If you read no other book this year, this should be the one you do.
Lanier, a brilliant computer scientist, has helped to advance technology and worked with major industries including Google and Microsoft. Considered as the father of virtual reality, he is also known for his advocacy of ‘freeing’ the internet. However, in Who Owns the Future? Lanier admits his error. Rendering the internet ‘free’, he argues, concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a few technical experts who own Siren Servers. This concentration of wealth and power, he explains, destroyed the middle classes and soon enough, entire human industries will become obsolete.
This is a frightening book but it comes with a positive suggestion at the end. Lanier believes that we still have a chance to solve the mess wherein we placed ourselves.
Below are a few of my favorite quotes:
“A heavenly idea comes up a lot in what might be called Silicon Valley metaphysics. We anticipate immortality through mechanization. A common claim in utopian technology culture is that people–well, perhaps not everyone–will be uploaded into cloud computing servers later in this century, perhaps in a decade or two, to become immortal in Virtual Reality” (12).
“The illusion that everything is getting so cheap that it is practically free sets up the political and economic conditions for cartels exploiting whatever isn’t quite that way. When music is free, wireless bills get expensive, insanely so. You have to look at the whole system” (18).
“Markets are an information technology. A technology is useless if it cannot be tweaked. If market technology can’t be fully automatic and needs some ‘buttons,’ then there’s no use in trying to pretend otherwise. You don’t stay attached to poorly performing quests for perfection. You fix bugs” (45).
“Wanting to tweak a technology shows a commitment to it, not a rejection of it” (45).
“So, let us continue with the project at hand, which is to see if network technology can make capitalism better instead of worse. Please don’t pretend there’s some ‘pure’ form of capitalism we should be faithful to. There isn’t” (46).
“A Siren Server [ . . . ] is an elite computer, or coordinated collection of computers, on a network. It is characterized by narcissism, hyperamplified risk aversion, and extreme information asymmetry” (54).
“Siren Servers gather data from the network, often without having to pay for it. The data is analyzed using the most powerful available computers, run by the very best available technical people. The results of the analysis are kept secret, but are used to manipulate the rest of the world to advantage” (55).
“The primary business of digital networking has come to be the creation of ultrasecret mega-dossiers about what others are doing, and using this information to concentrate money and power. It doesn’t matter whether the concentration is called a social network, an insurance company, a derivatives fund, a search engine, or an online store. It’s all fundamentally the same. Whatever the intent might have been, the result is a wielding of digital technology against the future of the middle class” (60).
“But the problem with freestanding concentrations of power is that you never know who will inherit them. If social networking has the power to synchronize great crowds to dethrone a pharaoh, why might it not also coordinate lynchings or pogroms?” (190).
“A Humanistic approach to future digital economies might, on first sniff, smell redistributionist, but it is nothing of the kind. Some people would contribute and earn more than others. The point is not to create a fake contest where everybody is guaranteed to win, but rather to be honest about who contributed to successes, so as not to foster fake incentives” (235).
“The foundational idea of humanistic computing is that provenance is valuable. Information is people in disguise, and people ought to be paid for value they contribute that can be sent or stored on a digital network” (245).
Get Who Owns the Future by Jaron Lanier