Tue, May 14, 2013 - Page 12 News List

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? overlaps with The New Digital Age, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s much more polished work of Web analysis. Their book focuses more on global issues, but disagrees with specific points.

The New Digital Age looks forward to self-driving trucks that can ease the strain on Teamsters; Lanier rambunctiously writes of “Napstering the Teamsters” out of work, and of how such technology could go terribly wrong. The books also disagree on whether surgeons’ work will be enhanced or diminished by robotics.

And where Schmidt and Cohen see promise in technology’s effect on the Arab Spring, Lanier is sick of the back-patting about social networking. Revolutions can happen without it, too, he says. Lanier may not have any personal animus against Schmidt. But he describes listening to him and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos discuss the future of books just as he, Lanier, was struggling to write his first one. This prompts an attack on how Siren Servers could undermine and impoverish the world of reading, just as they did music. (Lanier is also a musician. He specializes in the arcane and innovative, as might be expected.) More generally, and very quotably, he warns against being seduced by “dazzlingly designed forms of cognitive waste.”

Finally, Who Owns the Future? takes some of it biggest swipes at those who do presume to own the future: fans of the Singularity (the hypothetical imminent merger of biology and technology), Silicon Valley pioneers seeking “methusalization” (i.e., immortality), techie utopians of every stripe. Yes, Lanier happens to be one of them. But he is still capable of remembering when, in his boyhood, prognosticators foresaw Moon colonies and flying cars. Now they think about genomics and data. Mindful of that way-cool past, he says, “I miss the future.”

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