative commons ideology that Lessig helped popularize and which has become a dominant mindset of information technology designers, entrepreneurs, and activists. While filled with good intentions, this movement, according to Lanier, is the seed of much of the problems we are facing and can only lead to a dystopian future. This movement wants information to be free because information is abundant in a digital network where the cost of copying bits is close to zero. However, when information is free, the only way to make sustainable profits within the information economy is to become spying platforms and gatekeepers of information that act as intermediaries between consumers and producers/advertisers, exploiting both in the process. For those lucky enough to be close to these gatekeepers, which Lanier calls siren servers, huge benefits can be had, but for most people any significant economic benefits from producing information becomes either a crap shoot within digital markets dominated by winner-take-all power law distributions or promotional material for unsustainable offline activities such as singing for your money. As our society increasingly transforms its activities into information processing (software is eating the world as Marc Andreesen put it), the logical conclusion of a free information economy dominated by siren servers is a drastic shrinking of the overall economy, huge social inequalities, and massive civil unrest.
Lanier's proposed solution to this nightmare is to revisit an old idea by Ted Nelson that predates the internet and personal computer revolutions by decades. Nelson was one of the first people to sketch out a vision for hypertext and a networked information system, but the main differences between his ideas and what eventually became the web was the bidirectional nature of the links that form the networks instead of the one-way links of the current www, and the persistence of single identities of information objects with cached local images instead of the copying and duplication of disparate data in use today. With two-way links to atomic chunks of information, metadata that identifies the ownership and use rights of each atom, and a micropayment system that compensates actors at all levels of the information economy, the remixing/mashup dreams of the creative commons can be had while still enabling a true information economy that grows instead of shrinks, and with a large portion of that growth happening in the middle. People will become active and compensated actors within all information processes they engage in instead of being exploited passive users of spying gatekeeper siren servers. Not only those who engage in commercial transactions will profit like they do now with e-commerce, but micro-royalties will propagate to each individual whenever their information property is used in those transactions, enabling not only income generation but wealth generation for the masses. If you're going to have a capitalist society, might as well digitize capital completely, not just the markets. Lanier's outline of such a system is just a rough draft vision document, the devil surely is in the details, and bootstrapping such a system within the current regime is a nontrivial task to put it mildly, but as a plausible vision for how to move forward I find it an optimistic and worthy direction to pursue.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on May 29, 2013
*A full summary of this book is available here: An Executive Summary of Jaron Lanier's 'Who Owns the Future?'
The main argument: Not so long ago the Internet was seen as the next great economic engine. The optimism was never higher than at the peak of the dot-com boom in the late 1990s, of course; but even after the dot-com bust in the early 2000s, many believed that this was but the growing pains of an emerging industry, and that in the long run the Internet would yet provide the foundation for a new and improved information economy.
Since that time, it is certainly the case that the Internet has spawned a few major successes (such as Google, Amazon, eBay and now Facebook), as well as a host of hopefuls (such as Twitter, Kickstarter, Pinterest and Instagram). However, it cannot be said that the economy has enjoyed a great boost since the Internet exploded. On the contrary, the economy has, at best, stagnated--and it currently shows no signs of escaping its slump. So what went wrong?
According to Silicon Valley luminary Jarion Lanier, the problem is not so much with the Internet per se, but with how it has been set up, and how the major Internet companies themselves are organized. To begin with, major Internet companies tend to form monopolies, or near-monopolies, and on a global scale (mainly because Internet networks are able to reach a global audience and undercut local players, but also because these networks are more valuable to their users as they grow larger [for instance, it is most convenient to just join Facebook to connect with friends because this is the platform that most people, for whatever reason, have come to use--it just simplifies things]). The formation of monopolies and near monopolies destroys competition, of course, which compromises economic growth.
