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Who Owns the Future? By Jaron Lanier
To Save Everything, Click Here, By Evgeny Morozov
Two sceptical gurus of cyberspace look at the digital future – and ask how we should shape it.
Friday 15 March 2013
For both these writers, publishing their manifestos in splendid chunks of wood-pulp and ink, the days of digital enchantment are over. Critical friends like Evgeny Morozov and Jaron Lanier – the first a political scientist, the second a hardcore digeratus – provide a service to all network idealists.
We may be caught up in our hypnotic loops of design and interaction, but they remind us that "the internet" (a total concept that Morozov rejects) is a particular construct of power, money and technical decisions, rather than some state of cyber-nature.
In particular, Jaron Lanier's Who Owns the Future? is an undeniably impressive feat of rhetoric, argument and bully-pulpitry – what Lanier calls "speculative advocacy" – on behalf of the middle classes of the 21st century. Applying information to automation creates a giant, implacable tide of efficiency, of doing more for less.
What's valuable about Lanier's book is that, in the course of trying to make the torrent manageable, he provides a tour d'horizon of what we'll have to cope with in the near future – beyond the usual candidates of the music business and print media blown away by the free web, or financial services dissolving economies in an ecstasy of computation.
White van men (and their industry) will be destroyed by driverless cars; whole production and distribution systems will be unravelled by 3D printing of objects in local communities. Surgeons and nurses, lawyers and teachers – all manner of professions – will feed their tacit skills into ever more adept robots and expert systems.
As someone who founded one of the more destabilising fields of net hi-tech, Virtual Reality, and who is currently grinding the software gears at Microsoft Research, Lanier could never be cranky about future-tech. Yet he does invoke the more sophisticated cry of the original Luddites, when they objected to machinery only when they judged it not to "benefit the commonality".
The commonality for which Lanier wants to erect defences is what he calls, with a particular American resonance, the "middle-classes". Translated into UK terms, the term seems to include hard-working aspirers as well as Waitrose-bothering professionals; Miliband's "squeezed middle" comes close.
These middle classes have been constituted by "levees": barriers and structures that diffuse and defuse the firestorm of capital and technology, and make it into a liveable landscape – whether unions, welfare states, academic tenure or copyright law. In the face of an epochal leap to a different level of productivity, Lanier wants new levees constructed – ones that are "graceful and ordinary... strengthened, not weakened, as more and more people embrace them".
His solution, simply put, is to turn the open copying-machine commons of the web into a pay-per-click (and get-paid-per-click) phenomenon. He wants a marketplace with a near-neuronal density of financial transactions. In what Lanier regards as a perversion of the original ideals of network pioneers like Ted Nelson, he believes we currently cavort in a false free-for-all.
This bounty is provided by giant companies like Facebook and Google, who make huge profits out of "spying operations". They devise ever-more seductive interfaces to encourage our sociable and sharing natures, and sell the patterns of that behaviour to advertisers. In To Save Everything, Click Here, Morozov usefully places this system within a wider history of what he calls "solutionism" – the engineer-driven idea that most phenomena (including human behaviour) can be quantified and data-crunched.
Lanier has impish science-fictional fun extending the implications what he calls these "Siren Servers" into the coming waves of techno-culture. Would we want to be surrounded by a world of smart objects we get free or cheap so long as we allow them to transmit data about our activities? Morozov equally imagines all kinds of control-society horrors. How about medical-care discounts brought about by your real-time healthy-living data - or, conversely, penalties for bingeing on cream cakes?
Lanier wants us to realise that behind every abstract unit of information stands a real human being, either generating it or affected by it. As we perch on the brink of a vast new wave of info-powered automation, it's urgent for him that we humanise the process by putting ourselves, as identifiable economic actors, back into the process.
Yet Lanier falters when specifying the exact structures that would shift us from an "internet" to an "econonet" (or maybe just a "moneynet"). At times it does look like a contractual nightmare. He admits that accountants would become superstars, and lawyers (or robo-laywers) could crawl over every potential infraction of a nanopayment.
Lanier's explicit identification of his system with a bourgeois interest is also useful – as an alternative Marxist explanation is easily to hand. The forces of production are about to take another enormous leap forward, while the relations of production are straggling far behind.
Perhaps our argument with Siren Servers should be more about whether they are like public utilities in waiting, ready for accountability and transparency as railways and water systems once were. And if global warming demands a reduction in carbon-generating consumerist frenzy, is this best served by a new network which makes every click a commercial transaction? Will expanding the cash nexus to all the interstices of our lives help or hinder?
Morozov would recoil at any Marxism – as a Belarusian exile, for good reason - but it is striking that To Save Everything, Click Here is almost silent about the enterprise dimension of the internet. Indeed, as a brand of Luddite, Morozov is much more interested than the techie Lanier in sticking a sabot in the cogs. One of his suggestions for cultivated our net disenchantment is "adversarial design", where we let devices into our lives that frustrate our appetite for frictionless info-fun. Take, for example, the Natural Path - a software system that kills off real plants, if you use it too heedlessly.
Somehow, the idea of strapping on the digital equivalent of a cilice doesn't feel like the best path to enlightenment about our true cybernetic reality. But both Morozov and Lanier are to be congratulated for the clarity and brio of their techno-realism. It's a better basis for moving forward with this extraordinary "extension of man", in Marshall McLuhan's old words, than either technophobia or technophilia.
Pat Kane is author of the forthcoming 'Radical Animal' (www.radicalanimal.net)
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