The 10 best ... ideas from Who Owns the Future?

2013-08-18 14:00

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Percy Mabandu discovers a new book that forecasts robot doctors and mass unemployment in our computer-dominated world. But there are alternatives to empower us in a world where we should matter more than our data.

JaronLanier’s nickname is The Prophet of Silicon Valley.

Who Owns the Future? is a visionary reckoning with the effects network technologies have had on our economy.

Lanier asserts that the rise of digital networks led the world’s economy into recession and is decimating the middle class.

Now, as technology flattens more and more industries – from media to medicine to manufacturing – we are facing even greater challenges to employment and personal wealth.

But there is an alternative to allowing technology to own our future. In this ambitious and deeply humane book, Lanier charts the path towards a new information economy that will stabilise the middle class and allow it to grow.

It is time for ordinary people to be rewarded for what they do and share on the web.

1 The big idea

The rise of digital networking is enriching only a few and wiping out the value most of us create.

Lanier argues that if you do something online and money can be made out of it, you should be paid.

This could create a stronger middle class benefiting from an information economy, which would otherwise be impossible.

And Lanier’s not only talking about the internet and the web, but networks operated by financial institutions and intelligence agencies.

2 A brave new language

Lanier wants a new grammar to talk about our potentially troubled new wired world.

He uses phrases like “siren servers” to refer to giant corporate repositories of information about our lives that we have given freely and often without consent, and are now being used for huge financial benefit by a super-rich few.

He speaks of “middle class levees” to refer to providing financial support systems for ordinary people to survive tumultuous economic periods brought about by technological change.

3 How technology kills value

At the height of its power, Kodak employed more than 140?000 people and was worth $28?billion (R280 billion at the current exchange rate).

They even invented the first digital camera.

Today Kodak is bankrupt and the new face of digital photography is Instagram.

When it was sold to Facebook for $1?billion in 2012, Instagram employed only 13 people.

Lanier here, as with other examples, realises that technology can kill jobs.

Power and money end up concentrated around a few people who operate the most central computers in networks and everyone else becomes increasingly undervalued.

4 Social-media revolutions

The use of Twitter and other social media has seen many celebrating how social media made the Arab Spring possible.

But Lanier doesn’t join that bandwagon. Revolutions don’t need Twitter.

Every attempt to create a pure, bottom-up, emergent network to coordinate human affairs creates some new hub that inevitably becomes a centre of power, even if that wasn’t the intention.

If everything is open, anonymous and copyable, then a search/analyst company can come along to measure and model everything that takes place, and sell their ability to influence the outcome to third parties.

5 No to free online info

Networks and software are becoming more pervasive.

Think of cars and trucks driven by software instead of people, home 3D printers turning out goods that once needed whole factories, and robots that will take over the material aspects of caring for the ill and elderly.

But better technology means more unemployment and could lead to a socialist backlash with all the attendant chaos.

A new kind of middle class and a growing information economy could come about if we could break out of the free information idea and into a universal micropayment system.

6 Big data and democracy

So-called big data professionals can use mathematical and computer resources to analyse what we put on the web to predict the outcomes of elections.

If elections end up being run like markets, a winning party might “emerge” and become persistent.

The process would become deterministic. We should expect to see more elections in the developed world that are either lopsided or perfectly equalised from here on.

If opposing siren servers are well run, they might achieve parity, while if one is better than the other, the unfair advantage ought to be dramatic.

7 Networks and the death of the middle class

People in the middle class who have already lost their economic dignity to siren servers are those in the so-called creative classes.

Many musicians, journalists and photographers are unemployed today thanks to the internet and now other professions are joining them.

Free online education may quickly produce an educated mass, but with the side effect of diminishing academic jobs in the long run.

Few of those who grow up in a networked world appreciate the lost opportunities taking place.

But is the loss of these kinds of career types an anomaly or an early warning of what might happen to more middle class jobs?

8 What’s next for Facebook?

Lanier speculates that if Facebook develops peer-to-peer commerce, it might become the seed of a more humanistic form of information technology.

That would certainly create the potential for more revenue than advertising by itself.

The premise is that the advertising of physical products like PCs, phones and tablets will one day be obsolete once these things start to be spat out by 3D home printers running off open designs coming from the cloud.

With no companies left to pay for ads, a new solution could be inspired by companies like Facebook.

9 Jobs and the internet

The internet has been able to make capital available to innovators in nontraditional ways.

Since the popular argument has been that the web has killed more jobs than it has created, it’s important to track ventures that use big data to reverse that trend.

Kickstarter, for instance, was originally aimed at making philanthropy more efficient. But in this book, Lanier follows how it now facilitates finance for new business ventures.

By tapping into big data, entrepreneurs can raise money from the multitudes in advance of doing their project.

10 Will heart surgeons become obsolete?

Music recording was a mechanical process until it became a network service. Before, a factory stamped out discs and trucks delivered them to stores where other human beings sold them.

It’s now more common to receive music instantly over a network and the middle class of middlemen in music is no more.

Unthinkably, something similar could happen to surgeons now that there are things like nanobots, holographic radiation, or just plain old robots using endoscopes, which are becoming so sophisticated they might someday perform heart surgery much more competently than any human.

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