Jaron Lanier, introduced as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, presented on his book, Who Owns the Future?, in Spanos Auditoriuim on Friday, May 3rd, 2013. Through his book on futuristic economics, Lanier hopes to open “a space of possibility” to consider the oncoming problems of the digital age. Lanier does not believe that a perfect political or economic system exists in human affairs. Instead, he advocates a balance of power between the government, the economy, and the digital networks to resolve world problems.
Lanier first addresses a prevailing misconception of technology in society, namely the notion that technology is beyond human control. Many people tend to think of technology in a “deterministic framework,” as something “that has its own volition, where people are only accessories.” Since the entrepreneurs of the technological world are becoming so rich and successful, it is also easy to assume that the digital sphere is perfect. However, Lanier suggests that technology is not an independent entity, as it is often depicted in media, and that the utopian facets often associated with technology are misleading.
For example, a concrete economic problem in the computer world can be found in the advent of open source software. While free access to information may seem democratic and flawless, Lanier argues otherwise. Previously a pioneer in open source software himself, Lanier now argues that free information undermines diversity and democracy. In fact, firms that provide free information are actively participating in their self-destruction since they are not being compensated. To help the audience better understand his argument, Lanier proposes a hypothetical thought experiment.
Imagine a collection of individuals living on a secluded island, sharing information openly. Even if we assume that society is generally good-natured and decent, there is still the problem of computational inequality. As Lanier bluntly states, “All computers are not created equal.” Some computers are located in giant server farms fueled by rivers that have mass amounts of computational power, while others, like the laptop of a college student, have much lower capabilities. With better computers, the top search engine companies, networking sites, finance schemes, and national intelligence agencies can “reform the whole world.” They can gather information about their customers and calculate correlations to gain a new and superior perspective. In doing so, they can globally optimize, creating the best outcomes for themselves.
One pioneer of global optimization is Walmart, a company that has rigorously compiled databases about its customers and suppliers to model business behavior. While unable to obtain information about every single party, Walmart has enough information to fill in the missing pieces indirectly and create a global picture. As a result, Walmart, with its information superiority, could approximate the lowest price they could negotiate even before negotiating with its customers. Similarly, Amazon will use their price bots, will automatically lower the selling prices of their products based on the prices of its competitors. The ultimate result is an industry-wide reformation, in which firms must conform to the dominant systems and prevailing algorithms. For instance, authors of the Huffington Post must provide Google, the prevailing search engine, with the necessary information about their articles before publication to appear on their search results.
Some would argue that conforming society to the best entrepreneurs is desirable. However, Lanier worries that the rise of dominant computational systems is creating a winner-take-all world. Open source software further exacerbates the destruction of diversity. In contrast to a monetized economy for technology, a world of free technology would consist of only the top firms. The loss of breadth and diversity, Lanier argues, is undemocratic. Consider the rapidly growing online education websites, which may eventually depose universities. While a number of top colleges may still survive, the middle range may potentially go out of business.
In the nineteenth century, society expressed these exact fears about humans becoming obsolete. Evidence can be found from historical events such as the Luddite uprising to popular literature like H.G. Wells’ Time Machine. In the 20th century, labor movements, social security lifelines, tenure, and other forms of protection maintained jobs. However, entering into the 21st century, the open source culture exacerbated the problem of human obsolescence. The loss of one-way linking in favor of two-way linking allowed individuals to purchase open source software and data with anonymity. In the music business, for instance, people can copy songs without being traced.
Lanier’s solution would be to regulate and monetize information, including songs, software, and data. If information were to go unregulated, then financial firms, technology companies, and health insurance firms, would develop nearly perfect algorithms for their business. The rise of these dominant firms will inevitably cause the remainder of society to suffer. For example, a health insurance company may use algorithms to discriminate against risky individuals likely to be sick. Lanier, a pioneer of open source software, ultimately warns of the dangers of free information in an ever-advancing technological world.