Transcript for Jaron Lanier on "Who Owns the Future?"

Jim Fleming: But first, visionary computer scientist Jaron Lanier.  He's best known for his research on Virtual Reality. He has a new book out called, 'Who Owns the Future?' Anne Strainchamps talks with Jaron Lanier. 

Anne Strainchamps: Well Jerrod, in your book, you argue that the rise of digital networks, ya know like Facebook and Google has let our economy into recession and decimated the middle class. Which, most of us who use Google and Facebook think, how can that be? What kinda of financial implications could using Facebook have?

Jaron Lanier: Yes, well here's the issue. The issue is that we've adopted a business model for using information technology where by far the best way to make money is to have the biggest computer on the network, and some remote server farm that builds behavioral models of other people. And then uses those behavioral models to subtlety manipulate those people. And the problem with that business model is that it works so well that it concentrates wealth and power in an incredibly exclusive club of the people who own the biggest computers.

Anne: Wow. You're describing '1984.'

Jaron:   Well, you know it's not exactly '1984,' because '1984' was all gray and drab. In truth most of the people who own the biggest computers are kinda young and hip and cool and nice, and they really are. We have the sweetest elite in history probably. But it doesn't matter the point is that we're concentrating wealth and powers so intensely, that it's undoing our security and our futures. And I have to point out that the architectures had it's worst affect so far. Not in things like social media and search and what-not, but in finance. But the thing is, if you look at the big hedge funds and high frequency trading firms, and all these concerns it's the same types of computers, the same algorithms, the same architecture, the same kinds of people, the same kinds of strategy. You know, if you just change the labels, we're looking at the same thing. It's just a way of using information to concentrate power. And so the way it happens, is that initially you get some incredibly sweet candy that incites you to enter into the system and give over information to other people. And in finance it might be a to good to believe mortgage or something like that, or [laughter] recently maybe bit coins. But anyway, whatever it is it's some kind of candy. And then in the case of consumer Internets stuff it's like free services, free social networking or whatever. And then what happens is you start giving over your information to these parties, who use it to calculate wealth out of the world and they are so good at it they actually undermine the world in which their wealth even makes sense. And that's called to big to fail.

Anne: Play This out in more consumer orientated terms, for instance you point out this sorta astonishing discrepancy. When we used to have big companies like Kodak verses little tiny companies that may be worth more but have, you know, tiny numbers if employees.

Jaron: Right, so what's happened now is that we've taken what used to be really huge industries in terms of middle class jobs like music and photography, and this thing you might have heard of called Journalism, and [laughter]

Anne: [laughter] Never heard of that.

Jaron: And what's happened is, we've replaced an old system in which there were many of hundreds of thousands of solid middle class jobs with security and the potential for retirement and the safety cushion and all of those good things, and we replaced them with a system in which there's early treats. There's a really easier on-ramp in this illusion of sort of equity and access for everybody. Well it's more than illusion. Early treats can sometimes be very real. But the problem with it is that there is only a token number of success stories, a tiny token number of people who have successful YouTube videos or something like that. And everyone else lives on hope. It's a revival of all the old Airasia Agra stories from the 19th century. And this economy of most people sorta scrambling for hope with a tiny number of token winners, some sort of Princes or the very special or unusual people instead of a real middle class is no way to run a civilization. You know, you cant have a democracy that way. A democracy that totally relies on people broadly being able to out spend the tip of the leads, you know? And we lost that in that world. And its only starting, I mean the really big thing happens when the cars are driving themselves and robots are running the factories, or objects are being printed out for us by 3D printers. As the century progresses in a couple decades from now perhaps, we're gonna start to lose a lot of middle class jobs. And the thing about that is that all that stuff still runs on information. Somebody is gonna design the objects that is printed out by 3D printers, but if we keep on doing things the way we are, all the money is gonna accrue to whatever big computer's routing the information and only tiny token number of people number of people will actually benefit from the system themselves and everybody else will live on hope, and that leads us to nowhere. Leads us to a failed economy.

Anne: Hm. It sounds like the underlying issue is that we've created a world in which humans seem to be coming less and less useful. Machines are increasingly better at creating value than people are. And yet, what you're pointing at is that's an illusion, of course their not. We've just created this kinda giant shell game in which we're, we're not valuing the human part of the input.

Jaron: Exactly. That's precisely whats going on. We're creating a theatrical illusion in which we're pretending that value doesn't come from people in order to support the fantasy of artificial intelligence on a network, doing work which is not real at all. But what it does do is concentrate huge fortunes with the people who own the solution.

Anne: Right. Well you've proposed that we, as part of beginning to craft a solution. Something you call a humanistic information economy. What is that?

Jaron: Well, this goes back to the very origin of the whole idea of connecting people on a digital network. What's interesting is that the very first generation of ideas is exactly what I'm proposing, so I'm not really proposing something radically new, but in a way going back to where we started. So, back in 1960 the first ideas of how to connect people on a digital network were articulated, and the fella who did it was named Ted Nelson. He's actually still with us and [laughter] he's still named Ted Nelson. And, Ted's idea is simple. His parents were Hollywood parents and he seen directly how the labor movement had created a possibility for actors and musicians in Hollywood to find some sense of security even in a business that was very, kinda chancy and you lived gig to gig. And he realized that someday as automation got really good machines got better and better, we'd move into an information economy, and everybody would be living a life that kinda like what a Hollywood actor or musician was living, and everybody would need the same kinds of benefits. Everybody who's a truck driver now, or a miner, or a teacher, or a doctor, or a nurse, or anybody at all was gonna be in the same boat. And he saw that there was a kinda simple solution actually, and the solution is to always keep track of where information comes from on a network, and if you have a link back to whoever was the source of information that’s used for later you can send them a micropayment, and if you a universal micropayment system in a richly, densely connected network, you would naturally create a middle class out of a information economy that would be persistent and then you afford to have a democracy because the middle class could always outspend the elite and so forth. It would create a solution that would finally get us beyond the fear of automation killing jobs.

