[This book review was published in the Winter 2013 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 476-484.]


Book Review


Who Owns the Future?

Jaron Lanier

Simon & Schuster, 2013


          Any book by Jaron Lanier is bound to be interesting, provided you’re not just looking for light reading, and welcome a personalized rumination through a number of provocative and often esoteric ideas associated with the Silicon Valley world of cybernetics and “virtual reality.” 

          Even though the picture of him on the book’s dust jacket gives the impression of a wild man just emerged from the Borneo jungle, his long, braided hair and corpulent body must be a form of cosmic humor, because Lanier is actually what in a pre-feminist age was called a “Renaissance man.”  Anything like an attempt at a truly adequate biographical account of his brilliance and of all that he is and does would carry us far beyond the space limitations for this review, so we will do well to leave that to readers to uncover by an easy Internet search .   For our purposes here, it is enough to let him speak for himself about just part of it: “I helped found several startups that went on to become parts of big companies [Oracle, Adobe and Google].  I became a father, led a multiuniversity research program, released a major-label record, had symphonies commissioned and performed, and played music around the world.”  Lanier’s profile in the book says he “is a computer scientist and musician, best known for his work in Virtual Reality research – he coined and popularized the term… Time named him as one of the ‘Time 100’ in 2010… He has received multiple honorary PhDs and other honors.”

          His first book was You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, which champions the uniqueness of humanity as against a strange view that he tells us is commonly held in Silicon Valley that superintelligent computers will someday dominate or even absorb human beings.  His insistence on the continued relevance of human beings is reiterated in this, his second book, but is only one of a great many subjects he touches upon.

          The present book, Who Owns the Future?, is most easily understood as two books in one, since it has two fairly different but intertwined aspects.   First, we note that his wide-ranging mind makes the book something of a journal of his thoughts about society and especially about the role of cybernetics, both in the present and the future.  But the second aspect is what he most intends the book to be about.  He grapples with a matter that is receiving growing attention from those  who see the implications of on-rushing non-labor-intensive technology: the increasing displacement of remunerated employment and of firms and industries, which raises the question of how people are to earn or otherwise receive the income they need to live on (and that is necessary for them to be consumers, whose effective existence is itself a prerequisite for an enormously productive system).[1]

          His main theme: displacement and remuneration.  Even though Lanier intends this to be his primary subject, he gives it only episodic attention, frequently touching on it but never adequately explaining the “earnings” system of distribution he sees as a solution to the displacement.

          He is best in describing the economic hollowing-out.  He asks “where did all those jobs disappear to?,” and answers by observing that “digital networking hollows out every industry, from media to medicine to manufacturing.”  As 3D printing comes in as a new form of manufacturing of products that are formed by “roaming robotic nozzles” directed by computer designs, there will be wide-ranging benefits, “yet the transformation will throw factory workers out of work in a massive wave.”  Self-driving vehicles, he says, though an immensely valuable development, will as a downside have “the catastrophic impact” of displacing the “giant portion of the global middle class [that] works behind a wheel.”  In academia there will be “fewer jobs in the longer term” as free online education replaces the traditional classroom.   If it be supposed, as it often is, that millions of people will find jobs caring for an aging population, Lanier points out that care-giving robots are already becoming more and more advanced, “handling delicate tasks,” so that “I expect robots in Japanese nursing homes by 2020, and in widespread use by 2025.”  The panacea for all this put forward by many who are unprepared to see beyond the shibboleths of outdated economic thinking is that “as old jobs disappear, new ones always arise” (counting on things continuing as they have after new technologies have come in in the past, and not noticing that the new things will also be non-labor-intensive).  But Lanier is one of those who see that the situation has changed now that a vast technological, and heavily digital,  revolution is occurring that relies less and less on “jobs” and ever-more on the technology itself.  He is perceptive enough to ask, “has the chain been broken?”

          Among the implications Lanier sees is that the displacement is leading to a polarization where “those who own the top machines will gradually emerge as the only elite left standing.”  He observes that “people increasingly find their sustenance in dead-end jobs at the bottom, or in elite jobs at the top.”  But capitalism, he says, can’t work that way; there has to be a circularity between production and a market that absorbs, and pays for, that production.  “Even the most successful players of the game are gradually undermining the core of their own wealth.  Capitalism only works if there are enough successful people to be the customers.”  And although one of the possibilities is that a sharply polarized capitalism will in this way be economically self-negating, an additional possibility is that the social order will not hold together.  (It is hardly necessary to point out how dangerous that will be for all concerned.)  “If we go on as we are, we will probably enter into a period of hyper-unemployment, and the attendant political and social chaos….”  Accordingly, he argues that “the wise course is to consider in advance how we can live in the long term with a high degree of automation.”  It is this that leads him into his proposed solution – which unfortunately falls far short of the mark.

