This evening I heard Jaron Lanier speaking on "Who Owns the Future?" at Cooper Union. This seems to have been a promotion for his new book of the same title. The lecture blurb reads:
The rise of digital networks — Facebook, Twitter, Google, and others — has led our economy into recession and decimated the middle class. Now, as technology flattens more and more industries, we face even greater challenges to employment and personal wealth.
He had many things to say that I found pleasingly trenchant about how this new world of massive data scraping is developing. Of the several central points, perhaps the most trenchant was that "Information doesn't exist outside of context and information" — by which he means that it is not possible for organizations to use all of that data to gain wealth without affecting the ecosystem that produced it. And for that reason the model of accumulating wealth and power by scraping data without returning something to the source of the data is not an effective perpetual motion machine — it will eventually break down when the source of data ceases to be productive.
I felt Lanier's proposed solution — micropayments to and from everyone according to what they produce and use — was unrealistic. The people who specialize in monopolizing resources and wealth — there have been such people since the beginning of time — are never going to permit a system like that to come into being. An audience-member asked him a related question — "What should I do?" — and his answer was "There's something called politics." But evidently he doesn't want to go into detail about how a political solution might work.
A second issue he didn't deal with to my satisfaction is this: as more and more professions become defunct, more and more people will have no way to contribute to the economy at all. What is to be done with them, or maybe it's better phrased what is to be done with us? There is really only one long-term solution, and it isn't pretty.
An interlocutor took issue with the idea that the computer differs from other technologies that have "obsoleted entire industries" in the past — those technologies have created new industries, and so will the computer, in my friend's view.
Lanier's criterion for being successful as a part of the economy is to have enough resources to raise children and be able to survive a major illness. How do we measure the extent to which people are now able to do that? I now hear quite a lot now from people with programming jobs that they do not have enough income to be able to buy a house and raise children. And just think of all the people who do not have programming jobs! But what are the numbers?