You can get a good deal on having a decent civilisation, but they never come for free.

Excerpts from Jaron Lanier’s “Who owns the future?” parts 5-8.

Optimization is not the same thing as truth. p.195

We who are enthusiastic about the internet love the fact that so many people contribute to it. It’s hard to believe that once upon a time people worried about whether anyone would have anything worthwhile to say online! I have not lost even a tiny bit of this aspect of our formative idealism from decades ago. I still find that when I put my trust in people, overall they come through. People at large always seem to be more creative, good-willed, and resourceful than one might have guessed. p.197

Once a critical mass of conversation is on Facebook, then it’s hard to get conversation going elsewhere. What might have started out as a choice, is no longer a choice after a network effect causes a phase change. After that point we effectively have less choice. It’s no longer commerce, but soft blackmail. p.198

A world in which more and more is monetized, instead of less and less, could lead to a middle class oriented information economy, in which information isn’t free, but is affordable. Instead of making information inaccessible, that would lead to a situation in which the most critical information becomes accessible for the first time. You’d own the raw information about you that can sway your life. There is no such thing as a perfect system, but the hypothesis is on offer that this could lead to a more democratic outcome than does the cheap illusion of ‘free’ information. p.202

futureuscover

In a network with two-way links [Nelsonian network] each node knows what other nodes are linked to it. … That would mean you’d know all the websites that point to yours. It would mean you’s know all the financiers who had leveraged your mortgage. I would mean you’d know all the videos that used your music. Two way linking would preserve context. It’s a small, simple change in how online information should be stored that couldn’t have vaster implications for culture and the economy. … if two way links existed, you’d immediately be able to see who was linking to your website or online creations. It wouldn’t be a mystery. You’d meet people who shared your interests as a matter of course. A business would naturally become acquainted with potential customers. ‘Social networks’ like Facebook were bought into existence in part to recapture those kinds of connections that were jettisoned when they need not have been, when the Web was born. p.219-220

Information systems can create problems, obviously, but they can also create new options. The existence of advanced networking creates the option of directly compensating people for the value they bring to the information space instead of having a giant bureaucracy in the middle, which could only implement an extremely crude and distorting approximation of fairness. The path proposed here can’t be taken easily, because we have already gone far down a different one. A difficult transition would need to be endured. p.226

… a way to conceive the project at hand is to imagine how computer networks could help create a fluid, incremental kind of wealth creation that drives at a middle-class level and is non zero-sum. p.231

The foundational idea of humanistic computing is that provenance is valuable. Information is people in disguise, and people ought to be paid for value they contribute that can be sent or stores on a digital network. … in a humanistic information economy, when new data is uploaded from a local device into a server or cloud computer, its provenance is remembered. That means a record of origin is connected to the data. This record is protected from error and fraud by redundancy between local devices and servers in the cloud, so faking or erasing provenance would at the very least require taking on non-trivial effort and risk.p.235

Universal retention of provenance without commensurate universal commercial rights would lead to a police/surveillance state. Universal commercial provenance can instead lead to a balanced future, where a middle class can thrive with proportional political clout, and where individuals can invent their own lives without being unduly manipulated by unseen operators of siren servers. p236

If the information economy is to evolve on its present track, so that each player is either running a Siren Server, or is an ordinary person ricocheting between two extremes of non capitalism, between fake free and fake ownership, then markets will eventually shrink and capitalism will collapse. p.237

Commercial symmetry suggests a radical difference between what I am proposing here and the world we currently know. Everyone will need to have a unique identity in a universal public market information system. p.238

When giant remote companies own everyones digital identities, they become ‘too big to fail,’ which is a state of affairs that degrades both markets and governments. … Facebook is only one example of many recent highly successful network players that have made themselves essential in advance of making themselves sustainable. … A balance along the lines of what has worked with banking in the pre-networked world will also be possible in a humanistic economy. In a future in which you own your data, you might agree to have a company like Facebook provide services, but if Facebook went bankrupt your online life and identity would not disappear; Facebook would not have been the exclusive holder of your data or identity. p.240

In a humanistic information economy, as people age, they will collect royalties on value they brought into the world when they were younger. This seems to me to be a highly moral use of information technology. It remembers the right data. The very idea that our world is construed in such a way that the lifetime contributions of hardworking, creative people can be forgotten, that they can be sent perpetually back to the starting gate, is a deep injustice. p.242

Royalties based on creative contributions from a whole lifetime would always be flowing freshly. It would be wealth earned, not entitlement.p.243