          His “nanopayment” solution.  Lanier points repeatedly to how the Internet has developed, where major companies (he calls them “Siren Servers’) provide millions of people with “free” services while surreptitiously gathering data about each person, in effect spying on them.  The spying allows advertisers, who provide the servers with billions in revenue, to direct their messages selectively.  It also makes it possible selectively to channel items that are put in front of computer users, doing so according to the particular user’s interests and proclivities as known to the server.

          To Lanier, this spying, as a gleaning of information from people, gets from them something that is commercially valuable.  When millions of people are added together, the total of the data is immense.  The spyware takes something that uniquely belongs to each individual – and, he says, they should be paid for it.  “In a world of digital dignity, each individual will be the commercial owner of any data that can be measured from that person’s state or behavior.”  In the system Lanier devises, each time the data is used, the person will receive a tiny payment.  “These nanopayments will add up, and lead to a new social contract in which people are motivated to contribute to an information economy in ever more substantial ways” [such, e.g., as by coming up with computer designs for use in directing 3D printer manufacturing].   He wants the Internet to be refashioned so that there will be “two-way linking” that will allow each computer user to know who is using his data.  “Every time code runs, a lot of people will be paid a tiny bit each… If the provenance of the data has been preserved [that is, shown through the two-way linking], then calculations can generally be expanded to yield additional results about who should get credit for making them possible.”

          What Lanier is doing here is fashioning a newly-defined form of property. Collectively, it is of enormous size.  That property becomes the source of and rationale for a flow of “earnings” to individuals, not for “working,” but simply for being who they are.  In a world where remunerated employment will largely have been rendered obsolete, it is this flow of earnings that can provide the sustenance to maintain a middle class, sustain individuals in their livelihoods, provide customers for the productive economy, overcome the polarization of incomes, and avoid the social chaos that is bound to follow mass unemployment.  “A new kind of middle class… could come about if we could break… into a universal micropayment system.”  He insists that “the proposal here is not redistributionist or socialist,” because the royalties “would be wealth earned, not entitlement.”

          Lanier is pointing to socio-economic imperatives that society is going to have to face or suffer the consequences.  This reviewer agrees that as automation takes the place of human labor, there does need to be a radically reformulated system that will keep the innovation and productivity flowing while simultaneously finding a way to plug the great mass of the population into its benefits.  A market economy, as a dynamic source of innovation, can serve these purposes well, but only if there is a mechanism for a wide distribution of income.  For people in general to have a property interest in the economic system makes sense as a way for them to garner income.  The question is how all of that is to be achieved. 

At various points in his narrative, Lanier says that before he finishes he will  spell out “a prospectus” on how his plan will work.  He never fulfills this promise, and we are left with a good many snatches of ideas, sporadically introduced, about what reveals itself ultimately as quite an unworkable plan.   There are problems galore that he makes half-suggestions about but leaves hanging.

          An insurmountable difficulty has to do with how each individual’s “contribution” is to be discerned and how a value is to be placed upon it.   “The question is whether we’ll engage in complete enough accounting so that people are honestly valued.”  He suggests a way: “There would be a new eco-system of middlemen and lawyers motivated to help you retrieve the money due because of your commercial rights in exchange for a cut.”  But then he realizes the implications: “Ouch!   Do we really want that world, filled with litigation?”  The best he can say in answer to his own question is that “you have to pick your poisons.”  Further, “accountants will be called upon to expand the kinds of value that can be documented to enhance the network… They’ll be a little like politicians and a little like detectives.”   What they’ll be working with are intangibles, not products and services bought and sold in a marketplace where a pricing system establishes a context of monetary valuation.  The middlemen, lawyers and accountants will have to assign a value to hundreds of millions of human activities and qualities (which are not only elusive to grasp and by their nature not static, undergoing continuing change) on quite a subjective and judgmental basis, much the way a jury today is called upon to ascribe a monetary value to someone’s “anguish” or “humiliation.”  If peoples’ remuneration, in the form of “nanopayments,” is to rely on this, people are bound to consider it important enough to argue over, perhaps bitterly, creating a universal tug-of-war  among individuals, institutions, interest groups, and factions.  It will be the kind of social environment that the old English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who wrote of a “war of all against all,” would recognize.

          One presumes that the mechanism for making the nanopayments would be handled by supercomputers.  Whether the whole scheme is impracticable on that score would depend on developments that must currently seem quite futuristic.

          A reader who thinks there may be more to all of this than pure fancy will do well to read Lanier’s book rather meticulously in an effort to grasp each of his ideas as they come along and then to see them, if he can, as a whole.  The reader will find, though, that many of the ideas are mentioned passingly rather than developed as they need to be.

          The book’s other dimension: Lanier’s many observations about cybernetics and society.  Who Owns the Future is provocative and valuable for reasons apart from what we have just discussed.  He fills the book with a great many “digressions” (that is, departures from his main theme that are digressions only if we expect him to have stayed with his nanopayment ideas and to have stated them as a coherent whole).  To enjoy them all, readers will need to spend time with the book itself; all we can do here is cite examples which will show what pleasures are in store for a reader from his fertile mind.

