Candice Holdsworth
Candice Holdsworth

Who Owns the Future?

I’m currently reading a very interesting book by Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of virtual reality and a real Silicon Valley veteran.

His 2013 book Who Owns The Future? was forwarded to me after I wrote a three-part series on gift economies here on Thought Leader. Although I have come across his work before, I’d not paid too much attention to it until now, and I do wish that I’d read this book before I’d begun the series, as it has quite clearly articulated some inchoate intuitions I’d had about the culture of “for free” on the Internet.

Lanier argues, much like I did, that nothing is ever truly for free; but goes one step further and makes the case that, in fact, it is not just a misnomer but a pernicious misconception that could destroy the middle class and completely undermine democracy as a result.

It sounds alarmist, and indeed it is hard not to react to such a strong statement with either fear or skepticism; but Lanier is no Luddite and is quite positive about our technological future. It’s a bit like Marx without the lugubriousness and impenetrable academic prose.

He’s also profoundly capitalist and calls for more monetisation — not less.

Lanier wonders whether the “march of mechanisation” will lead to increasing levels of joblessness as more and more occupations are wiped out by digitisation. This, along with a lack of regulation online means that we will see ever enlarging power concentrations, where those with the biggest, most sophisticated computers accumulate all the wealth and influence, and everyone else is left uncompensated and impoverished; a downward slide into digital plutocracy, which will eventually conclude in the serious undermining of the system as a whole. Much like the folly of late twentieth and early twenty-first financial systems, in which flawed short-term incentives prevented bankers from seeing the wider implications of their actions.

See what I mean about Marx?

An obvious criticism is that he is too constrained by the facts of the present and that it is very difficult to envisage a future of which we have no knowledge at all. Who knows what new jobs and specialties will be created out of this transitional period? For instance, the now common job title “Social Media Manager” didn’t exist 6-8 years ago. And how many app developers did you know, until very recently?

Or maybe that’s just glossing over some harsh realities? Many musicians, writers and photographers would beg to disagree. Will future accountants, drivers and surgeons also be destroyed by a fiendish combination of Moore’s Law and time’s ruthless arrow?

I’ve not yet finished the book, but I thought I’d share some of Lanier’s ideas with you, encourage you to check out more here, and hopefully get some input on what your perceptions of the new digital economy are? Are we too blasé about its possible implications?

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