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Brand Strategist and Design www.water-comm.com

In “Who Owns the Future?”, Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist and musician who became the face of virtual reality in the 1990s, pins the devolution and ultimate destruction of the Western middle class on accelerating technological change, and on the internet in particular. He then suggests a way to re-engineer our networked world to recreate a middle class. His critique of the conditions that led to America’s economic crisis, while flawed, is mostly a sharp and enjoyable read.

Lanier’s fundamental point is that power and wealth have drifted upward in the digital economy and toward what he calls “Siren Servers.” These giant information-gathering “services” — ranging from Facebook and Google to giant financial players and the government surveillance industry — take data that we all provide freely (and, often, enthusiastically) and use their advantages in data collection to build enormous economic fiefdoms.

In Lanier’s view, it’s unfair that we receive no income from being the informational source of this “Big Data” economy. But the bigger problem is that the “free culture” we create, which is, more or less, curated by the Siren Servers, eliminates industries, and with it, jobs. Musicians — and the music industry that (in Lanier’s estimation) supported them — were the canaries in the coal mine. Slowly but surely, book publishing, television, and a whole series of media industries are being squeezed dry by the people’s demand for free digitized stuff. Large cloud-based companies hold a singular advantage, too, floating above the complexities of making content and amassing ridiculous fortunes simply by providing a nexus through which content is found and / or distributed. This large-scale disintermediation puts a lot of people out or work and shrinks the middle-class economy. But the trouble doesn’t end there. With the rapid evolution of robotics and other forms of automation (like 3D printing), pretty much everybody else will become economically superfluous and marginalized. A middle class already in a tailspin will disappear almost entirely.

In his view, disproportionate economic power now accumulates around companies who "own the fastest computers with the most access to everyone's information". We donate extremely lucrative information – our interests, demographic predilections, buying habits, cyber-movements – in exchange for "free" admission into social media networks. Lanier argues that the early internet years have fetishised open access and knowledge-sharing in a way that has distracted people from demanding fairness and job security in an economy predicated on data flow.

Lanier is warning us that digital capitalism is not only based on an incorrect philosophy but is also wreaking real damage. Consider one of his simpler examples: When Google translates a foreign-language Web page, it appears as if a flawed but nonetheless impressive robot has done all the work. What has in fact happened, however, is that Google’s servers have gathered a huge number of handmade translations and auto-correlated them with the text in question. Google Translate is nothing but the robo-sum of human intelligence and skilled labor. “Digital information,” Lanier writes, “is really just people in disguise.”  

Lanier’s concern is that the translators, the people in disguise, are going unpaid. Lanier is saying that this is beginning to happen to all of us. Our collective efforts are enriching the giants of technology at our own expense. Facebook and Google are only worth something because billions of us have entered our data into their computers, without compensation. More than 100,000 jobs disappeared as massive Kodak collapsed into bankruptcy and gave way to the likes of tiny Instagram, though Instagram is partly built on the past ingenuity of Kodak’s employees. Truck drivers and surgeons have collected the knowledge and physical skill that computers will learn to simulate until most of the workers are unneeded.

Lanier's intelligent and subtle book is its inspiring portrait of the kind of people that a democratic information economy would produce. His vision implies that if we are allowed to lead absorbing, properly remunerated lives, we will likewise outgrow our addiction to consumerism and technology. Lanier's New World is founded on hard, fulfilling work. He concedes that such a radical reorganisation of worth will demand from us new levels of maturity, discipline and collective responsibility – but then who said dignity should be downloadable for free?

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