Who Owns the Future?: The Tyranny of Dead Labor in the Digital Age

J. Patrick Zubin, a second-year MA student at SAIS, discusses the effects of automation on the information economy and labor in this book review of Jaron Lanier's "Who Owns the Future?"

By J. Patrick Zubin

In Who Owns the Future?, influential tech theorist Jaron Lanier explores the future implications of our growing information economy, taking the reader on a provocative tour of modern society as transformed by networked technologies, increasingly sophisticated automation, and advanced algorithms. An eccentric but authoritative guide, Lanier speculates widely as to the political and economic ramifications of these technologies and their attendant business models. His conclusions should serve as a somber corrective to the blithe optimism emanating from Silicon Valley and its supporters in the policy community.

Lanier is a computer scientist and prominent figure in the Bay Area’s tech scene. He is credited with coining the phrase “virtual reality,” as well as developing some of its earliest technologies. Proudly iconoclastic, Lanier subjects himself and the larger tech community to withering self-criticism and reexamination. Under the banner of the most basic (and profitable) digital age ideals—openness, efficiency, and connectivity—he argues that major tech firms, like Google and Amazon, have obscured an untenable contradiction. Even as we inhabit a new information economy, the tech industry remains committed to the early counterculture axiom popularized by technologist Stewart Brand: “Information wants to be free.” This has served to effectively demonetize information, and devalue those who create it. As Lanier writes, “We in Silicon Valley undermined copyright to make commerce become more about services instead of content, more about our code instead of their files.”[1] This paradox amounts to “a case of massive accounting fraud,”[2] which, as the economy becomes increasingly more digitized and automated, will have dire consequences for the future viability of the middle class.

Collecting diverse insights from network theory, thermodynamics, computer science and a host of other disciplines into his own analytical framework, Lanier describes a series of qualitative differences between the modern information economy and its industrial predecessor. Two major technological developments are integral to Lanier’s depiction of this transformation: Moore’s Law and networked technologies. The former, which Lanier calls “Silicon Valley’s guiding principle,”[3] has led to exponentially cheaper and more powerful technology, so much so that a larger scope of economic activity can now be performed effectively for free. When these now-costless productive activities are digitized and then linked directly to consumers through digital networks, traditional market structures and economic incentives undergo fundamental shifts. Now, production and distribution are practically free of cost. There is no longer even a product in the traditional sense, just mere content or, more accurately, information. When information is free, however, the only entity making money is the central network, or what Lanier dubs the “Siren Server,” which distributes the content and collects increasingly sophisticated data about consumer behavior.

In Lanier’s taxonomy, a “Siren Server” is simply a firm that occupies the commanding heights of an information economy through its control over the central network.  It uses its informational advantage to reshape the system in its own interest, in effect, superseding the market. Consumer-facing businesses like Google and Facebook are perhaps the archetypes of this new model of networked capitalism, but Amazon, high-frequency trading firms, and others also fit Lanier’s description. In and of themselves, Siren Server success and their immense concentration of wealth do not bother Lanier. “I’m no Marxist,” he declares, “I love competing in the market.”[4] The problem is the “accounting fraud” upon which these Palo Alto fortunes are based, which disenfranchises those who create the information then sifted and distributed by algorithms and networks owned by the large conglomerates. Facebook and Google have free access to the data off which they base their algorithms and advertising. “Big Data,” that burgeoning industry and overused buzzword, similarly mines the digital commons for user data and behavior. “We’ve decided not to pay most people for performing the new roles that are valuable in relation to the latest technologies,” Lanier says. “Ordinary people ‘share,’ while elite network presences generate unprecedented fortunes.”[5]

Whether from misguided zeal or cynical strategy, the tech industry’s ideological embrace of free information amounts to a death grip for middle-class workers in industries subjected to its grim logic. Legacy media has already been hollowed out, as a great many working musicians, photographers, writers, and others can attest (not to mention associated industries in manufacturing, distribution, and sales). The central networks, such as Amazon or iTunes, “channel much of the productivity of ordinary people into an informal economy of barter and reputation, while concentrating the extracted old-fashioned wealth for themselves.”[6] When the only opportunity for a middle-class ecosystem to develop is strictly controlled and profited upon by these networks–say, Apple’s “app” store–our current information economy begins to resemble a feudal system more than any Bay Area libertarian fever dream.

This new feudalism has been sustainable thus far only because those currently affected are limited to members of the media and creative industries. But Moore’s Law has not slowed down. As automation and advanced algorithms become more sophisticated, Lanier fears the additional destruction of countless middle-class jobs in traditional industries, from manufacturing to education and healthcare. Speculating on a world in which surgery is performed by robots and advanced engineering is completed on 3D printers, Lanier warns:

“Whatever may come, if the control of it can be transmitted on a network as information, then there will be a choice about whether to monetize that information… if the answering of wants or needs is to be instead demonetized except for the central, all-seeing Siren Server, then both capitalism and democracy will gradually grind to a halt with the advancement of digital technology.”[7]

Developed countries could buckle under mass unemployment and stratospheric inequality. Automation could make even the developing world’s vast labor resources prohibitively expensive. Major instability is not difficult to foresee.