Is it such an awful thing to suggest that what technological progress should look like is more and more people becoming a little more like lucky stars? What other vision of progress is viable?
The existence of more lucky stars does not mean socialism, nor does it mean the triumph of lazy childhood demons. It just means a market in an expanding information economy functioning honestly instead of being hampered by obsolete parental admonitions or childish fears, no matter how appropriate they might have been in times past. p.245

As long as 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. p247

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. p.249

People ought to be in the driver’s seat and not allow the network to define and capture a language for all time. A humanistic economy would remove moral hazards that might incentivise artificial language stasis, and other similar traps. p.250

Big companies are the flywheels and ballast of a market economy, creating a degree of stability. (To put it in geekspeak, they act as lowpass filters.) The resulting lessened turbulence will always annoy the most peripatetic and impatient young innovators, but it also makes it easier for most people in most phases of life to understand and navigate the economic environment. p.253

Advertising counterbalances the tendency of people to adhere to familiar habits. p.254

Any desirable alternative economic future must include an idea about a user interface that brings at least as much simplicity to people as acquiescing to a Siren Server does today. This means reducing the density of decisions people are expected to make to a level that leaves cognitive room to live life in free and creative ways. … A little basic regulation would force decision reduction services to be competitive instead of being vulnerable to the moral hazard of locking people into contracts. This idea is a generalization of many familiar ideas from antitrust and network neutrality. p.256

Once a humanistic economy gets going, I imagine that accounting will suddenly become an interesting job. Accountants will be called upon to expand the kinds of value that can be documented to enhance the network. They’ll not only get their clients paid, but also cause the economy to grow. They’ll be a little like politicians, and little like detectives. They will not be back-room nerds but action heroes. p.257

A programmer who writes code everyone uses will be able to benefit directly, instead of having to leverage code into a Siren Server scheme. The Google guys would have gotten rich from the search code without having to create the private spying agency. At the same time, an open community of programmers would have been able to contribute incrementally, without any more barriers than are found in today’s open-source community. p.258

Criminals and creeps are rare, but the sum of risk is unavoidable.
We like to imagine ourselves as being eternally young, and flowing about in a world of trust. A perfect world, without the tragedy of the biological cycle, without risk, could run on trust, and wouldn’t need an economy. p.265

… once people start to rely on networks for a living, there will appear a balance of desires between wanting to earn money and not wanting to spend money. Just as must always be the case, everyone will realise that if we want to enjoy the free agency of being participants in an economy instead of relying on politics alone to deal with each other, we have to accept the price, which is, well, price. … In old-fashioned economies, the seller usually designs the transaction and the buyer must take it or leave it. That need not be the case in an advanced humanistic economy.
Through clever programming, buyer and seller can think in terms of different transactions and still do business with each other. Just as the cloud can translate between English and Chinese, it can translate between market participants who prefer different kinds of deals. p.268

In practice, an implementation of humanistic economics would be more complex than I can indicate in a couple of pages, but the complexity would not be intractable. What we do online is already crazily complicated. The kinds of calculations proposed here are not particularly scary in comparison. … Economic network neutrality is simply a generalization [which] recognizes that as information technology becomes central, the economy becomes a form of bit transport. The motivation is … to avoid extreme and useless concentrations of wealth or power based purely on the position of the player, also known as moral hazard. … Over time, people will hopefully adjust to the idea that you have to pay others as you would like to be paid. The more interests a person perceives in common with others, even when commonalities are best illuminated by theatrical effects, the more likely the market will function well and grow. The psychology of a social contract will eventually take hold. p.271-272

You can get a good deal on having a decent civilization, but they never come for free. p.274

In what sense is becoming Dependant on private spy agencies crossed with ad agencies, which are licensed by us to spy on all of us all the time in order to accumulate billions of dollars by manipulating what’s put in front of us over supposedly open and public networks, a way of defeating elites? And yet this is precisely what the ‘free’ model has meant.

… Virtuality reveals physicality to be ever more precious in comparison. p.276

What about someone who can’t help but be a failure in terms of the marketplace? What’s it like to be a bum in a highly advanced technological world? We don’t know yet. Computation can’t work miracles. If there is limited space in a city center, an algorithm can’t whip up a new fold in space-time to make room for someone who doesn’t want to pay rent but still wants to live there. p.277

If we were for a moment to forget the mirror maze of economics, and the circular firing squad of politics, and only think about the fundamentals, then a rational response to global climate change would be to supercharge all large-scale curative climate research, at least at the scale of the Manhattan and Apollo projects combined. There would also be massive social engineering experiments in order to reduce the carbon footprint of humanity in case the tech fixes don’t work as soon as we’d like. p.280