Even more important than this, though, is that Internet megaliths employ relatively few people, and have very little overhead (thus they simply don't contribute much back to the economy). You see, the business plan of most successful Internet companies is to offer a particular service for free (such as Internet search efficiency with Google, or social connecting with Facebook, or business connecting with LinkedIn, or an auction platform with eBay, or music and video files on a sharing site etc). The framework of the platform is provided by the company, but the content of the service is provided by the users and/or the general public (indexable websites on Google, Facebook pages on Facebook, LinkedIn profiles on LinkedIn, auction items on eBay, and music and video files on sharing sites etc.). The site attracts users with the prospect of a free and useful service, and the site itself makes revenue through selling advertising space. Oftentimes, the company collects information from its users through its activities on the platform, and uses this information to help target them with ads (among other things) and/or sells this information to third parties so these third parties can use it themselves. (Lanier calls companies that operate in this way Siren Servers--the term applies to any company or organization that uses data streams to garner wealth and power.)
As we can see, then, a big part of the value of these Internet companies comes from their users' content and information--as well as the content of third parties whose material is being shared no end. Now, if these users and content providers were being paid fairly for their contributions (according to how much value they bring to the Internet companies, and other Siren Servers, who use it), we could surely expect a major economic boost as a result. Instead, the users and content providers are paid nothing for their contributions (or at most a fraction of what their contributions represent). The end result of this is that wealth is concentrated at the top--in the hands of the major Internet companies and other Siren Servers--and the economy as a whole suffers (since few jobs are created to allow the wealth to trickle down).
And that's just the beginning. The fact is that more and more things are being digitized as we move forward (for instance, driving is being digitized through driverless cars, education lessons are being digitized through being recorded on digital equipment, and even physical objects are being digitized through 3D printing). As things become digitized they become capable of being shared over the Internet for next to nothing. This will inevitably mean the further erosion of productive jobs (and whole industries--such as has already occurred in the music and video industries).
Ultimately, the only wealth-generating endeavor left will be the Internet platforms that share all of this information--or provide other free services. Of course, with nothing productive left to advertise, their revenues will fall off as well, so even they won't be making any money. For Lanier, this is the fate we can expect unless we change the game we are currently playing.
The long short of it is that we must find a way to pay people adequately for the information and content they contribute to the information economy. Lanier argues this means reorganizing the Internet in such a way that informational transactions are monetized--such that the users of information are charged and the providers are paid for each transaction. It is not going to be easy to reorganize the Internet in this way-not only technically, but also because we have all become accustomed to using the Internet the way it is (and we like getting things for `free').
Ultimately, though, we will have no choice, for our current course is leading us to an economy that is dominated by wealth at the top--and eventually no wealth for anyone. At some point, this state of affairs must lead to a revolt and/or a complete breakdown.
Lanier's book is a sprawling affair occasioned with numerous fairly bizarre flights of fancy (I didn't mind this so much since Lanier is fairly interesting, and has a unique perspective), but the core ideas here are very intriguing and worthy of serious consideration. The problem with Lanier's solution at this point is that the economy has not yet slumped enough in order to convince us that Lanier's theory must be true, and that radical solutions are needed (and Lanier's solution is radical). Nevertheless, should events continue to play out as Lanier foresees, his solution may well become attractive at some point. A full summary of the book is available here: An Executive Summary of Jaron Lanier's 'Who Owns the Future?'
38 of 52 people found the following review helpful
on May 9, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
This book begins by opening a delightful window into how computer automation has the potential to create a "paradise" of wealth, health, abundance, and even immortality during the next century or so. You can almost imagine living in this heaven-on-earth environment sometime around the 23rd Century.
At the same time it explores the paradox of why so many people today feel like they are on an economic treadmill leading to poverty. The advance of information technology seems to have created a "winner take all" effect where the 1% of super-achievers or super-manipulators obtains the lion's share of the wealth, while the other 99% are pauperized by unemployment and falling incomes.
The book is entirely non-political in exploring this paradox. Author Jaron Lanier doesn't have any axes to grind against business or labor. He is a committed capitalist but one who doesn't mind pointing out the warts of capitalism. He is also critical of the "featherbedding" instigated by labor unions while making it clear that he respects what labor unions have accomplished in bringing so many of our workers into the middle class. This is the kind of non-ideological perspective that is essential to getting to the root of our current economic malaise and discovering ways to revive the economy on a sustainable basis.
I definitely agree with Lanier's hypothesis that advanced data gathering and analysis (big data) gives certain entities advantages in the market place. But I don't think that factor alone is as decisive as he thinks. I found myself disagreeing with some specific ideas in the book. For example:
The distributions of outcomes in fashionable, digitally networked, hyperefficient markets tend to be winner-take-all.