Lanier may sound hyperbolic, but his warnings befit the grandiosity of those celebrated as tech industry disruptors. A recent Financial Times article describes a start-up firm of ex-Google employees developing algorithms that can assess how securities will react to market-moving information. Named “Warren,” in a nod to Mr. Buffett, the system is designed to replace the highly educated, well-paid junior analysts and researchers in banking. “There are several hundred thousand people employed in that capacity. We do it with machines,” says the founder, Daniel Nadler.[8] The legal industry has already experienced shocks from new document processing software, and the trend is not expected to slow. A full 47 percent of American jobs are “at risk from computerization,” according to a 2013 study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University. Similarly, McKinsey has estimated that by 2025, productivity gains could eliminate about 40 percent of all current jobs in “knowledge work,” from office clerks to white-shoe professionals.[9]

Lanier decries the prevailing technological determinism of Silicon Valley and its Beltway supporters, but when algorithms replace financial analysts and lawyers (and professors are reduced to teaching assistants for massive open online courses (MOOCs)), perhaps the political and academic consensus will recognize the major problems inherent in the norms of our information age. In the meantime, he offers a set of bold corrective measures to establish a more “humanistic information economy.” Though he leaves it to future policymakers to develop more comprehensively, Lanier proposes an elaborate system of “nanopayments” to compensate individuals for the value they create online, whether for a widely used line of code or clicking “like” on a Facebook advertisement. Lanier anticipates dismissals. He points to the massive stock market valuations of tech companies, even those still without a profitable business model such as Twitter, saying: “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.”[10]

Despite his disavowals of Marx, these prescriptions attempt to correct the “tyranny of dead labor”–that is, technology–which Marx first described and Lanier predicts will soon reach its apotheosis. “The worker’s activity, reduced to a mere abstraction of activity, is determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery, and not the opposite,” wrote Marx in 1857.[11] Similarly, Lanier wrote in 2013: “The data that drives ‘automation’ has to ultimately come from people, in the form of ‘big data.’ Automation can always be understood as elaborate puppetry.”[12] His royalty system can be viewed as a complex elaboration of copyrights, encompassing more routine social interactions and acts of self-expression as daily life itself is subsumed into media and technology. According to Lanier, compensating individuals for that activity is the only way to preserve a democratic capitalist society of free enterprise, self-direction, and creativity. Indeed, his solution to this Marxian problem has its roots in classic liberal texts: even Friedrich Hayek wrote that “we also expect in our dealings with others to be remunerated not according to our subjective merit but according to what our services are worth to them.”[13]

Lanier argues that his reforms would lead to more equitable, broadly based economic growth, “so that more people could enjoy the fruits of modernity based on more complete accounting,”[14] but in the end, this is “complete accounting” on a dystopian scale. Indeed, Lanier’s system of tracking each and every digital interaction would entail an even grosser violation of privacy than exists under the Siren Servers. “Privacy in a humanistic economy will no longer be all-or-nothing,”[15] he writes, but this is little consolation.

Here, even the iconoclastic Lanier cannot escape his roots in the Bay Area’s special blend of technological determinism and naive idealism. For, make no mistake, this would represent a wholesale overhaul of the Western legal system, with the US Constitution’s Fourth Amendment simply bought and sold for micropayments. Must individual privacy, that essential but vulnerable element of Western liberalism first celebrated by John Stuart Mill, be completely sacrificed to commercial imperative? Leaving aside questions of political feasibility or actual implementation, his scheme simply trades in one balkanized system of off-the-books commercial surveillance for a more formalized, comprehensive, almost totalitarian equivalent. Perhaps an ordinary individual could accumulate enough nanopayments to pay for drone-delivered groceries from Amazon, but in return, he must open himself to a crass, invasive commercialism that infiltrates the entirety of his existence.

Such a system hardly earns the name “humanistic” any more than the status quo.  A better solution to the contradictions of the information economy must be found. However, despite his prescriptive shortcomings, Lanier deserves praise for his insightful analysis of these contradictions. His spirit of reform is commendable, if misguided. Lanier would sacrifice what remains of our privacy and noncommercial lives in order to save capitalism from itself. Instead of radical transparency, perhaps the free market simply needs new limits.

 J. Patrick Zubin is a second-year Global Theory and History concentrator at SAIS. He is an assistant editor at the SAIS Review.

[1] Lanier, Jaron. 2013. Who Owns the Future?. New York: Simon & Schuster. 207.

[2] Ibid. 135.

[3] Ibid. 10.

[4] Ibid. 136.

[5] Ibid. 15.

[6] Ibid. 57.

[7] Ibid. 260.

[8] Waters, Richard. 2014. “Technology: Rise of the Replicants.” The Financial Times, March 3, 2014.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Lanier, Jaron. 2013. Who Owns the Future?. New York: Simon & Schuster. 257.

[11] Marx, Karl. 1972. “The Grundrisse.” In The Marx-Engels Reader, edited by Robert C. Tucker. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 279.

[12] Lanier, Jaron. 2013. Who Owns the Future?. New York: Simon & Schuster. 123.

[13] Hayek, Friedrich A. 1978. The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 97.

[14] Lanier, Jaron. 2013. Who Owns the Future?. New York: Simon & Schuster. 257.

[15] Ibid. 321.

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