Print Edition: October 2, 2013
Who owns your future?
Jaron Lanier knows tech. He is a computer scientist, electronic musician, and the founding father of virtual reality. Unlike most technology critics, when Lanier speaks, geeks listen. His new book (much like his previous book, You Are Not a Gadget) explains the downside of technological innovation. Who Owns the Future? shows technology can not only be economically disruptive, it can also be catastrophically destructive.
“The problem is not the technology, but the way we think about technology” writes Lanier in the opening chapter. The main argument is: we often see technology as what we want it to be, rather than what it actually is. Our hopes for technological advancement often obfuscate the way technology affects us. We have become tools of our tools.
What happens when the 140,000 people who worked at Kodak are replaced by the 40 people who work at Instagram? How will the creative class (musicians, photographers, writers) survive when their work is given to large corporate aggregates for free? How will the economy function when a few companies own most of the good data?
As the answers to these questions unfold, the reader can’t help but think, “Hasn’t this been covered before? Where is Marx in all of this?” But Lanier is afraid to go under the label of Marxist thought, despite his strong neo-Marxist observations. It seems that he, like most North Americans, are afraid to speak to the spectre of Marx – a fear left over from McCarthyism, no doubt.
Lanier argues that the internet exploits the lower class with an ideological hold: the illusion of free services. For example, Facebook is not free. It requires users to share and contribute in order to make it a viable business. Facebook uses your information and content to make money for itself. While promising to provide connectivity and real world organization, Facebook in fact does the opposite. The social network is the illusion of a social institution.
Lanier takes on corporate banking structures, government viability, and my favourite debate: e-books. It’s not the paper vs. screen issue that bothers him, but the background economics and politics of how literature is produced, sold, and archived. He fears that a technocratic Silicon Valley could be the driver of a new book culture, rather than English professionals and booksellers. Lanier fears literature will be reduced to bullet-point summaries for the business crowd. Books can be easily controlled, edited, and deleted when everything moves to a digital medium, controlled by the cloud.
Lanier keeps his critique of digital capitalism sharp and logical. His thoughts and arguments are compartmentalized in the book, set into small chapters and interludes. There isn’t a strong running narrative throughout, like something we’d see from the great cultural critic Neil Postman (Technopoly, Amusing Ourselves to Death). Instead we have a more disjointed narrative that jumps from point to point. Thankfully, the work adds up to a satisfactory exploration of the future of information society.
Who Owns the Future? shows us the way our digital economy works, not how we hope it works. It’s an honest observation of the wrong places tech is taking us. While technologists want a better future, the pragmatic reality is that altruism often takes a backseat to shallow optimism and greed. However, Lanier is an optimist himself; believing that if we can create a digital middle class and awareness of what digital services actually are, we can then walk into a brave new world.