“We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” (Justice L. D. Brandeis)
Sometimes a book is worth a re-visit. I read “Who owns the future?” about three years ago, and thought it to be original and thought-provoking. It shows how much the world has changed recently that my re-read left me scribbling “NO!” in the margins.
Before we dive in, I should say a word about the author. Jaron Lanier is one of those people with an endless list of professions – writer, computer scientist, visual artist, musician. What matters for this book is that he’s a founding father of the field of virtual reality. Various start-ups that he founded were sold to Google, Facebook, and others. To sum it up – this guy knows Silicon Valley.
And he doesn’t like what he sees. In his opinion (and I think we can all agree), the internet has not led to the free utopia that its founders were envisioning. Instead, there are a handful of increasingly powerful players that have information superiority.
This is what the world has been discussing recently in light of the Cambridge Analytica Leak at Facebook – the fact that a few companies now know a lot about everybody.
But Lanier doesn’t stop here – the argument he makes is that the middle class gets hollowed out by those tech giants. I think this is a fair argument to make – and a development we are seeing now more than ever (though probably less than we will in the future).
So, Lanier says, the tech giants are profiting off data you are generating. And they are profiting hugely. Because after all, what is Facebook if not a collector and seller of private information? That’s how they became so insanely valuable – by having data about one billion people on earth.
Then Lanier presents his idea on how to correct this. I’m going to explain the idea first, and then I’m going to argue that it is a horrible idea for various reasons.
Lanier’s idea is to make Google (I’m using Google here, but it’s really all tech giants / banks / whoever collects your data) pay you whenever they use your data to make a profit. So, for example – your phone tells Google that you are currently on the Upper East Side in New York, searching for a pizza place. Google then pulls up ads for pizza places nearby.
By doing this, Google makes money from the pizza place – but, Lanier says, Google should be paying you a share of this as it is your data that creates the profit.
It’s a two-way transaction instead of the one-way exchange that is currently happening. Think about it, Lanier says. All this money being re-distributed, the customer gets empowered, services get better because people actively benefit from it. Instead of being spied upon, the individual would participate in the new virtual marketplace.
I have several problems with this, some philosophical, some from an economic point of view. Let’s talk about them one by one.
Lanier claims he’s no economist, and it shows. (Neither am I unless an undergrad in economics counts, but I tend to think that economics is mostly common sense.) He says that “money is simply another information system“, but it is not. Money, for all of its history, has been an actor as much as a tool in the economic market.
What I mean by that is simple – people are motivated by money. It changes their intentions. If salaries for lawyers rise, more students will want to study law. Money is not a neutral tool, as Lanier claims. It never has been.
What this means for his theory is simple – If people will get paid for their data, the data will inevitably get skewed. Let’s say that a search for a pizza place only pays you half as much as a search for a ramen place. By nature, people will suddenly search more for ramen places than pizza huts. Thus, the data gets skewed and loses its value.
Another problem that Lanier ignores is that the fundamental problem of today’s economy is not the creation of wealth, but its distribution. The economy is doing fine, but the people aren’t. We all know that it is the richest who get the lion’s share of the newly created wealth. That is a fundamentally political problem, not an economic (or technological) one.
What the developed world needs right now is more re-distribution of wealth, not necessarily more creation thereof. We need higher income taxes for the top earners, a coherent global corporate tax system, a high tax on large estates. The money is there, it is just in the wrong pockets.
In 2017, the top 20% of the American Population owned 87% of the country’s wealth. You don’t correct this with being paid 0.2 cents for your search history.
And this leads me to my next point of criticism.
Throughout the book, Lanier talks about sharing data. But what if you are simply not interested in sharing your data? What if you value your privacy more than the micropayment you would get for it under Lanier’s system?
Lanier opens his book with valid criticism of the fact that people today are constantly being spied upon. However, he never addresses this fact going forward. Under his system, the individual is still being spied upon, only now they get paid for it.
This isn’t privacy. This is just a new form of capitalism. Lanier never offers an ‘opt out’ for people who don’t want to participate in this new world of his. You’ll get paid, sure, but you don’t get a choice in it, either.
If we take this thought further, this means that only the truly rich will be able to afford privacy. They, for sure, will come up with ‘restricted zones of data collection’ or similar hijinks. They’ll find a way out of this, whereas the poor and the middle class will be forced to sell their data.
Especially since, remember, other, more traditional sources of income are disappearing in this economy. Sooner or later, Lanier says, your data will be the only valuable thing about you. But doesn’t that just mean that the individual becomes a commodity?
What does it mean for humanity if all we are worth is the data we are producing? Where is the dignity in that?
In Lanier’s world, we won’t be seen as individuals, we’ll only be producers of data that is worth exploiting. And this raises my red flags. I am worth more than the fact that I never do takeouts, but will buy frozen pizza, especially if I come home late on a Friday.
But, I give Lanier this – he offered an alternative to the world as it is today. (Even if I fundamentally disagree with him on the implications of it.) He is right – the current system we have is not working, and we need to change it.
If you are looking at me to come up with a better system, well, I don’t have one. But one thing is for certain – we need to come up with one, quickly.
Next week, we’ll do some brain surgery.