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Who Owns the Future?

Jaron Lanier
Jaron Lanier (Photo credit: Thomas Hawk)

I just finished reading Who Owns the Future by Jaron Lanier and it was a really interesting read. He is a pioneer computer scientist and was involved in starting virtual reality. He is listed by Encyclopedia Britannica on a list of the 300 most important inventors.

It’s not the easiest book to read because it bounces from idea to idea, but some of those ideas are intriguing and thought-provoking. Let me hit on a few of them to give you a flavor of the book:

  • He says we have reached a point where technology is devastating the middle class. Industry after industry is folding and not being replaced. Historically, every new technology killed old industries but replaced them with new ones. But that is no longer the case. He points to Kodak which once had 140,000 employees, and it folded and was replaced by Instagram which had 13 employees when Facebook bought them. This has happened in other industries like music stores getting replaced by iTunes, video stores replaced by NetFlix, etc. And he thinks a lot more of this is on the horizon with the growth of 3D printing, self-driving cars, robotic mining equipment, robotic nurses and all the other technology that is being designed to remove the costly human element from the production process.
  • He says that wealth is now being concentrated by those who have the fastest computers. He gives this the name of ‘siren servers’ and he is talking about Google, Facebook, Amazon and all of the other companies that are creating wealth from gathering data about all of us in huge data centers. He argues that we are going to have to find a way to rebalance the information economy because these huge siren servers are using our information for free. He thinks that somehow we need to get paid for the data about us. I reviewed another book here last month by Eric Schmidt, the Executive Chairman of Google who made the same point but who thought that it was more likely there would be a future revolt by people who didn’t like what was being done with their data. But Lanier thinks it’s more likely that the siren servers will win and will know everything about us.
  • Lanier doesn’t think the problems being created are with the Internet, but rather with how the Internet has become organized. Major Internet companies like Google and Facebook tend to form monopolies on a global scale. These businesses succeed by offering something for free – such as the Google search engine, the Facebook social connections, the Linked-In business connections, etc. And for the use of these free services the public gives up tremendous amounts of information about themselves. And it is these huge databases of personal information that is creating the huge book values for these companies.
  • He also doesn’t have a very good opinion of the people running these huge siren server companies. He says that the technologists who are running the siren server companies are narcissists who are blind to the effects they are having on the world. He says that geeks are not really egalitarians despite the t-shirts and flip-flops, and that the technology world is one of pure Darwinism where only the very most successful are able to survive to the point of making money from their technology. He is not comfortable that these are the people who are running the world.

This is the kind of book I really like because it made me think hard. Lanier is looking at the tech world from the perspective of the ultimate insider and is seeing things that I have felt but never was able to put into words before. I personally have always been very leery about how the information gathered on all of us will be used in the future. I read recently that there is an average of 12.5 different places on the Internet that has gathered personal data on each person who uses the Internet. I am growing more leery of accepting the equation of using a site for free and paying for the privilege with information about what I like, who I know, what I am interested in. Lanier says that we are going to lose the battle with the siren servers unless we can find some way to balance the relationship between us and the big companies. I hope we find a way to do that, because I don’t want to live in a Big Brother world.

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