Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns The Future is a thoughtful, considered and philosophical analysis of the reality of technology’s place and the impact it has currently in our world, and what that impact and role may be in the future. It is sometimes frightening, at the very least concerning, but always vital and peerless in the way this book exposes the often unconsidered reality at the heart of the rise of the machines we are experiencing today.
Reminiscent of both the Emperor’s New Clothes and Heart of Darkness, this book takes the reader on an exploratory and revelatory, sometimes dark, journey through the heart of the machine world which now dominates our economies and so much of our lives. At the heart of this world is an entity which Jaron calls the siren server – just as in the time of Odysseus, a siren server is a “sower of illusions”. These elite servers are the root of the severe inequality introduced to today’s world as part of the information age we live in. Essentially, siren servers gather data from networks for free, and use the results of the analysis of that data (which they do NOT share, despite claiming information is free, for example) to manipulate the world as they see fit. They are also extremely risk-averse – think for example Google, Amazon, Facebook. These big three siren servers fit the described characteristics to a tee – Jaron has a multitude of examples to back up and illustrate this thesis.
The impact this risk-averse, winner-take-all approach taken by massive corporate entities has on the world is shown to be devastating. Wealth, fortunes of which have never been seen in the history of the world before, are being accumulated by a select elite few – those with their hands on the reins of the siren servers. Middle-classes, and as Jaron calls them middle-class levies, are being eroded to the point of non-existence, resulting in a shockingly skewed wealth-distribution pattern. Middle class jobs are being lost on an enormous scale to siren servers – one stark example, is Kodak, who employed 140,000 people. Those jobs are now gone, replaced by for example Instagram – who at the time of writing employed 10 people. Of course, the music industry and the book industry are two of the more well known examples of middle-class industries wiped out by siren servers.
Jaron moves on to offering his vision for the future, and his solutions for addressing the inequality and social issues prevalent today from siren servers. His main thrust seems to be a democratic compensation scheme for everyone who contributes data to siren servers. E.g. why should Facebook not compensate you, if your data contributes to them making money? Without your (and everyone’s) data, they would make zilch. This micropayments theory, linked with a web implemented from true network principles (i.e. two-way linking instead of the Tim Berner’s Lee implementation of one-way linking) seems very reasonable. The problem will be, how to convince siren servers to give up their dominance and monopolies?
For me, the only way to achieve this is government intervention. Some siren servers are already too powerful it seems, and a true oligarchy is unfolding in the world. I think the world should take a leaf from President Truman – he broke up General Electric, who were becoming too powerful an entity in the early 20th century. There is a precedent there, and laws in place in the American Constitution to do so – if the political will existed.
Overall, a fascinating and worrying read – I would even go so far as to say an essential read. Essential that is, if you don’t practice the old maxim of ignorance being bliss. I would suggest it is worth your while re-evaluating the world of Facebook, Google, Amazon et. al – it is your world after all, and your data.