Do you know "Who Owns the Future" ? The writer Jaron Lanier knows!
06 Mar 2013 15:14:25
The people who lose out are the creators. The author starts his list with the translation services: "with each so-called automatic translation, the humans who were the sources of the data are inched away from the world of compensation and employment". Much of the non-payment culture is voluntary, based in the ethos of the US west coast. "It is a commonplace in Silicon Valley for very young people with a startup in a garage to announce that their goal is to change human culture globally and profoundly, with a few years, and that they aren't ready yet to worry about money."
His lament ranges from copyright to privacy and beyond. Lanier argues that our insatiable demand for information and entertainment and for access to instant communication has come at a heavy price. Most people don't know they're paying it or will regret doing so in future. We "expect online services… to be given for free or, rather, in exchange for acquiescence to being spied on".
Successful technologists are the new "ruling class". In this digital world order, money and power are concentrated in the hands of a few. "Siren Servers are narcissists; blind to where value comes from, including the web of global interdependence that is at the core of their own value." Lanier compares the online economic model to that off-line giant Walmart, with its low-cost, low-value, low-payment principles. "If you already have enough to live on, saving some money on a purchase is a nice perk."
Geeks are not necessarily egalitarians – far from it. Forget the veneer of T-shirts and flip-flops; for all the roots in hippy culture, it is a Darwinian world in which only the most successful are able to monetise their products. The author does not convince me that the internet, as it currently operates, reinforces inequality. But it is a point that policymakers and technologists should think more deeply about.
Lanier mixes historical metaphors with abandon. At one point he quotes Aristotle: "What a shame about enslaving people, but we need to do it so someone will play the music, since we need music." On another occasion, he suggests Karl Marx was the first technologist. Then he suggests many in the present middle-class creative and academic sectors are operating in "feudal conditions". The structure and language do not help the cause either. The book is written as a series of snippets, more like TED-style mini-lectures, rather than developing the ideas into a longer train of thought. At times the language is impenetrable.
Still, the book raises important questions and Lanier is highly qualified to ask them. His danger signs are worth noting. Each technological innovation produces the potential not just for cyber-crime, but for manipulating the way we lead our lives. Take the driverless cars that Google is developing. He conjures the following thought: imagine you take a driverless taxi. Without explanation, it lingers in front of billboards during your journey or forces you to a particular convenience store if you need to pick up something. Is that very different to search engines reading your mind through your click-habits or Amazon telling you, often accurately, what you really want to read next?
For a more sanguine take on the power of data, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier point out that numeric information has little value unless it is applied to human habits. Big Data warns of the dangers of misuse by governments and corporations alike, but from predicting climate change to health epidemics, they prefer to focus on the value.
Life is enhanced when smart data helps passengers identify those airports that are more prone to delays or which patients, on discharge from hospital, are more likely to be readmitted. In a fascinating experiment, an expert who used data to predict the likelihood of American soldiers being blown up by roadside bombs in Iraq was asked by the mayor of New York to tackle illegal property conversions. He did so by a mixture of computer data sets and walking the streets, inputting manually observations such as the quality of brick. Armed with uncannily accurate information, inspectors moved in, clearing buildings that had become fire hazards and dens of criminality.
The amount of raw data about all our lives continues to rise exponentially. It is a frightening prospect. But as both books demonstrate, ultimately, benefit and danger will depend on the use to which the information is put and the safeguards that protect us from technical malfunction and human malevolence.
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