A Review of Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier

Lanier is a consummate digital professional. His book, Who Owns the Future, anchors a broad set of subconcepts in one key foundation: the future of human underemployment should be resolved by creating a means of paying every Internet participant for their information contribution, which Lanier calls Humanistic Information Economics.  The concept of hidden labor surfaced and valued has strong echoes of the Cognitive Labor Market proposition in Digital Labor analysis- so read this right after you finish Digital Labor.  Lanier’s ultimate hope is that authentic payment for information can give rise to an information-era middle class, and this is where I begin to disagree with his narrative.

Lanier’s optimistic stance is that humanity is central to our future world. Robots don’t replace surgeons, they change the surgeon’s job description; machines don’t translate texts automatically, they statistically exploit millions of human communications archives to perform translation services. I love the idea of privileging the human, of considering technology explicitly in service of humanity rather than in competition with humanity; but unfortunately it is not always quite so. AI is not as hollow as Lanier makes out, as there are areas from computer vision to protein structure creation where computers can use physics to solve problems, not by mining previous human examplars, but by utilizing first principles at speeds that humans simply cannot match.

But on the other side of the ledger Lanier isolates the ultimate value of human work to just the production of information. This book recounts a recurring trope in explaining that the physical world of human production, from food to clothing, will be gradually replaced by information- 3D printers that eviscerate the actual production process.  We’re left trading recipes for all our food printers, architectural designs for all our clothes. The unique, novel and value-laden aspect of exchange and innovation becomes only the information component, in this model, and so it is that humans must make ends meet purely by selling that aspect of innovation. This is a remarkably deconstructionist attitude toward the physical- toward atoms and manufacturing, and I believe there is a reason- I think Lanier’s mental model foundry is in the digital world- the Internet age and its predecessors. I think he has outstanding digital intuition at the price of an appreciation for the world of atoms. 3D printers on the beach, in every home, printing bread. Clothes that are printed at home using the same printers, worn once, and never washed, since it’s easier to drop them back in the machines, which recycle the raw materials and simply print you a new dress for tomorrow. These are examples Lanier provides from a world where construction has been melted into commodity, and this concept is not compatible with how and why making happens. Additive processes are just one part of manufacturing, twinned with deformational and subtractive processes also. Bread ovens, metal stamping and injection molding are uniqely special for very serious reasons, not just to make thousands in high volume, but to bring together massive force, extremely high energetics, and unique materials to make fabrication a reality. Reducing all this sophistication to feedstock entering 3D printers is not subject to exponential speedups like computational speed; it is a bridge that may well never be built.  Just consider laundry for a moment. Will you really take a spaghetti-stained shirt that was created through an intricate deformational process and drop it, dirty, back into the machine for tomorrow’s new clothes? Will this really be efficient, from the points of view of energy, carbon footprint, complexity, etc? Really?  And don’t forget another major aspect of making: craft. Craft creates value because of the very process by which humans create. A crafted piece of wood, encoded in an information-recipe and replicated by a future 3D printer (I don’t know how, but bear with me) loses its very value of craft. The information content is not craft, and production history is craft. And so it is for the food we eat at a restaurant, and the live music we attend.

To his credit, Lanier publicly acknowledges his non-adherence to the creed of the Singularity. He doesn’t believe humans are on the cusp of going immortal, nor does he fancy the further narrowing of human capital in the hands of an ever-shrinking hyper-wealthy.  His descriptions of how to manage an information-based economy are a great read, and so I heartily recommend especially the first six parts of his book, comprising the first 200 pages. He provides an example where you play at the beach, create a novel sand bridge and publish it on-line. Before long you have enough royalties for a nice dinner that night. It’s exciting to think of our behavior as forever compensatory. Exciting but also a bit addictive. It is, however, incredibly improbable that any adult will build something on the beach that is unique, and then even more improbable that the resulting nanopayment-based accrued value will ever reach, say an entire dinner’s worth.

My prescription: keep building sandcastles, even if you know you will never make a dime on them. In fact, do much of what you do without expecting compensation for everything; there is a certain mental health and wholeness in that.  Lanier is right: our economy is falling under our feet thanks to how economic pressure uses automation. We do need fresh thinking on alternate paths forward, and I welcome his proposal as one of the options that will help us pick apart what sort of future to imagine.

3 thoughts on “A Review of Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier

  1. Randy

    Thanks for the review, and sounds like a must-read. To me, it feels like the information age tends to concentrate wealth related to information creation at least as much as manufacturing, e.g. in winner-takes-all markets like entertainment, sports, software, news. I’ll be very curious to learn how he addresses this.

  2. Pingback: Maker Midway | robotfuturesbook

  3. Pingback: Robotics, automation and underemployment | robotfuturesbook

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