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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Share the Digital Wealth

And then there are ideological pundits from the sidelines who strike out at anyone who points out the absurdities of what we’re up to in Silicon Valley lately. If someone complains that all those brilliant recent PhDs ought to perhaps be working on something more substantive than putting yet more paid links in front of people, you can expect a rigorous defense of the nonmonetary value being created by today’s cloud computing. Twitter doesn’t yet know how to make much money, for instance, but it is defended this way: “Look at all the value it is creating off the books by connecting people better!”

Yes, let’s look at that value. It is real, and if we want to have a growing information-based economy, that real value ought to be part of our economy. Why is it suddenly a service to capitalism to keep more and more value off the books?

Why must it be the case that from the perspective of the Siren Server, knowing what ordinary people do is breathtakingly valuable, while from a personal perspective, exactly the same data usually earns only transient crumbs in the form of easier-to-find couches to crash on and lightweight ego boosts?

Or to put it another way, once industries like transportation, energy, and health care start to become software-mediated, shouldn’t the communication and entertainment industries become relatively more important to the economy, to take up the slack? And yet these are precisely the industries that software has sapped so far.

Whenever one sort of task can be automated, others that can’t be automated come into view. The economic question is who gets paid for what people at ground level do beyond the horizon of automation in a given historical phase.

As long as the people who actually do whatever it is that can’t be automated are paid for what they do, an honest human economy will persist. If third parties who run the biggest network computers are the ones who are paid, then there will no longer be an honest economy.

So will people in a humanistic economy find enough value in each other to earn a living, once cloud software coupled with robots and other gadgets can meet most of life’s needs and wants? Or even more bluntly, “Will there be enough value from ordinary people in the long term to justify the existence of an economy?”

In order to answer, we can start with familiar ideas about what people can do for Siren Servers, and change the question ever so slightly to be about what people can do for themselves and each other. At least two answers are immediately apparent.

One manifest answer is that people are infinitely interested in what other people express online. Huge numbers of people find audiences for their tweets, blogs, social network updates, Wikipedia article tweaks, YouTube videos, snapshots, image collections, meanderings, and from second-order reactions and mash-ups of all of the above. Is it really such a flight of fancy to predict that a large number of people will still be offering this type of value online, so long as the accounting is complete and honest, into the foreseeable future?

Now is when I expect to hear that this kind of activity is all fluff and not the stuff of an economy. Once again, why is it fluff if it’s for the benefit of the people who do it, while it’s real value if it’s for the benefit of a distant central server?

Economics is not about your taste. Economics, once people have risen above basic needs into the middle class, is about the tastes of other people, whether you like it or not.

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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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