Allen Lane, £20; Allen Lane, £20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

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.

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.

Get money off Who Owns the Future at the Independent bookshop

Get money off To Save Everything, Click Here at the Independent bookshop

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)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing