Book review: Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier

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JARON Lanier is a computer scientist with dreadlocks and all the makings of a secular prophet.

Who Owns the Future?

by Jaron Lanier

384pp, £20

Allen Lane, At the age of 13 he went to New Mexico State University, and in his twenties, when he was already famous in his field, he popularised the term “virtual reality”. Since then he has continued to speak and to write about goings-on in Silicon Valley with insider knowledge – he currently works for Microsoft – and a blend of vision and social conscience that makes his perspective unique.

His new book makes a frightening claim: if we do not modify our relationship with the internet and new technology we will, in Lanier’s view, see “hyper-unemployment” and “the destruction of the middle classes”. According to Lanier, the cause of this crisis is our deluded belief that our “information” – even of the modest kind we volunteer in tweets and on Facebook – is not worth anything to the servers that contain it.

It may be hard to imagine that a tweet could have value, but Lanier argues that value is defined by context: Hollywood actors receive thousands “per grunt” in an action movie because a grunt from the right hero will ensure the film’s success. Currently, when we tweet about what we’re reading, eating or watching, when we search for something on Google, or “like” it on Facebook, these events are noted by spying “bots”, converted to statistics, and then used to drive investments and marketing. Multiple references to mosquito bites, for example, might lead to investment in repellents. This is already going on.

Lanier argues that “free” services like Facebook, or money-saving ones like Amazon, are “technological bread and circuses” which distract us with trifles while using our data for profit. Part wise man, part wise guy, Lanier has a mind as boundless as the internet. To explain his ideas he is required to plunder Greek myths, Keynesian economics, Marxism, postmodern philosophy, popular culture, mathematics, and his own wild imagination.

He coins thrilling new phrases and words: large companies like Google or Facebook are “Siren Servers” because they seduce us out of rationality; “antenimbosian” is his Latinate term for the period of history before “cloud” computing.

This book may only be sporadically intelligible to most readers but Lanier is always good company. He explains, for example, that he didn’t finish his degree because “(though I have received honorary ones)... the very thought of slogging through someone else’s procedures to gain abstract approval seemed unacceptably retro and irrelevant”. Chapter titles such as “A Stab at Mitigating Creepiness” or mini-meditations called Second interlude (A Parody), or Fourth interlude: limits are for Muggles, suggest that Lanier – “Your always amused author” – is the David Foster Wallace of tech.

Despite a manic elation about 3D printers and the possibility that accountants will be “not backroom nerds but action heroes”, Lanier’s desire “to see if network technology can make capitalism better instead of worse” is engaging and well grounded in research. His vision of “an information economy” in which Siren Servers make “nanopayments” for human contributions is well worth struggling to understand. The impact of Siren Servers on society has been vast. Online ventures have already done millions out of service-sector jobs – travel agencies and music stores, for example, are all but consigned to the past. As Lanier suggests, it is not a coincidence that so many of Facebook’s early devotees are now unemployed and living at home in their thirties.

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