Lanier’s proposed scheme — “the only way that democracy and capitalism can be in alignment” — is anything but modest. The title of one of his sections, “It’s All About I,” perfectly captures the book’s hyper-narcissistic tone: “My tale of a talking seagull strikes me as being kitschy and contrived,” a typical sentence begins.
How would Lanier’s grandiose plan work? Whenever Amazon uses our customer history to make a sale or whenever OkCupid matches a couple based on our dating history, we should get a cut — a “nanopayment.” As Google Translate gets smarter while we translate rap lyrics from Maltese to Latin, shouldn’t we get something? Perhaps — let’s just wait for Google Translate to earn Google some money first.
Karl Marx has nothing on Jaron Lanier. In Lanier’s ideal future, we would all be liking in the morning, texting in the afternoon and tweeting in the evening. Robots and 3-D printers would do all the hard work, allowing us to get rich simply by being ourselves. “In a humanistic digital economy,” he writes, “designers will still make a living, even when a dress is sewn in a home by a robot.” And the good news keeps coming: “Someone who wears the dress well might also make a little money inadvertently by popularizing it.” Go ahead: Get yourself another dress and get even richer!
To account for this lucrative wardrobe, Lanier proposes a system of ubiquitous surveillance, with cameras, databases and all. Since we can’t get any privacy, we might at least get paid. “Commercial rights,” he notes, “are better suited for the multitude of quirky little situations that will come up in real life than new kinds of civil rights along the lines of digital privacy.”
Following Lanier’s logic, any correction in the market system — say, price adjustments based on changing demand — would require that extra profits be transferred to consumers. But should you expect a supermarket to send you a check simply because you chose to buy one brand of milk over another? Probably not. Why treat Amazon differently?
To some, the very idea that our every decision is a piece of data to be monetized might seem appalling — and rightly so. What exactly is “humanistic” about Lanier’s vision? Its chief hero seems to be, to borrow a phrase from philosopher Michel Foucault, an “entrepreneur of the self,” always eager to cash in on some personal trivia.