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Book Review: “Who Owns the Future” by Jaron Lanier

I’m not in Boston, but am big fan of Sara M. Watson and am reading along with her Boston Book Club. The first book was “Who Owns the Future” by Jaron Lanier.

“Who Owns the Future” is a book that asks all the right questions, but gets lost in ungrounded musings along the way. Like the 2am “deep conversations” I had in my college dorm, it has the feel and tone of something serious, but is mostly an excuse for smart people to talk about all the interesting things they’ve been thinking about lately.

Unfounded Assumptions

Lanier’s biggest crime is to insinuate connections that are simply unfounded. The most widely copied snippet of the book is about Kodak and Instagram. Kodak was photography in the 1970’s and employed 140,000 people. Instagram is photography today and employed only 13 people when it sold to Facebook for a cool billion dollars. Lanier asks, “Where have the jobs gone?”

Well that’s a good question! Lanier’s answer is that those 139,987 people (and millions like them) have now been duped into working for free, uploading their photos to Instagram, their updates to Facebook, their reviews to Yelp, their music to Soundcloud and so forth. But is this true, and does it even make sense?

There is an implicit assumption that it is a zero-sum game of value. He presumes that people not being paid means that their online “work” (sharing, posting, whatever) generates as much value as the jobs that went away. Is ex-kodak employee who made $40k being robbed of $40k worth of facebook posts and Instagram pics? I don’t think so.

It’s clear to anyone that many jobs are going away. Hell, Jason and I devoted an entire 7th Kingdom podcast to it at the beginning of the year. But to gloss over this phenomena with a simple good-guy bad-guy scenario of “13 Geeks killed 140,000 jobs” is an insult to the importance of the issue. There are a multitude of deeper issues that he never explores. To name an obvious one: why is Kodak’s death (and the companies like it) different than extinction of buggy-whip companies a hundred years prior?

Interesting fact: One of Kodak’s founders in 1881, Henry A. Strong, was actually a buggy whip manufacturer. [link]

Authority Problems

Lanier devotes an awful lot of time talking about economics. He dives into Keynesian theory and the need for a middle class. But we all know that he’s a programmer by trade. I have no problem with a smart person talking outside their field, but when they do so you expect a certain humility and buttload of citations to back them up. Lanier gives neither. Again I am left the impression that he is a passionate armchair economist, but see no reason to take his economic forecasts seriously.

Lanier’s Solution, and Self-Criticism Problems

Lanier finally proposes his solution at the book’s midpoint. Basically what he wants is micropayments combined with never-expiring two-way linking to digital content (as first proposed by Ted Nelson). In his perfect world this blog post would count as “content” created by me. Let’s say you liked my clever opening sentence about college dorms and use it in your next blog post. Well then, you wouldn’t actually copy by sentence, but would instead have a kind of link to it. And when your post goes viral and you make a bunch of money, then you’d have to pay some of that money to me. In turn, I would have to pay some of it to the blogger that wrote about Kodak’s buggy-whip founder.

Lanier’s implicit argument is that this accounting and payment system would restore fairness. Those 139,987 non-Kodak employees (and everyone else not working at Instagram, Facebook, etc) would finally get their fair share.

In other words if you divide one billion dollars divided by the 140,00 ex-employees of Kodak, you get $7,142 per person. I am not sure what that number means, but I think it’s what he would consider fair.

There are many problem’s with Lanier’s solution. First of all, it would simply be impossible to administer. He gives the example of someone using a sample of one song in another. That’s pretty easy to keep track of: Song A uses 3 seconds of Song B. He doesn’t say how you would value a link, but presumably the creator of Song B would get a little bit of money every time someone buys song A.

But consider a relatively mild real-world case: Ann is a teenager who goes to a Justin Bieber concert and films him singing a cover of “I Did it My Way” by Frank Sinatra. She immediately posts it to her Facebook page and it gets a hundred views, netting Facebook one dollar in advertising revenue. So how would this money get split? Lanier says that Ann is getting ripped off by not being paid for her post. But then surely some of the money should go to Bieber? But he was covering Sinatra who should also get a cut. But the song was originally written by Paul Anka, so he should get a cut. But wait! What about programmer Joe, who in 2008 submitted a bug report to Facebook?

Conclusion

If it seems that I’m overly critical of Lanier in this post, it is only because I think the problems he’s looking at are so damn important–it angers me to see them given second rate treatment. I can recommend the book as a good survey of the problems we face with technology combined with some tasty “what if” scenarios from a smart dude. But I can’t recommend it as having thought-out answers, nor to people just starting to think about the technology-human connection; he is too muddy in delineating where established thought ends and his speculative thought begins.