IMO this is not necessarily true in all cases. Hyperefficient markets are, by definition, markets that operate with a minimum of inefficiencies. Inefficiencies occur when there is a separation between the producer and the customer. A market that has layers of brokers, wholesalers, and retailers between the producer and the customer is inefficient because each layer of "middlemen" extract fees for moving a product along the distribution without adding any value to the product.
Efficient markets tend to cut the parasitic, non-productive "rent-seeking" elements out of the transaction. Wealth is created and distributed more equitably when the 99% deal directly with each other in an efficient market based on transparent information rather than having their transactions loaded with fees and marks ups by middle-men who operate on the basis of privileged information that they keep secret from the buyer and seller.
To the extent that computer automation makes markets more efficient by placing the 99% directly in contact with each other, it makes the economy more efficient while providing a more widespread and equitable distribution of wealth. This is one concept of many where my conclusions diverged from the author's.
This book should be read with an open but questioning mind. I enjoyed Lanier's take on every one of the dozens of concepts he discusses, even those I disagreed with. I will reread the book periodically to gain a deeper understanding into the concepts that interest me.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 2, 2014
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This reviewer purchased this book because of the very interesting and insightful views presented by Mr. Lanier in his previous book, “You are not a Gadget: A Manifesto”. In that book the author did an excellent job at presenting the many negatives of the internet and the “new” high technology economy that, at least initially, so few seemed able to see. An example included the fact that a very large number of musicians and filmmakers would, thanks to rampant illegal copying of intellectual property, no longer be able to make a living in their fields. This reviewer was hoping for similar insights in Mr. Lanier’s new book. Unfortunately the book only did a so and so job at presenting any.
The main theme of the book is that the digital economy will (and already is) economically devastating a large proportion of workforce. It is doing so because the new technologies greatly concentrate economic activity into far few handers. Large high tech companies have far fewer workers than companies with equal capitalizations in the “old” economy. Twitter, for example, is capitalized at about $1 bn yet has only about dozen employees. In the past companies with such large capitalizations (i.e., Kodak), would have in the hundreds if not thousands.
In addition, companies like Twitter, make their profits through the use of information that is provided by users for free on the internet. Hence large profits are made without having to pay anything for their content. This is good for the owners of these companies but not so good for the many providers of information as well as the displaced workers. This obviously has negative connotations for the workforce as a whole. A similarly negative prognosis has been put forth regarding the impact on the labor force, in much greater detail, by authors such as Dr. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in their “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies” and Dr. Tyler Cowen’s “Average is Over: Powering America beyond the Age of Great Stagnation” albeit not for the same reasons as Mr. Lanier put forth.
Unlike these two books, Mr. Lanier presents a solution (in his opinion) that would mitigate (or eliminate – Mr. Lanier does not state explicitly) this problem. His solution is to pay the “owners” of information (i.e. users of internet and providers of information) the value of the information by the businesses that use it (i.e., firms such as Twitter). This would require, first and foremost, the creation of a unique digital identity for every user. This would not be as easy as Mr. Lanier suggests as every business user of information has a vested interest to create its own digital ID for every user of the internet in order to keep other firms from collecting information “owners”. For example, Google would want its own unique ID on each user, Bing its own, etc.
After this unique ID is created, it can then serve as a basis for paying the “owners” for the use of the information. There are a number of problems with this also, however. One is how is the value going to be determined? In face to face market transactions economic actors may bargain for the right price or accept or reject a transaction that is set at a fixed price. How would prices be set for using the use of information obtained by companies on “users” of the internet, for example? Companies that collect such information have an incentive to claim that the value is zero or, at the very least, much less than it really is. A serious problem, to say the least. Mr. Lanier, however, disagrees. He believes that a Rousseau-like contract will develop between the owners and users of this information that will, somehow and magically, remove this dilemma. The author writes (p 288 of hardcopy):
“Over time, people will hopefully adjust to the idea that you have to pay other as you would like to be paid. The more interests a person perceived in common with others, even when commonalities are best illuminated by theatrical effects, the more likely the market will function well, and grow. The psychology of a social contract will eventually take hold”.