          One is his description of a mindset that he describes as prevailing in the Silicon Valley.  To know of it is a revelation to us more ordinary folks.  He tells of “Singularity University, located right next to Google, in Mountain View, California,” where the message is that “we ordinary human beings 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.  We might then be instantly dead, because the new artificial superintelligence will need our molecules for a much higher purpose.  Or maybe we’ll be kept as pets.”   This vision is matched by one that believes computers will make us immortal, abolishing death.

          It isn’t all as esoteric as this.  In a passage not related to his other points, Lanier tells how some people experience “viral success” through the Internet, although he argues their success has come from lucky timing.  “My favorite story was of a young woman who drove up her credit card debt and then created a website asking for donations from strangers to pay off her debt… It worked.”  Another instance was that “musician Amanda Palmer launched a Kickstarter[2] campaign in 2012 that became legendary.  She stated a goal of raising a hundred thousand dollars to support a new release and tour, but instead raised more than a million dollars.”

          In yet another passage, he points to unintended consequences.  One reason things often go awry is that there are many thousands of people who stand ready to “game the system.” A practical admonition Lanier gives to those who rely heavily on Internet reviews when selecting restaurants, hotels, and the like, is that “sites with reviews are stuffed with fake reviews.”  He observes that “when education is driven by big data, not only must teachers teach to the test, but it often turns out that there’s widespread cheating.” 

          We are given glimpses into the future.  One is of holographic recreations of people, such as loved ones, who have died.  “The U.S. military funded a research initiative looking into making interactive video simulations of fallen soldiers so that their families could still interact with them.”  Lanier says “the late hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur was presented as a ‘holographic’ performer with optical tricks onstage.”

          Many of his “digressions” speak of things outside the cybernetic world.  He discusses whether the Laffer Curve[3] is true or false, and discusses the economic proposals of John Maynard Keynes, explaining that Keynes was focused on unsticking markets.  “Expensive art,” he reasons, “is essentially a private form of currency traded among the very rich.”  He tells of Karl Popper’s famous contribution to the philosophy of science, that science gets closer to truth primarily by “disqualifying false ideas.”  And, in something that again is totally separate, Lanier tells readers of the “incredibly intense” music of Conlon Nancarrow.  These examples give an idea of the eclectic richness of what, as we’ve said, is in effect a journal of ideas.

          It would be a shame to end this review without observing that Lanier takes issue with a premise that is said to be widely held among scientists today – that this is a deterministic world, with true science giving no place to such a thing as human consciousness.  He says correctly that “the way we experience life – call it ‘consciousness’ – doesn’t fit in a materialistic or informational worldview.”  By way of rebuttal, he argues that without consciousness, there would be no “words or thoughts, though the electrons and chemical bonds that would otherwise comprise them in the brain would remain just the same as before.”  He says “consciousness provides ontology for particles.  If there were no consciousness, the universe would be adequately described as nothing but particles.”   Some will think that this is a disreputable view that embarrasses Lanier in today’s intellectual world.  His presence is significant, however; it shows that the widely held deterministic view is not universal among intelligent people. 

          We anticipate that Lanier will write additional books.  In light of his expert immersion in the world of computer architecture, we hope he will devote a book to a problem very different from what he is considering in the present work.  This is the threat posed by cyberwarfare.  It is easy to see that as the world becomes ever-more dependent on computers for almost everything it does, a massive computer shutdown can lead to, among many other things, mass starvation and social chaos.[4]  The Internet as it now exists has an architecture that allows rampant predation and counts on “firewalls” and virus protection software to protect, often quite ineffectually, against it.   It would seem that the prevention of this abuse will have to come from a new computer architecture, since cybernetics as it exists today grew like topsy without giving much attention to such protection as a fundamental feature.  What would Lanier have to tell us about this?  Is a different architecture even possible?  Can an incredibly fertile Internet system, such as we have now, exist if the architecture is redone in a way that will block cyberwarfare?


                                                                                          Dwight D. Murphey

[1]   This is a subject that this reviewer has written about at some length.  See his book A Shared Market Economy on www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info.

[2]   Kickstarter” is an Internet site through which people can raise contributions from others, who may be friends, family or complete strangers, who want to help a project they consider worthwhile.  It is one of the “crowd sourcing” sites.

[3]  The “Laffer Curve” is the concept in supply-side economics that speaks to the relationship between income tax rates and the amount of resulting revenue, asserting counter-intuitively that lower rates can lead to higher, not lower, revenue.

[4]   See this reviewer’s article “CyberAnarchism, Wikileaks and Computer Warfare: The Unprecedented Dangers Associated with Information Technology Today,” published in the Winter 2011 issue of this Journal, pp. 455-471.   The article can be accessed free of charge on www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info as A106 (i.e., Article 106).