Data Mined

Who Owns the Future? BY Jaron Lanier. Simon & Schuster. Hardcover, 416 pages. $28.

The cover of Who Owns the Future?

Flattr is a three-year-old Swedish company. Its goal is to enable people to pay for things that they might not ordinarily pay for: YouTube videos, Flickr photos, GitHubs, Instagrams. The idea is for you to fund a monthly balance for your Flattr account and use it to monetize your own patterns of Web-based approval. At the end of every month, your Flattr balance gets distributed among the things that you had “favorited.”

A number of us took this experiment to Twitter. Flattr had been baked into the Twitter platform, so that the very act of “favoriting” a tweet was later accompanied by some fraction of a cold, hard euro.

In my first month, I spent 15 euros, and I made 6.63 euros from other people. This was a rather solid beginning, I thought.

Then Twitter noticed. And Twitter told Flattr that there could be no “compensation attached to a Tweet Action” whatsoever. (A “Tweet Action” is any user interaction on Twitter, and also, quite possibly, the most terrible name for a band imaginable.)

In other words, all the money that is to be made on Twitter is to be made by Twitter, by selling users to advertisers. Flattr users can still use a browser plug-in to deliver money to tweeters, but the seamlessness, the payment via action, has been exterminated. Thus ended our experiment in online fairness, pleasure, and capitalism.

This would be a minor example of the way in which we have made the Internet incorrectly, argues Jaron Lanier in Who Owns the Future? (Simon & Schuster, $28). We have traded being tracked and sold in exchange for free services. We have been hollowed out to function chiefly as valuable data, from which we may not financially benefit ourselves, and are incrementally making a few corporations—Amazon, Apple, Google, Bank of America—senselessly rich and powerful. The Internet is a one-way street, and the libertarian loons of Silicon Valley are quite happy about this. (And they are crazy: “I have had more than one heated argument with Silicon Valley libertarians who believe that streets should be privatized,” Lanier writes. He has seen the dark side up close: He has consulted for the likes of Walmart and Fannie Mae and is currently a scholar at Microsoft Research.)

Put most simply: “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.” There is, quite literally, no future in this for almost any of us. Apart from this sprawling system of digital vampirism, publishing in general (books and newspapers especially) has taken a major hit from technological change—as did, you know, the lives of people who made cars and worked in offices. (The number of people in the labor force in America has now returned to the levels of the late 1970s, also known as the heyday of postwar economic malaise.) Colleges may very well be next—Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen said earlier this year that “higher education is just on the edge of the crevasse.” So might various science industries, or home health care, or international shipping, or taxi drivers, or accountants, or who knows what. We can each in turn go to our deaths giving away our value for some other entity’s benefit while working in industries that are losing their value as well, all for someone else’s disruption game.

“The foundational idea of humanistic computing is that provenance is valuable,” Lanier writes, in what is perhaps the best summary of his recommendations for overturning digital life as we know it. To return to having an ownership stake in all your creations seems almost impossible from here. It would also be delightful. Lanier is a West Coaster at heart and so sustains a mystical faith in some form of approaching singularity, with a possibly positive outcome: a transcendental corrective to what has been created out of the baser materials of digital surveillance-cum-greed. In that way he is unlike us East Coasters, who apparently believe in grabbing everything we can for ourselves to ensure that at least we survive the coming capitalist apocalypse.

He’s right that the fundamental backbone of the Internet is where it all went wrong. What if just one copy of everything existed? We would surely, in that scenario, be quicker to assign and preserve the value of genuine human innovation—to say nothing, of course, of the integrity of genuine personal data. But the Palo Alto Research Center, which gave us things like Ethernet and, more important, the basics of graphical user interface—buttons and icons and windows!—was owned by Xerox: Of course “copying” was a central part of the online ethos at the very moment of its creation.

And then what if all links were two-way, between our original documents? Much of the business of the Internet is, after all, to make the connections that cannot exist because of the unidirectional nature of the Web: “‘Social networks’ like Facebook were brought into existence in part to recapture those kinds of connections that were jettisoned when they need not have been, when the Web was born.”

But even idealistic Lanier—who is, a startling footnote explains, in part passing his time these days working on “a gigantic lighter-than-air railgun to launch spacecraft”—can’t hold his head up throughout his entire proposal for a new future. “The trend is toward ever more creepiness.” But all this constant mooching is already so unbearably creepy!

As for me, I’d delete my Twitter account and close up my Facebook page and stop buying from Amazon, but I have a book coming out this summer, and disregarding principles is the first step for those who want to eat under capitalism. For now, it seems that the only way to capitalize on the many hidden costs of digital seamlessness is to become ever more seamy.

Choire Sicha is the author of Very Recent History, forthcoming from Harper in August.