Should Google compensate us for our searches? Should Amazon pay us for the books we buy? They should, because they are using us to expand their databases and hone their algorithms — and, eventually, steal our jobs. This is the startling argument advanced by Jaron Lanier in “Who Owns the Future?,” his eccentric but unconvincing meditation on how the middle classes could survive the menace of digitization.
In Lanier’s utopia, the data we divulge to what he dubs the “Siren Servers” — the likes of Google and Amazon — would earn us “royalties based on creative contributions from a whole lifetime.” We must seize the initiative to make this happen or prepare for “an eventual socialist backlash.”
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.
Lanier’s proposal raises two questions that he never fully confronts. First, will this scheme actually help the middle class make a decent living once IBM’s Watson starts seeing patients and grading essays? Second, how many of the online services would survive his proposed reforms?
If the fate of musicians is any guide, the middle class is finished. Spotify already pays musicians based on the number of times their tracks are played; so does YouTube. This works well for big-name celebrities but earns peanuts for unknown artists.
Besides, the kinds of automation that worry Lanier — say, the replacement of cabdrivers by self-driving cars — don’t require human experts to contribute any personal data. Teachers, doctors and cabdrivers actually have it much worse than musicians. Unless cabdrivers have directly contributed to the making of maps used by self-driving cars, it’s hard to see how a royalty-like system can be justified.
The second question — how many services would survive Lanier’s proposed reforms? — further undermines his argument. Take Wikipedia. Why not compensate its authors for every comma they contribute? Well, one reason is that the introduction of monetary incentives would probably affect authors’ motivation. Wikipedia the nonprofit attracts far more of them than would Wikipedia the start-up.
While digital evangelists often go overboard in celebrating the anti-commercial spirit of “the sharing economy” and “remix culture,” they do have a point, as scholars working on the sociology of incentives recognized a long ago. Lanier’s proposal would infuse all of our digital experiences with the crude commercialism of Groupon.
Nor does Lanier discuss how his proposed scheme is to coexist with the doctrine of “fair use” — the idea that creators can freely excerpt limited portions of material created by others. Lanier writes that “if a snippet of your video were reused in someone else’s video, you would automatically get a micropayment,” never mentioning that “fair use” is a political choice, not a random outcome of inferior tracking technologies.
Many companies already do what Lanier is only fantasizing about. A new breed of businesses — data lockers — allows users to charge third parties for accessing their personal data (including genetic information). But there’s not a word about them in the book.
Stingy with specifics — he rarely quotes his ideological opponents, opting for constructions like “I am often told” and “I continue to hear fairly often,” and introducing them as the “Pirate Party/Linux/openness crowd” — Lanier eagerly opines on dense economic matters. “Keynes was an unapologetic financial elitist and had no interest in a quest for income equality or a planned economy,” he informs us, without providing a source.
Lost in his own brand of digital sophistry, Lanier never gets around to asking how a fully automated society ought to function. Is the idea of education embedded in massive online open courses worth embracing? Is automated journalism — with algorithms churning out trivial news stories — compatible with a democratic society? A clever micropayment system won’t answer these questions.
There are many simpler ways to protect the middle classes. Pushing technology companies to provide better working conditions — it was only last year that Amazon agreed to install air conditioning in its warehouses — and closing numerous tax loopholes would be a good start. Lanier’s solution, alas, is an odd and unfortunate distraction.
WHO OWNS THE FUTURE?
By Jaron Lanier
Simon & Schuster. 396 pp. $28