If a market is expanding, the game is non-zero-sum. Then win-win thinking becomes rational more frequently. The opportunity of the new can often outweigh the opportunity of fighting over the old. … information technology should create a persistent expansion of markets by monetizing more and more information, enshrining the potential for non-zero-sum thinking. p.282

A scam is always an illusion of creating something from nothing, but there is no nothing. A well-implemented information economy would always remember the source, the something. p.285

The more a society bases itself on the wrong model of automated ‘efficiency’, the more potential there is for sudden outbreaks of evil. There will be more players who are motivated to act outside of a social contract. p.294

Augmenting nature might at first seem to miss the point, but it is also a way to see it in a new light without disturbing it. Don’t worry about losing track of the beauty of the real world. Virtuality only makes reality look better in comparison. p.296

The way digital networks have been designed by fashion, though not by necessity, created ultra-valuable central nodes that spawn temptations for bad actors, whether those actors are traditional legitimate players or not.
The best way to reduce temptation to act abusively is to distribute value, power, and clout less centrally. The best way to so that is to enable a more comprehensively commercial sphere than the one in place today. p.299

Suppose .. that any cloud computer, whether a social network, and eclectic Wall Street scheme, or even a government agency, is required to pay you for useful data that is derived from you. Any Siren Server will then have a full-fledged commercial relationship with you. You will have intrinsic, inalienable commercial rights to data that wouldn’t exist without you. … Commercial rights are better suited for the multitude of quirky little situations that will come up in real life that new kinds of civil rights along the lines of digital privacy. p.301

Once the data measured off a person creates a debt to that person, a number of systemic benefits will accrue. For just one example, for the first time there will be an accurate accounting of who has gathered what information about whom. No amount of privacy and disclosure law will accomplish what accounting will do when money is a stake. p.302

Extending the commercial sphere genuinely into the information space will lead to a more moderate, balanced world. What we’ve been doing instead is treating information commerce as a glaring exception to the equity that underlies democracy. p.304

Nothing is outlawed in the scenario imagined here. No moralists or absolutists have descended on business, tsk-tsking about privacy. There are no boycotts or shunnings.Neither are there mad campaigns by entrepeneurs to grab as much of what has been private data as possible, as we now endire from credit agencies or companies like Facebook. Instead a path of moderation appears where previously there was only black-and-white. p.305

Getting away from extreme outcomes is crucial if we are to find our way to a high-tech but humane future. p.307

The reason to believe in human agency over technological determinism is that you can then have an economy where people earn their own way and invent their own lives. If you structure a society on not emphasizing individual human agency, its the same thing operationally as denying people clout, dignity and self-determination. p.311

It might take a political figure of rare genius, or the right lucky confluence of events, but it is ridiculous to think that a beneficial social contract could not take hold for the majority of people in their online lives. … Civilization will remain by definition a mostly voluntary project, a miracle. p.319

Since no one else can keep up, highly effective technical people can still make up the future, unfettered to an amazing degree. The society of the brightest computer scientists and engineers is also amazingly small. A thousand top geeks working together could steer the future of the worlds economy. p.324

My primary plea to future technocrats, please be experimental, patient, non-ideological, and slow-moving enough to learn lessons. Find your excitement somewhere other than in manipulating the nature of the economy. The economy is one of those things, like health, that should usually be reliable, constant and boring. p.329

Facebook ought to be well motivated to find ways to grow the economy. Only a single person controls the company, so the means if present to overcome resistance from scaredy-cats on the board or among shareholders. A big enough Siren Server might at least serve as the seed of a humanistic information economy. That’s not to say any single big company will be big enough to change the world, but it might lead the way. … Building bridges between big online services, and turning everyone into a first class economic participant, might just cause a Nelsonian economy to eventually arise out of the private sector without government intervention. p.331

You might think this is a mad fantasy. CEO’s from all the big network companies in a room, talking to each other rationally, even as they are suing each other over patents or whatever other conflicts hold sway. Sounds unlikely. I can;t argue with that assessment, but I can put it in perspective. Is it really any madder than the ways all these companies became powerful in the first place? Is it any madder than the cooperation that made the Internet possible in the first place? p.332

A book isn’t an artifact, but a synthesis of fully realized individual personhood with human continuity. The economic model of our networks has to be optimized to preserve that synthesis, or it will not serve mankind. p.340

We haven’t found any more fundamental ways to think about a system than as an information system. My argument is not against thinking about us in terms of information. I live that life. Instead, I am arguing that there is more than one way to build an information economy, and we’ve chosen the self-destructive option. p.235

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