Thursday, March 27, 2014

Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier

“To my friends in the “open” Internet movement, I have to ask: What did you think would happen? We in Silicon Valley undermined copyright to make commerce become more about services instead of content: more about our code instead of their files.

The inevitable endgame was always that we would lose control of our own personal content, our own files.

We haven’t just weakened old-fashioned power mongers. We’ve weakened ourselves.” (p.207)

This book is a labor of love. We humans are being gifted the secrets of our internet universe today. Reading this is little like a taking a course (a whole course) with a particularly beloved and brilliant professor who doesn’t hold back any secrets that we might be able to glean from his lectures. Lanier describes a late-night dinner in the shambolic Brookline house of one of his MIT professors, Marvin Minsky, which spurred him to great flights of thought and coding. This book is a little like those precious moments. This book is free information! and you must know by now, friends, that information is the gold standard today.

But more importantly, with this information you can participate in the discussion about how to manage scarcity and wealth in today’s society which is accruing unevenly and, according to Lanier, unfairly. It is a huge question at the center of how we interact, and who is paying attention to those interactions. His discussion allows us to understand a little better the causes of the effects we all notice in our online interactions, e.g., the stickiness effect of trying to leave or quit a provider, the quick rise and/or cannibalism of internet start-ups, the fact that often we are liable for every risk in using the computational instruments necessary in our lives, and yet the cost is ours as well. How does that work out? Well, some folks are making plenty on our interactions/information. It has something to do with “Siren Servers” and big data. Remember Odysseus and the songs of the Sirens?

This book has other life lessons as well. Another reviewer said she enjoyed it like reading a “shaggy, ambitious novel” and it is a little like that: a little sci fi, a little horror, a little mystery, lots of thrills…entertaining doesn’t quite describe it. It opens a world we may not have understood adequately especially if we work outside the computer field, but it still speaks to those folks as well. It points to a huge problem at the center of our world and asks how best to solve it. Lanier sets himself apart from those discussing “The Singularity” and remembers the human behind every optimal computer decision. He poses the beginnings of solutions to the problems he recognizes, but basically, he is asking for input and participation. Like the man says, any system we create always needs tinkering. It can’t ever be perfect. It can get better.

Lanier speaks so naturally, in this book and in interviews, of things that are mysterious to most of us…Siren Servers that pull information to themselves and create vortices of information and wealth. Lanier suggests creating two way information networks so that each of us is compensated for the value we create. It is a huge idea, but Lanier has a history of huge ideas. He may have lost me just a little at the end when he begins to talk about the logical outcomes of decisions made early on in the process, but the conceptual project as a whole I find intriguing and probably as possible as what we have done up to now. It’s mind -boggling and –expanding at the same time: a very cool feeling. I really learned things here.

I definitely like his central conceit: that humans are the value in this equation. We just have to make it logical that some portion of whatever we have that big data values accrues to us. And I do love the discussion near the end when he is considering outcomes and tweeks, and makes the suggestion (he doesn’t actually suggest it, but the proximity of his arguments leads one to imagine he suggests) that derivatives markets and casinos—the networked, obsessive feedback loop—be sicc’ed on the carbon credits market: “it’s all in the timing.” He admits to issues with everything he is suggesting, but it is completely compelling none-the-less.
“A world in which more and more is monetized, instead of less and less, could lead to a middle-class-oriented information economy, in which information isn’t free, but is affordable. Instead of making information inaccessible, that would lead to a situation in which the most critical information becomes accessible for the first time. You’d own the raw information about you that can sway your life. There is no such thing as a perfect system but the hypothesis on offer is that this could lead to a more democratic outcome than does the cheap illusion of “free” information.” (p. 210)

At the very end, on page 300, Lanier explains that the old-fashioned way of handling discrepancies in the market, “regulation” of the powers that be, has not worked since late in the 20th century. He suggests that possibly his new system would take care of that…by allowing risk and cost to be shared with the polity, restoring, or at least correcting, economic symmetry. Part of Lanier’s thesis is that machines are not now as smart as humans, and without humans, never will be.
“…what we have to look at is economic incentives. There can never be enough police to shut down activities that align with economic motives. That is why prohibitions don’t work. No amount of regulation can keep up with perverse incentives, given the pace of innovation. This is also why no one was prosecuted for financial fraud connected with the Great Recession.” (p. 311)

This is huge; it’s a truly big idea. In some ways it seems completely crazy. And how much crazier does “The Singularity” seem to you? Lanier is offering an alternative to our current system which he believes will not have good outcomes. There are costs to consider, but in general, I think I prefer his approach to the alternatives.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

No comments:

Post a Comment