Anne: Does this mean that to open a link a friend puts on Facebook I'd have to pay her?

Jaron: Well right, the key thing to remember is your also getting paid. The whole thing about capitalism is that you'd have ta hind of go on faith that even tho you have to pay for stuff, you're also getting paid for your stuff. And by having you can now make activity the overall value of society is going up, so on average people are doing better than they otherwise would.

Anne: So the goal would be to post more stuff then you read.

Jaron: No no not exactly. Here's the way I see it working out. The way the world is currently working now is all of us are being scrutinized constantly by algorithms and remote big computers. They're behavioral models of all of us, and third parties are paying to use those models to manipulate us. They manipulate what links you see on Google and who your introduced to on Facebook and all kinds of stuff like that. And the idea is to sort of gradually create this perfect investment where you can just pay to manipulate the world to your benefit. Now the thing is that all the value that we're providing is very real, so if we just kept track of whenever there are bits that exist because of you, even if you didn't intend to create them, and that would create a micropayment, you'd constantly be earning little drips and drops of money. It's not necessarily a conscious thing.

Anne: Whoa! Do you mean if I'm, like, browsing the new books at Amazon, and of course Amazon keeps track of what books I look at, later I'm gonna get a little check in the mail from Amazon?

Jaron: If, and only if that data contributes to Amazon being able to use that data to increase it's profits by using that data in some way, yeah absolutely. And I know this might sound like sort of a alien or weird scheme to people but the thing you have to understand is that the complexity of it is actually less than we are doing now. People don't understand how insane what we're doing now is. And the notion that keeping track of where value comes from will actually lead to betterment for people, it's just the same old weird trick of capitalism which does actually work. So it's just a combination of using network design and capitalism together more efficiently that what we are currently doing. And I know it sounds kinda alien and weird but it actually does make sense. You know in a funny way it's exactly what is implemented within the confines of somebodies private networking space. So when you go on Facebook you can keep track of who's linked to you. It's a full network. If Facebook was monetized, it would actually generate a ton of money. And that would actually be good for people. And good for Facebook. It would actually make Facebook a richer company.

Anne: So play this out a bit, cuz I wanna make sure I understand it. How would this work in practice? If I'm going online and using Pinterest, or Facebook, or I'm ordering some music on Itunes, what would change?

Jaron: Well what would change is that if you're in Pinterest, first of all if you get a lot of attention in Pinterest you get direct money from that, but more importantly, if some fund somewhere is analyzing what you do on Pinterest and they realize that they should change their investment in real esate in your neighborhood based on behavior models of people in your neighborhood, based on how people in your neighborhood are looking at your Pinterest information. The way this happens is all very indirect and very weird and algorithmic and doesn't even make sense to the human mind, but what ever it is there would be links back to where the information came from, and if the result algorithm created a profit there would be a back scattering of micropayments to all the sources of the information.

Anne: Can you really see this happening without revolution in the streets, or laws imposed? I mean, corporations are not just going be really happy to start handing back micropayments to millions of people.

Jaron: Well, I put the question exactly in reverse. I see this as a way of avoiding revolution in the streets, cuz what I'm worried about is money and power being so concentrated, not immediately but maybe in 20 or 30 years if this pattern persists, that there will be massive unemployment and massive concentrations of wealth. And then there will be a revolution of just the kind that is extremely unpleasant and I very much wanna avoid that. I actually think that what I'm saying is good for ordinary people but its also good for corporations I mean, the things about corporations and finance schemes and any activity in capitalism is that it's only valuable if the degree in overall society is wealthy and an economy is growing in fact. They all feed off of general well being and if we're undoing that, we're actually undercutting these very institutions that are propagating it. And I think ultimately they'll see that it's in their own self interest.

Jim Fleming: Jaron Lanier is the author of 'Who Owns the Future?' He spoke with Anne Strainchamps. So what did you think of Lsanier' argument? You can let us know by sending us a message through Facebook or Twitter. Or through our website at TTBook-dot-org where you will find links to our Facebook or Twitter accounts.

Comments for this interview

at what point will facebook make enough to pay us? (innermersion, 05/19/2013 - 6:01pm)

I have great faith that Facebook will soon be able to monetize the billions of members into ads and marketing.
So when will they and others begin paying us? They better do it soon or someone will figure out that this the real future and begin doing it to be the next big thing. Lanier has it just right. Who is listening?

TOO MUCH MAGIC (Jacques T, 05/18/2013 - 12:38pm)

Those interested in this topic should check out the much more accessible and compelling work by Jason Benlevi - "TOO MUCH MAGIC: Pulling the Plug on the Cult of Tech"

This interview was one of the (Shane Phillips, 05/16/2013 - 4:22pm)

This interview was one of the more interesting things I've heard in the past few months, lots to ponder after hearing it. Thanks for sharing.