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Book review: Who Owns the Future?: Making a case against big data

Jaron Lanier, who coined the term virtual reality, criticizes big Web entities like Facebook and Google for their business models that accumulate and evaluate consumer data without paying a penny for it

By Janet Maslin  /  NY Times News Service

Who Owns the Future?: Making a case against big data, By Jaron Lanier.

As its title indicates, Jaron Lanier’s new tech manifesto asks, “Who owns the future?” But for many of those who will be captivated by Lanier’s daringly original insights, another question comes first: Who is Jaron Lanier? He is a mega-wizard in futurist circles. He is the father of virtual reality in the gaudy, reputation-burnishing way that Michael Jackson was the king of pop. Lanier would undoubtedly be more of a household name if he were not a large, dreadlocked, anything but telegenic figure with facial hair called “mossy” in a 2011 profile in The New Yorker.

While working on “intriguing unannounced projects” for Microsoft Research — “a gigantic lighter-than-air railgun to launch spacecraft” and a speculative strategy for “repositioning earthquakes” — Lanier found time to follow up on his first book, You Are Not a Gadget (2010). That was a feisty, brilliant, predictive work, and the new volume is just as exciting. Lanier bucks a wave of more conventional diatribes on Big Data to deliver Olympian, contrarian fighting words about the Internet’s exploitative powers. A self-proclaimed “humanist softie,” he is a witheringly caustic critic of big Web entities and their business models.

He’s talking to you, Facebook. (“What’s Facebook going to do when it grows up?”) And to you, Google. (“The Google guys would have gotten rich from the search code without having to create the private spying agency.”) And to all the other tempting Siren Servers (as he calls them) that depend on accumulating and evaluating consumer data without acknowledging a monetary debt to the people mined for all this “free” information. One need not be a political ideologue, he says, to believe that people have quantifiable value and deserve to be recompensed for it.

Who Owns the Future?: Making a case against big data

By Jaron Lanier

396 pages

Simon & Schuster

US: Hardback


It’s true that Lanier was once driving in Silicon Valley, listening to what he thought was some Internet startup “trumpeting the latest scheme to take over the world,” when he realized he was hearing Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. (“If you select the right passages, Marx can read as being incredibly current.”)

He is no “lefty” (to use his word); he sees high-tech thievery as an apolitical problem. And he is too much of a maverick to align with anyone’s thinking, even his own. Whether it is a boast or a mea culpa, Lanier acknowledges: “I was an early participant in the process and helped to formulate many of the ideas I am criticizing in this book.” And “to my friends in the ‘open’ Internet movement, I have to ask: What did you think would happen?”

Who Owns the Future? reiterates some ideas in Lanier’s first book: that Web businesses exploit a peasant class, that users of social media may not realize how entrapped they are, that a thriving middle class is essential to keeping the Internet sustainable. When “ordinary people ‘share,’ while elite network presences generate unprecedented fortunes,” even that elite will eventually be undermined. Lanier compares his suggestions for reconfiguring this process to Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal, but the last thing he worries about is writerly grandiosity. “Understand that in the context of the community in which I function,” he says of Silicon Valley, “my presentation is practically self-deprecating.”

Lanier’s sharp, accessible style and opinions make Who Owns the Future? terrifically inviting. What is he calling for? Just “The Ad Hoc Construction of Mass Dignity.” He much prefers sweeping formulations to qualified ones, although, as he points out, “being an absolutist is a certain way to become a failed technologist.” This book may not provide many answers (“It is too early for me to solve every problem brought up by the approach I’m advocating here”), but is does articulate a desperate need for them.

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