Sunday, May 5, 2013

Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier *****

When you are smart enough or crazy enough (sometimes it's hard to tell the difference), the world is rife with structure and causality. It's not hard to tell with the author of Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier; he is one the smart ones and he lives in a world of clockwork information dominated by Silicon Valley. As a entrepreneur emeritus (also from that valley), I live in an ordinary reality of chaos and luck. None the less, I really enjoyed his fantasy: humanistic information economy ... you might be thinking, what is that ... I'm not saying, you'll have to read the book. But I will tell you some of the brilliant insights that underlie this bright view of the future.

First, the foundation of the value created by the Internet comes from spying on real people (while they consume (fake) free content). From ad placement to translation to market research  to political intelligence, the results from these big data applications all depend on input from many, many people. These Internet users exchange their valuable information for cheap content. As a result the owners of the (spy) servers get super rich and the users ... well ...

Second, the Internet  (and information technology) destroys more jobs than it creates. Cases in point: sales clerks, book sellers, bank tellers, travel agents, tax preparers, teachers, ... In the near future you can add truck drivers, taxi drivers, surgeons, many others, ... What's left? entrepreneurs and engineers (this is a Silicon Valley fantasy, right?) at the top, and housekeepers and gardeners at the bottom. No middle class.

Finally, the good business models of the last several decades have been enterprises that take all the power and compensation without any of the risk. This includes the mortgage crises, most financial engineering, and companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Again, you need to read the book for the details here.

All of this leads to a rather dystopian view of the future, but Jaron Lanier has a remedy. As someone who started my tech career with some assembly language coding, I love this solution: two-way links, aka back pointers! Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine those back pointers would solve such a wide range of problems, but Lanier is really smart and he presents a good argument.

I'd say the first half of this book (problem statement) is a must read for anyone interested in how information technology (and the Internet) might be changing society - no special technical knowledge required. The second half (solution proposal) is interesting; this is where the back pointers are discussed.

Note: I received my copy of this book (free) through the Goodreads First Reads program.

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