Who owns the future?

In Conversation: Jaron Lanier and James Bridle On Who Owns the Future? from The School of Life on Vimeo.

I have just watched the above conversation between Jaron Lanier and James Bridle in Conway Hall organized by the School of Life. The event was to mark the occasion of Lanier’s new book “Who Owns The Future?” (Guardian review) and the conversation focused on some interesting ideas from it. I will probably not read the book itself, but I think the things said in the video above can be taken by themselves and though they are provocative they do not motivate me to give Lanier any money1.

The main issue is that Lanier signals some interesting problems (He’s not alone. Om Malik just posted this about Data Darwinism), he makes some terrible comparisons and posits solutions that are wholly unconvincing.

Problems

Laniers big idea is that those with the biggest computers on the network (and the largest collection of brains to program those computers) are in danger of becoming the rentiers of big data. They will be able to out-compute everybody else and figure out what Gibson called the ‘order flow’ in his Blue Ant trilogy: the best set of actions given the circumstances.

That is an interesting if not exactly novel idea. It serves as a jumping off point into some outright crazy ideas about intellectual property. Lanier compares the contraction created by the current austerity measures with what is happening in the music industry. This is a ridiculous comparison. Even if it did hold, then whatever is happening is an overdue correction to a situation that was unsustainably overleveraged.

In the same vein he waves around the scarecrow that ‘the economy will shrink’. A notion that will undoubtedly play well with the same audience that is inclined to buy his book. Rhetoric about shrinking economies is almost always a phantom. Economic shrinkage may very well be in our near future and does not necessarily need to be a bad thing.

Lanier’s point that people are forced into an informal economy is valid but it speaks more to the failure of social systems than anything else. The social democratic contract that may be inconceivable for Americans is working quite well in Europe. It may need updating both for changing demographics and the digital age, but I don’t think many people here would trade it for what Lanier is peddling. Like I mentioned in my data tax post, we don’t have the problem of musicians who can’t pay their medical bills2.

Solutions

The proposed solutions are even more problematic (though if you’re so inclined you might term them ‘thought provoking’).

Lanier seems overly influenced by the music industry and by the concept of private copyright. I would assert that the music industry with its track record is not something worth emulating. The sky is not falling in the music industry. They are facing a long overdue re-evaluation of their social contract because their carrier of value has lost its excludability. There are still lost of people making music and thriving.

Lanier seems to roughly comprehend how a just society should work: ‘For society to be democratic, income needs to be distributed in a way that is roughly a bell curve.’ but at the same time he seems to be confused how it should be implemented: ‘Socialism needs to be off the table in the information age.’

The bidirectional reference networks that Lanier proposes that preserve the context and provenance of data sound fantastic. There are however real reasons why we are doing the ‘profoundly dumb thing we are doing’ instead. His network sounds awfully similar to the idea of the semantic web, where everything online will work perfectly if only we would do it The Right Way (which we of course never will).

His solution to ‘Become as aware as possible of how you fit in other people’s computation schemes.’ is a good idea. It is the same algorithmic literacy pointed to in work by Kevin Slavin, Douglas Rushkoff and James Bridle himself.

I’m afraid that Lanier’s rhetoric of a ‘more honest accounting’ will play particularly well in Germany where similar words are already being used to take Google to court. Germany passed a Leistungsschutzrecht (ancillary copyright for publishers) because they figured out that large American companies were making outlandish amounts of money based on the work of large German publishing houses.

The conversation of a fair distribution of wealth in a power-law based networked economy is one we need to have. I doubt though if this particular book is a good starting point for such a conversation. Lanier’s cultural foundations point us towards a solution that is at best unrealistic3 and tries to extrapolate the problematic private notion of copyright to society as a whole.

The data tax I wrote about yesterday is an approach from a more public point of view. That would focus more on personal data and the revenue generated from such a tax would go into government so it would be subject to democratic controls. Ideas that won’t fly well with Lanier’s Silicon Valley crowd, but maybe that’s all the better.

  1. I try to read as little pop-sci as possible. I try not to give any money to self-proclaimed gurus on the talk trail who have written yet another ‘the internet is fantastic/horrible’ book.
  2. In fact the myopia particular to the US and Silicon Valley may explain most of Lanier’s issues.
  3. What are commercial uses? Who gets credit for a particular work? etc.

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