Jaron Lanier takes a hard look at the wired world

Jaron Lanier has a research job with Microsoft. He won't go into specfics, but it has something to do with imagining the future and asking questions.

Lanier is a longtime Silicon Valley insider whose primary occupation has been to imagine, think and ask questions. What if we could enter a simulated electronic world? Answer: Virtual reality, a term he coined. What if computers could recognize faces? The company Eyematic Interfaces, which has been absorbed by Google. What if your computer could trace your movements in real time, putting them on screen? Microsoft's Xbox Kinect, another project Lanier had an early hand in.

Lanier's "Who Owns the Future?" (Simon & Schuster, $28) is a smart, accessible book that takes a critical look at our online state of affairs and finds it out of balance. "All the benefits accrue to the person with the biggest computer," he says, speaking via Skype. "What we're doing right now is not fair and honest. It's rigged."

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He's sitting in his home in Berkeley, in an office crammed with musical instruments: guitars, a harp and many that are less recognizable (he has a fondness for those that are archaic and analog). With his long, light brown dreadlocks and scruffy beard, Lanier looks a bit like a mad scientist — which he sort of is.

Brought up in remote parts of Texas and New Mexico, Lanier is the child of New York intellectuals who had both fled anti-Semitism in Europe. His mother was in a concentration camp during World War II. She died when he was about 10, leaving Lanier understandably bereft. He was drawn to books, scientists and musicians he admired — he even hitchhiked 1,200 miles to Mexico City as a teenager to spend time with composer Conlon Nancarrow. He glanced off college, yet was invited to keep company with some of the smartest innovators of our digital age.

In his books, Lanier refuses to play the role of a technology cheerleader, however; the questions he's asking are critical, pointing to troubling ways in which our wired world now works. In 2010's bestselling "You Are Not a Gadget," he looked hard at some new media tropes, redefining the much-lauded "wisdom of crowds" as "digital Maoism" and suggesting that people who upload and exchange content for free online are not part of a revolutionary vanguard but "digital serfs."

In "Who Owns the Future?," Lanier further defines the gap between the digital rich and poor but also proffers a solution.

He's not an economist, he's a futurist, so his ideas are rendered in abstractions. For example, he coined the term "Siren Servers" to describe the powerful, enriched operators that gather and trade upon information provided by others. You and I know them as Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and the automated trading algorithms that contributed to the 2008 recession. And the term, which comes from the sirens of Greek myth — so alluring that they caused sailors to wreck their ships on their rocky shores — alludes to what he sees as their danger.

"An amazing number of people offer an amazing amount of value over networks. But the lion's share of wealth now flows to those who aggregate and route those offerings, rather than those who provide the 'raw materials,'" he writes in "Who Owns the Future?" "A new kind of middle class, and a more genuine, growing information economy, could come about if we could break out of the 'free information' idea and into a universal micropayment system."

By stepping back and grouping them all together, Lanier is able to draw connections between invisible stock trades and MP3 downloads. "I'm not saying all finance is bad and all networking is bad and all sharing is bad," he says. "What I'm criticizing is very specifically the way we're doing it now."

Lanier would like to see musicians, writers, coders, data generators and all content creators get tiny payments for their inputs into our vast system. You'd get paid for that status update about delicious tacos, especially if it showed up in a Facebook advertisement.

His ideas for brokering those payments are a bit fuzzy and, because they'd require a two-way accounting of who does what where online, run counter to some of the underlying ideas of the Internet, both structurally and ideologically. He's able to layer his argument so that it makes sense to a Silicon Valley outsider, while communicating some of the insider's point of view.

In part, Lanier is arguing against "the Singularity," Raymond Kurzweil's idea that computers will become intelligent, more intelligent that humans, by 2050 and change our civilization forever. As farfetched as it may sound, it's a dominant trope in futurism discussions, based on the accelerating speed with which computers have advanced.

For Lanier, the difference between human intelligence and machine intelligence is key. Much of what we think of as the Internet's free information exchange is actually based on the real work of people — online translation tools are based on millions of previous translations done by real humans.

Lanier wants to force the acknowledgment, financially, that humans are essential part of the picture. We might create a robot that could provide nursing support to aging baby boomers — but its success would be built on observing human nurses, aggregating the data collected as they go about their work. The human nurses should get paid for their contribution — otherwise, they're freely offering the data that will put them out of work.

After observing the dissolution of the music business, Lanier looks into other fields and sees massive job losses, both now and in the future. Take photography: Kodak employed 140,000 people at its height but went bankrupt after the advent of digital photography, whereas Instagram had only 13 people on its staff when Facebook acquired it for $1 billion in 2012. When so many jobs vanish, it threatens the very existence of the middle class; without a middle class, Lanier believes, our society will collapse.

"If you want market capitalism, you need to have a big hump of people in the middle because that's where the customers come from, and you can't have a market without customers," Lanier explains. Using his hands to describe a steep curve, he says, "The middle has to be able to outspend the tip in order to have a healthy society, and even the most powerful people in that tip should want that because it's the basis of their own success."

He's not concerned that those with power and wealth tend to be disinclined to give it up. "My Silicon Valley buddies are, for the most part, very open-minded," Lanier insists, though he admits that the solution he proposes in the book is "very much a first pass." But, he notes, "Silicon Valley's all about fixing problems, and I think most people of goodwill recognize that there's a problem here."

The idea that technology (and good people controlling it) can solve any problem is one that he himself criticizes in the book. And yet no matter how alarming our present course might be, Lanier can't stop imagining a vibrant and exciting digital future.


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