Review of Jaron Lanier’s “Who Owns the Future” – or how to extrapolate from false premises
I just finished reading Jaron Lanier‘s “Who Owns the Future” so I will share some of my impressions of this book. I was actually surprised at how few people were familiar with Lanier when I mentioned that I was reading him at various outings over the past few weeks. So I guess it’s worth reviewing who this dreadlocked, ancient instrument playing macher is. First off he wrote “You Are not a Gadget” which I haven’t read but I guess is an attack on the debasement of media by Web 2.0 which allowed the voices of the anonymous, unwashed masses to drown out the truly talented and is leading to the downfall of culture or something. You might go read “Digital Maoism” if you are interested. I am sure our friend Bert would have plenty to add if he cared to. I don’t want to start a fight or anything, but I will say that experts are probably somewhat overrated and leave it at that for now.
The premise of Lanier’s new book “Who Owns the Future” is that big data players are shrinking the economy by leveraging the largest servers to achieve information supremacy and then radiating risk out into the world. So big servers don’t just radiate waste heat, they expel risk as well. And they do this by forgetting apparently. Reversible computers don’t get hot and in Jaron’s ideal world remembering the provenance of data would balance risk. But I am getting ahead of myself. Lanier calls these big data players “Siren Servers”
A Siren Server, as I will refer to such a thing, is an elite computer, or coordinated collection of computers, on a network. It is characterized by narcissism, hyperamplified risk aversion, and extreme information asymmetry. It is the winner of an all-or-nothing contest, and it inflicts smaller all-or-nothing contests on those who interact with it.
Siren Servers gather data from the network, often without having to pay for it. The data is analyzed using the most powerful available computers, run by the very best available technical people. The results of the analysis are kept secret, but are used to manipulate the rest of the world to advantage.
That plan will always eventually backfire, because the rest of the world cannot indefinitely absorb the increased risk, cost, and waste dispersed by a Siren Server. Homer sternly warned sailors to not succumb to the call of the sirens…
Lanier, Jaron (2013-05-07). Who Owns the Future? (p. 50). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Lanier’s Siren Servers span many industries: Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Walmart are all Siren Servers. The insurance companies that only want to insure those that don’t need insurance qualify, as do the financial firms that packaged up those sub-prime mortgages and the ones that continue to engage in high frequency trading. Now that’s a lot of ground to cover and my friend Robin once warned me to be wary of any idea that seems capable of explaining every possible phenomenon. To the man with a hammer…
But Lanier does make some good arguments about the creepy and damaging nature of big data in business. One big glaring problem I see is that he asserts that they are shrinking the economy. Now I went to see him speak at the JCCSF last month and he said during his talk that he wants his ideas to be tested empirically. So I tried to dig up data that suggests the world economy has shrunk since oh, 1995. I mean he tries to point to the debt and slow growth of the US and Europe as evidence but you can’t just ignore globalization. Even he admits that this big data approach allowed Walmart to peacefully manage the rise of China. These Siren Servers have helped enable globalization. So it seems reasonable to look at the effect of the internet on world GDP or GWP and not just the US GDP. I looked at the World Bank website which has some kludgy tools online. I am not much of a researcher, but it seems like world economic growth has been pretty decent in spite of the internet. Thus, one of Lanier’s main premises might be ill-founded. Where is the evidence that markets are actually shrinking in the first place, let alone that this hypothetical shrinkage is caused by the internet?
Sure, I can see how Google Translate could in theory put translators out of work, but an empiricist should demand to see the numbers. Surely Lanier could have employed a human to look up employment rates and wages of translators before and after the launch of Google Translate. But he didn’t, he just asserts that Google is shrinking markets. I could tell a story about how Google Translate enables millions of small businesses to roughly communicate with billions of customers who speak other languages. So screw the translators that can’t keep up. (Just kidding, Google Translate still sort of sucks. Human translators aren’t obsolete yet.) But that’s my problem with Lanier’s book. He examines how these Siren Servers operate and then imagines how they must be impacting the world but then doesn’t actually show plausible evidence of causation. Sure, the finance industry’s big meltdowns and those too-big-to-fail bailouts were bullshit. But was that really caused by having servers that were too big? Or did the regulation get a little too loose? I say let them have their servers and bring back Glass-Steagall. Then there is some utterly bogus comparison between the number of people Kodak employed compared to Instagram. Uh, hello, some people were employed making all the smartphones that instagram runs on. Also, last time I checked, dedicated cameras were still being produced. Get with it, Jaron.
I don’t want to be too negative about Lanier. I agree with him that the middle class needs artificial levees to exist. This was recently illustrated to me by Ananya Roy‘s talk at TEDx Berkeley this year. I also get that having a middle class is probably important since the uber rich simply won’t purchase enough super-yachts to keep the economy chugging along. But I just have to facepalm in response when Lanier’s ultimate solution seems to be that everyone should get paid for the use of their data. I mean, err, what planet are you living on again? Sure, Ted Nelson‘s two-way links and other Xanadu visions would have helped preserve the provenance of data somewhat, but Lanier dramatically downplays the technical challenges. I once heard Dan Kaminsky give a talk where he said something like: the internet we have now is in place because it’s the only thing the engineers could patch together that didn’t crash all the time.
But even if we imagine that some technical solution could be made to work, the real problem with this is that people don’t expect to get paid for generating data. That’s the crux of the problem. How do we get to a culture where people expect to get paid for their damn data? Lanier imagines a cabal of alpha Siren Server owners getting together and agreeing to pay for data to prevent the economy from crashing. Ha, if only the plutocrats were so wise. We don’t have enough Elon Musks up there in the billionaire social stratosphere I’m afraid. It seems that Lanier imagines that if only he and his elite network pioneer buddies had made a few crucial design changes at the dawn of the internet then this would have all played out better and we would have a more humanistic information economy. But I have my doubts. The internet is probably just as deeply shaped by human nature, politics, and even religion as it shaped by technology. The tech folks can put stuff out there, but it’s a complex combination of factors that will determine what sticks and what doesn’t. I wish this was just a network topology design problem.
Now let’s say that I am sympathetic to the whole Lights in the Tunnel theory. Maybe technology will shrink markets if handled incorrectly. Lanier makes another assumption that I take exception to. He simply takes for granted that there would be a messy revolution if automation crashes the economy too badly. I actually doubt it. Armies already have more than enough technology to put down a revolution. It seems clear now that Egypt’s revolution was a farce and that the army only stood aside to welcome their new Islamist overlords. Look at Syria. Look at the USA. There is no way that the US public could overthrow the US military.
One might imagine that our military is made up of Americans who would never kill fellow Americans. But you know, there are Americans and then there are AMERICANS. And even that distinction will rapidly become moot anyway. Autonomous military drones could well make revolution completely impossible. So no, you don’t get to threaten the plutocrats with revolution to make them crack open their pocketbooks and start sharing the wealth. They are way ahead of you on that front. But of course I am being melodramatic again. The elites have a whole slew of non-lethal revolution defusing tools. Take mass media for example.
At the end of the day, I do want content creators to get paid and I see that this is a real problem right now. I dutifully paid for my copy of “Who Owns the Future” by the way. Maybe Amazon will be the company to save content. Maybe it will take an internet business model that is actually based on something other than selling advertisement. But if I could come up with that, I wouldn’t publish it here. I would hightail it right down to Sandhill Road and cash it in… Oh, pardon me, daydreaming again. Anyway, I like Lanier. His heart is in the right place, he points out some ugly aspects of big data. But as I said, he isn’t empirical enough for my taste and he is a bit overly infatuated with the idea of experts. Also, his silver bullet solution of creating an information economy based on individuals selling their data is ludicrous for a large number of reasons. Nonetheless, it’s good to have these contrarian futurists out there shouting at the vast machine that is bearing down on us all.
Blog commenter “Bert” did chime in thank goodness. I did want to address the question of shrinking markets. Bert found this list of 10 shrinking US markets that does seem to have reputable providence.
The full list is below:
|Sector||Revenue 2010 (in millions)||Decline 2000-2010||Forecast Decline 2010-2016||Establish- ments 2010||Decline 2000-2010||Forecast Decline 2010-2016|
|Wired Telecommunications Carriers||$154,096||-54.9%||-37.1%||23,474||-10.5%||-15.9%|
|DVD, Game & Video Rental||$7,839||-35.7%||-19.3%||17,369||-34.8%||-11.2%|
|Manufactured Home Dealers||$4,538||-73.7%||-62.0%||3,968||-56.7%||-58.7%|
|Video Postproduction Services||$4,276||-24.9%||-10.7%||1,789||-43.2%||-37.8%|
|Formal Wear & Costume Rental||$736||-35.0%||-14.6%||2,310||-28.5%||-17.0%|
It raises the question of what is meant by “Siren Servers shrink markets.” Does Lanier mean US markets or world markets? I argue that world markets are more relevant, but let’s take a closer look at the list above. Some of the markets (mills, apparel) is probably caused by globalization and we would expect to see corresponding increases in developing markets. Some of the shrinking markets are almost certainly offset by increases in other areas. Land lines suffer while wireless booms. Newspapers and Record stores are part of that troublesome content problem and I will concede the point that the internet has hurt those markets and will continue to do so until we come up with a better way for content creators to get paid. Also decreases in video postproduction or photofinishing ARE arguably due to software eating their lunch. Technically, Lanier wasn’t ranting against all software, just the big data stuff that requires the personal data of millions to be effective. At the end of the day, I would just say it’s hard to track which of these shrinkages aren’t offset by real growth elsewhere. For example, does the fact that video postproduction is easier to achieve with software make it cheaper to create good looking video? Couldn’t this translate into an expanded market for video in general?
This article originally appeared in Scott’s Oakland Futurist blog: http://oaklandfuturist.com/review-of-jaron-laniers-who-owns-the-future-or-how-to-extrapolate-from-false-premises/