The renowned “digital prophet” Jaron Lanier speaks to Channel 4 News about making money from the web, giving power back to the average user – and why we should take a break from social media.
Few people could put themselves into categories of philosopher, computer scientist and composer.
But Jaron Lanier, who coined the term “virtual reality”, is a rare breed.
He has moved from the deep trenches of Silicon Valley’s inner circle in the early days of the internet, to over the last decade, condemning the open access ideology of Web 2.0.
Mr Lanier still works for Microsoft and is embedded in the industry. But in his new manifesto, Who owns the Future?, he calls for a fundamental change in the digital world: a shift away from the few at the top making huge sums from the masses, by monetising the information we currently hand over for free.
For every piece of personal data we hand over to what he calls “spy agencies”, such as Facebook or Google, we should be compensated as a reflection of the value such information has for these companies. If we do not, Mr Lanier says that the middle classes will disappear, leaving the elite, with the big computers and all the information, at the top.
While some tech gurus are firmly entrenched in the digital world, Mr Lanier has developed cutting-edge medical imaging, and is a musician in his own right. And his new book is no less far-reaching, exploring the financial industry in terms of the information economy.
Ahead of his broadcast appearance on Channel 4 News on Monday evening, the so-called “digital prophet” laid down some of his ideas for the future – and where that leaves us.
“The basic notion is that this idea of information being free or open – which I helped initially advocate and is still the touchstone of a lot of the most idealistic people – turns out to be a problem that none of us foresaw.
“Free information sounded so good. But if there are a bunch of people sharing on a network, the person with the biggest computer ends up being the spymaster of the circuit.
What was supposed to be a democratic tool, has totally backfired with concentrations of wealth and power at the top. Jaron Lanier
“The truth is that there are certain people sharing information with everyone else… They include giant (companies) that route mortgages, financial institutions, and national security agencies.
“What was supposed to be a democratic tool, has totally backfired with concentrations of wealth and power at the top. The problem is not so much the abstract idea of (handing over) privacy, but the absence of power and wealth that goes with it.
“We’ve already seen how some industries can be shrunk because of digital efficiency. As automation becomes more effective, that will affect manufacturing and others.
“What I’ve been finding is very surprising: what I’d thought is that I’d spend the next year (after book publication) arguing. I expected to feel a great deal of resistance. Instead, that question doesn’t seem to come up – universally, everyone agrees there’s a problem
“Information, power, influence and wealth are all at least close cousins in the information age. I think they (users) are realising that even if they get a little bit of a bargain/free services, they’re also recognising that it’s directly linked to austerity and problems of wealth concentration.
“In terms of politics, it breaks my heart that so many idealistic people are behind Pirate Parties and the Wikipedia ideas of free internet. It’s a similar irony that appeared in the left in the past: sometimes ideas backfire when they’re too abstract.
“The first idea is that we monetise the information economy. For example, right now there are cameras all over London that track us all as we walk around. I’m not anti-government, I’m comfortable with big business, but the issue for me is that as a matter of balance: I don’t like the idea that the government doesn’t have to pay for things like that.
“If the government wants to track you when you walk around, they should have to pay you. And the same goes for Google.
“The reason that monetising information is crucial, is that it’s the only path that creates moderation. People talk about rights and regulation. My concern is that those things can never keep up with computer programmers. Programmers move faster than the law. But monetising will do it.
“I’m old enough to have experienced old and new music economy. There are good things about the way it is now – it’s easier to get your music heard for example.
“But it’s also true that there used to be a large middle class which included musicians who succeeded at a moderate level – like myself, I was signed to PolyGram – and even more importantly there was a whole world of studio musicians.
“Now it’s become an all or nothing economy. This is just another way of saying when you make something free, it gets rid of the middle class. We can’t have a society like that – all or nothing. We have to have life being a bell curve of a middle class, where average people hold more power than any elite.
“I think it’s a fool’s game. I just don’t like being taken advantage of. Right now, people believe they get a service for free. But it’s all a set-up. The degree of responses you get depends on how much you pay to make your feeds visible. Nick Bilton had a blog about this in the New York Times. He started paying Facebook and suddenly his responses went up. It’s a vague blackmail scheme. And it was always going to do that.
“Take a break from the services that I say take advantage of you. I would encourage people to at least test themselves to try and do things differently, and separate themselves from free services for a while
“Try to be aware of the cost of “free”. Right now, you pay for free services, because data is used to change the option in front of you.
“What’s called searching is filtering information so that those who pay can see more. If Facebook is working for someone, I’m all for it – I’m recommending it (a break) as a point of self discovery.
“Using services such as Adblock, Ghostery (which block “spy” software) – those things are the little froth. But awareness of the scheme will eventually lead to the scheme being replaced by something better.”