A third problem with Mr. Lanier’s framework is that the value of each of these individual transactions (the collection by, say, Bing of information on what type of shoe an individual has last looked for on the internet) is tiny, if anything. Hence transaction costs associated with making payments may equal or exceed the actual value of that information.
The forth, and most serious problem, involves what the actual value of all this information is to “owners”. Mr. Lanier’s framework works on the assumption that it will provide the “owners” with a livelihood. There is no reason to believe, though, that this could be the case. This can even be the case if transaction costs are an asymptotic zero and there is no shirking with respect to payment on the part of businesses using this information.
Due to all of these problems it seems highly unlikely that Mr. Lanier’s framework will provide a living to a large proportion of the workforce (or any for that matter). More realistic alternatives would involve a massive expansion of the welfare state. Funds will have to be distributed, to a large degree, from the top “winners” to the bulk of society (the “losers”). This will not be a favorable solution, especially from the perspective of those at the top. Considering the fact that the alternative is the collapse of the middle class and Democracy (few could rationally put forth the view that a Democracy can function in the absence of a large middle class) and its replacement with some non-Democratic form of government (i.e., along the lines of Lee’s Singapore or Pinochet’s Chile) what other choice can there be? Unfortunately Mr. Lanier ignores this (much more realistic) set of alternative.
The author also make a number of other interesting points in his book. For example, if users of personal information had to pay for it, it would make cyberspying too costly. The spies would have to pay for each piece of info and since there is so much it would be problematic to engage in very broad mass spying (as opposed to targeted). It would become economically impossible. Assuming, of course, that a working framework could be established them to pay for it to begin with.
In this reviewer’s opinion the author’s views (and this book) is worth reading but due to the many weaknesses in his views the book itself is worthy of only a three star rating.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 6, 2014
A recent report states that by the year 2024 almost half of all the jobs in the United States will be automated. In Who Owns the Future Jaron Lanier adds that the Internet has destroyed more jobs than it has created. In our desire for “free” information ordinary people have given up their freedom and wealth. Moreover digital technology is changing the way power and wealth is distributed, concentrating it into fewer hands, in particular those who control information. As an extreme example Lanier cites Kodak which used to employ 128,000 people and was worth $28 billion and is now bankrupt. By contrast Instagram, which is the new face of digital photography, was recently sold to Facebook for $1 billion and employs only 13 people. Since digital technology will dominate the future the likelihood is that more and more jobs will be lost, shrinking the middle class and creating a few very rich persons and many more poor ones.
We have, he adds, a choice between two alternatives: A star system in which only a few are successful or a bell curve in which most people are in the middle. Few people realize the degree to which they are being tracked. Log on to the New York Times website for example and instantly more than a dozen sites start collecting data about you without your knowledge or consent. He refers to major companies that rely on digital information, such as Google, Facebook and many others, as “Siren Servers,” as the Greek Sirens functioned to attract sailors. The core idea of the book is that data about people is really people in disguise in the sense that the data was created originally by people. Thus these creators should get some compensation for their input. For example if I write a highly favorable review of a book for Amazon and someone buys the book, I should get a small payment for my input.
Lanier offers a variety of ideas as to how this “humanistic economy” can be implemented but acknowledges that his ideas are only suggestive. The problems I have with the book, and thus why I only rate it at 3 stars, is that it is written in highly technical language that the average person really has trouble understanding. Moreover, while Lanier does a good job detailing the problem, his solution is too pie-in-the-sky. I recommend reading the book because it is important to understand the nature of this problem that will impact all our lives to an increasing degree in the future. Whether Lanier’s solution, or any other one will change the present course is another matter.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on May 14, 2014
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I really wanted to like this book -- I thought You Are Not a Gadget came at a great time, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but Lanier's new book was a chore to read. I stopped about 50 pages short just because I couldn't take the superfluous anecdotes anymore. He will start talking about something and then interrupt his own thoughts to talk about something else - something frequently not important for his argument. These departures make it really difficult to take him seriously as an expert (even though he might be!). And while he might be a tech genius... it doesn't make him a public policy expert, nor qualified to talk about economics. His lack of credibility on these two fronts kinda makes it impossible to take him seriously in regards to his ploy to save the middle class.
That said, his ramblings provoke interesting questions.