Monday, May 13, 2013

Silicon Valley Gets it Wrong: Information shouldn’t be free

Jaron Lanier’s Big Idea

Jaron Lanier’s quest started when he wondered why the developed world was experiencing high unemployment and economic pain in the early 21st century, just when widespread use of technology was supposed to be delivering a new era of abundance and prosperity.  Creative classes of recording musicians, journalists, and photographers were losing economic opportunity as prevailing web models reclassified their work-product as “information” and demanded it for “free.”

In his new book, Who Owns the Future?, Lanier paints a view that’s believable yet chilling.  Like a skilled science fiction writer and a shrewd economic analyst, he forecasts a future in which we continue to reorganize our world around digital networks.  Software-powered productivity improvements continue to penetrate industries like manufacturing, transportation, health-care, and education.  Human cab and truck drivers are replaced by software programs, 3D printing grows virally and starts to produce manufactured goods, WalMart goes bankrupt, automated heavy equipment finds and mines natural resources, and robot nurses handle care for the elderly. 

A rational observer might ask, What’s wrong with this?  It sounds like the usual march of technology-driven productivity – disrupting old, inefficient industries and delivering new value for the masses.  Lanier asserts that left unchecked this march of technology will lead to capitalism and democracy grinding to a halt.  Our economy will enter a period of hyper-unemployment and social and political chaos will result.  He asserts that current digital economic models are not sustainable because they are creating winner-takes-all concentrations of wealth centered around new technology-powered monopolies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon while the contributions of the middle classes are being devalued.  Lanier identifies the creation of new centers of power that resemble “private spy agencies combined with ad agencies.”

Not content with criticizing the current model, Lanier lays out his compelling vision for a new humanistic economic system in which people are held special and not equated with machines.  He posits that as our economy becomes more and more information-centric, the only way we will be able to grow it is by monetizing more information, not less and giving people more rights, not fewer.  Lanier articulates how this new system might work, who can drive its creation and adoption, how we can re-balance the power and rights between corporations and people, and what are the big opportunities for entrepreneurs and investors.  Technologists will enjoy Lanier’s ability to envision new products and features like nanopayments and economic avatars that will make this new system work for all of us.

What do we love about Jaron Lanier’s new book?
Lanier has a powerful ability to connect the dots across multiple disciplines and see patterns others don’t.  There aren’t many people who can compare securitized mortgages to pirated music files, or copyrights to trade unions.  Lanier does this very effectively and in the process finds explanations for our economic woes that others have overlooked.  Lanier integrates and builds on the work of people ranging from Karl Marx (no, he doesn’t appear to be a communist) and Aristotle to Nobel Prize winners in Economics.  This rich dose of historical context enhances the credibility of his arguments.  Lastly, we were impressed by Lanier’s ability to tackle hard moral and practical questions.  Some of our favorites questions:  As technology reaches heights of efficiency, civilization will have to find a way to resolve a particular puzzle:  What should the role of “extra” humans be if not everyone is still strictly needed?  Do the extra people – the ones whose roles have withered – starve?  Or get easy lives?  Who decides? Will the fantasies of Google, Facebook, and Amazon lead to an economic dead-end for millions of people?  Will there be enough value from ordinary people in the long term to justify the existence of an economy?

This is simply one of the best new books out in 2013.  Lanier’s latest work shows his extraordinary knack at envisioning a future thoroughly and his ability to imagine creatively and bravely.   Who Owns the Future? will appeal to intellectuals, creative professionals, students, technologists, economists, policy makers, entrepreneurs and investors looking for new opportunities.  Steve Jobs said the most interesting opportunities emerge at the intersection of humanities and technology.  Jaron Lanier stands at that famous intersection and beckons us on.

Who is Jaron Lanier?
Jaron Lanier a futurist, computer scientist, and digital media pioneer.  Time magazine named him one of the "Time 100" in 2010 (The 100 Most Influential People in the World).  A profile in Wired magazine described him as "the first technology figure to cross over to pop-culture stardom." His previous book You Are Not a Gadget was a national bestseller.

Special invitation for readers
Can regular people really earn an income by monetizing our Facebook updates and tweets like Jaron Lanier would like to see?  Let’s find out!  Kepler’s will offer you $5 off your admission ticket to Lanier’s talk on Wednesday May 15th or purchase of Who Owns the Future? if you show proof of sharing this blog post in your Facebook newsfeed, by tweeting it, or linking to it from your site or blog.  Offer valid only in the store, while tickets & books are still available, and until May 15th, 2013.


Lucy Bernholz said...

Can't wait to hear Jaron Lanier speak - and here's why


Arif Sarkar said...

Thanks for sharing this blog. This is really amazing information.

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