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Share the Digital Wealth

George Dyson, author of Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, introduces a passage arguing for a more equitable distribution of the wealth created on the Internet from Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier.

Revolutions have a way of disappointing their creators. Just ask Marx. The digital revolution is no different, and Jaron Lanier is here to remind us of that. The Internet, after promising to decentralize everything, has enabled the greatest consolidation of wealth, power, and territory since the Mongol Empire.

Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google—the four “Siren Servers” of the apocalypse—are dividing the world among themselves, leaving the rest of us with the crumbs. Apple, after exhorting us to “think different,” is building a future where we all must think alike. Amazon isn’t just the mall to end all malls—it’s the corner store to end all corner stores. Facebook is ruthlessly monetizing the social graph. Google is tracking and selling our every move.

This sounds depressing. And it gets worse. Lanier argues that the digital economy is at risk of killing the goose that laid the golden egg—us. The personal computer, once the machine for the masses, has, through the agency of the Internet, begun to eviscerate the middle class.

Now the good news. Lanier also offers some prescriptive advice, and the upstarts that follow it may well triumph over the dinosaurs that don’t. His advice is simple: In addition to collecting tribute (in monetizable data and individual creativity) from the serfs toiling at the bottom of the digital economy, pay some of it back. Lanier doesn’t just mean paying corporate taxes (Apple’s scandal hit after his book went to press); he means, for instance, applying the same prowess with algorithms that allows Google to auction individual words for advertising purposes to reward individual authors for writing them.

“The automata were chiefly used for advertising,” warned Samuel Butler in his notes for Erewhon Revisited, returning to the technological dystopia he first imagined in 1872. We were warned then, and we are being warned now. The stakes are high, and rising fast.

George Dyson

An excerpt from chapter 22 of Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier

The employment picture is increasingly “hollowed out” in physicality. People increasingly find their sustenance in dead-end jobs at the bottom, or in elite jobs at the top.

To me that means our economy is obsolete and needs to be reformed to keep up with technological progress. But to others it means that people are becoming obsolete.… I hear this infuriating comment all the time: “If a lot of ordinary people aren’t earning much in today’s markets, that means they have little of value to offer. You can’t intervene to create the illusion that they’re valuable. It’s up to people to make themselves valuable.”

Well yes, I agree. I don’t advocate making up fake jobs to create the illusion that people are employed. That would be demeaning and a magnet for fraud and corruption.

But network-oriented companies routinely raise huge amounts of money based precisely on placing a value on what ordinary people do online. It’s not that the market is saying ordinary people aren’t valuable online; it’s that most people have been repositioned out of the loop of their own commercial value.

A dismissive smirk often greets proposals for a humanistic information economy. How could nongenius, ordinary people have anything valuable to offer in a world dominated by elite technical people and advanced machines?

This reaction is understandable, since we have become used to seeing the underemployed languish. But there are occasions when this kind of doubt in the value of others betrays gross prejudices.

One example is when investors are perfectly confident to value a Siren Server that accumulates data about people in the tens of billions of dollars, no matter how remote the possibility of an actual business plan that would make a commensurate amount of profit. And yet, at the same time, these same investors can’t imagine that the people who are the sole sources of what is so valuable can have any value.

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The Reviewer

  1. George Dyson is a science historian and author. His books include Darwin among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence (Addison-Wesley, 1997) and Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (Pantheon, 2012), which was reviewed by strategy+business in Autumn 2012. He is a frequent contributor to the Edge Foundation.

This Book

  1. Who Owns the Future? (Simon & Schuster, 2013), by Jaron Lanier
  2. Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, composer, and visual artist. In the 1980s, he founded VPL Research, the first company to sell virtual reality products, and he is currently a partner architect at Microsoft Research. Lanier is also the author of You Are Not a Gadget (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010). Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2010. 
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