Who Owns the Future? (part 2)

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First of all, an apology to my followers, whose summer was no doubt ruined by my failure to post for two months. I have been suffering from a medical condition that prevented me from working at my desk, but I am much better and cautiously resuming my regular routine.

When I was so rudely interrupted, I was discussing Jaron Lanier’s book, Who Owns the Future? You may recall that Lanier is worried about how the new information society is shaping up. He takes the humanistic view that information comes ultimately from people, but he complains that too few people are being compensated for the information they provide. Instead a relatively small number of corporations are getting rich by scooping up vast amounts of data and finding ways to profit from it. Online music services make money while fewer individual musicians can make a living. If present trends continue, Lanier foresees massive losses of middle class jobs and an even greater divide between rich and poor. The “winner-take-all” economy is also a threat to democracy, since the distribution of political clout will parallel the distribution of money.

Lanier’s hope for the future is based on his conviction that human beings remain the basic source of economic value. He rejects the alternative view of inevitable human obsolescence, which he describes this way: “We ordinary humans are supposedly staying the same…while our technology is an autonomous, self-transforming supercreature, and its self-improvement is accelerating. That means it will one day pass us in a great whoosh. In the blink of an eye we will become obsolete.” This view is well represented in the darker forms of science fiction, where “people have been rendered absurd by technological advancement.” Lanier prefers the sunnier kind–think Star Trek–where “a recognizable human remains at the center of the adventure.” He regards books like Martin Ford’s The Lights in the Tunnel as the economic equivalent of dark science fiction. “He sees jobs going away, and proposes that people in the future be paid only for consuming wisely, since they eventually won’t be needed for producing anything.” One possible economic future is a vast welfare state, where the few who make most of the money have to subsidize the spending of the many in order to keep the economy going. The political economy might vacillate between winner-take-all capitalism and socialism for many years before arriving at the rational solution, finding a way to compensate ordinary people for the information contributions that only human beings can make.

If ordinary people would really be earning enough to do okay–and with the dignity of having earned if–if only we instituted complete enough accounting, why not do that instead of bouncing between moguls and socialists? Why pay a stipend to people who would actually be earning it if we were honest? The only reason is that you have to undervalue people if you want to support the fantasy that artificial intelligence is a free-standing technology. We are sacrificing ordinary people at the pyramidion of our temple.

Lanier’s solution involves using the technical capabilities of the information age to institute a more honest accounting for valuable information flows. New technologies make it easy to move information around, often divorcing it from its original context. As most teachers have discovered by now, plagiarism is a snap on the internet. However, it is also technically feasible for all information to contain a link to its original source, and that creates the potential for the originator to charge a fee for its use. The originator could set a very high price to minimize distribution–for example, to discourage one’s personal photos from being used for profit–but usually free competition would keep prices reasonable. Lanier envisions a gradual transition to a monetized internet in which more and more people are compensated for their creative participation. As people aged, they could rely more on royalties from past contributions as a source of income.

Initially, one would expect Big Data companies to resist having to pay for more of the information they currently scoop up for free. Lanier expects them to change their tune as the current economic model becomes increasingly unsustainable, and too many people are economically marginal to the information economy to sustain economic consumption. Lanier also expects a new generation of information users to make the transition:

The window to remake the digital world might only open as the baby boomers, and even me and my dizzy compatriots of “Generation X,” die off. Politics and economics might be reborn around the middle of this century once we, and probably also the “Facebook generation,” get out of the way.

I’m not convinced. So far, the young “Millennial” generation seems especially interested in sharing and collaboration without immediate economic gain. I’m not at all sure that a fully monetized information system is going to appeal to them or to future generations. Setting a price on every exchange of information (a penny for my thoughts?–no, I want $22.95) seems to be taking capitalism to a rather extreme conclusion. I have also been reading Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society, which imagines a very different future. I’ll be discussing it soon.

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