I Wanna be Literated #218

I Wanna be Literated #218

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Who Owns the Future
by Jaron Lanier

I hate books that give away the ending in the title. I hate it more when they tell you there’s an ending then don’t show it to you. The problem with titles like “Who Owns the Future” is that it makes your book sound like a self-help book. Like “The Secret.” I understand that Jaron Lanier is supposed to sell books and maybe his publisher pushed for this title, but if he were so smart, he should know that a title like “Who Owns the Future” makes him sound like Tony Robbins. Even worse, after finishing the book I’m not quite sure who Lanier is suggesting “owns the future.”

I had no idea who Lanier was before reading this book. Turns out he’s a tech guru of sorts, has been involved in many startups which were acquired by giants like Google and Apple, and has been in meetings with giants like Jeff Bezos, etc. I’m sure he’s been in Silicon Valley and I missed him. What “Who Owns the Future” reads like is a collection of thoughts and ideas Lanier has on where tech is going, how online companies are stealing more jobs than they’re creating, and how someone should be paid for their work whenever it gets repackaged and repurposed into big data that then gets used by huge companies like Amazon and Facebook to sell to other companies. Lanier talks a lot about “Siren Servers” which I’m not sure I totally understand. I think they’re (he?) called (calls them?) that because they’re too big and enticing to turn down. The “Siren Server” collects personal information from a user who is using a “free” app or website in order to generate patterns that can be used to sell them something. At least, that’s what I think he’s talking about. Lanier argues that it’s the risk we’re all taking when our means and incomes are so low that we’re depending on “free” stuff just to get by or to be part of a community. It’s become more evident now than ever that websites like Facebook can have effects on big important things like elections, and we’re giving it that power by agreeing to play by its rules as long as it lets us stay connected to friends. This is the main idea that runs through this book, peppered with some interesting and some less so personal anecdotes and ramblings by Lanier. It can be confusing sometimes to follow him, but the times you can, it’s a lot of food for thoughts.

But who does he think owns the future? Companies that use Siren Servers? Is he asking a rhetorical question? Not sure. Lanier presents himself a little arrogantly as a person who is way ahead of the reader and has all the answers. He understands that this has all to do with income inequality and a wealth gap, but he doesn’t really know how to solve it. He states over and over how he’s not a communist, but he’s also no fan of uncontrolled capitalism. So he advocates for some sort of “toned down” capitalism, maybe not understanding that for capitalism to exist there needs to be an exploited class. Maybe he’s arguing that we can make the poor richer and the wealthy poorer but still keep them poor and rich. Lanier strongly believes in the mighty CEO who is capable of benevolent actions, but doesn’t understand that their actions come with strings attached (like buying newspapers and keeping them in business even though their reporting is now clearly going to be biased). He strongly believes in the market but doesn’t understand that sometimes the market is incompatible with human dignity and wellbeing. Whatever the solution may be, he doesn’t want it to get in the way of whatever Silicon Valley is doing. Who Owns the Future has some very cool ideas and should be read for them, but when it comes to putting it all together and offering convincing solutions, it falls a bit short. Lanier understands some things at a very high level, but seems to have missed the basics.

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