An Economy of Microserfs: Your Facebook ‘likes’ and Twitter witticisms are making tech companies super-rich. Shouldn’t you get a cut?

May 30, 2013, 4:44 p.m. ET

An Economy of Microserfs

Your Facebook ‘likes’ and Twitter witticisms are making tech companies super-rich. Shouldn’t you get a cut? Steven Levy reviews Jaron Lanier’s “Who Owns the Future.”

By STEVEN LEVY

Critics of technology abound, but none cuts as deeply as a Geek Apostate. During the 1990s that role was held by a Berkeley astronomer named Clifford Stoll, who outsmarted a destructive hacker and wrote a book about it. Not satisfied with one best seller, Mr. Stoll staked out ground as a professional tech skeptic. He zeroed in on what he considered the ludicrously optimistic predictions of Internet enthusiasts. He failed to notice that such predictions were not fantasies but understatements. His 1995 essay in Newsweek—in which he mocked the idea that people would ever buy a book, make a restaurant reservation or look up a historical fact online—periodically goes viral on the social networks that Mr. Stoll insisted would never take off.

Jaron Lanier, our current alpha Geek Apostate, is on firmer ground. His tech credentials are impressive: At an early age he found himself in MIT artificial-intelligence guru Marvin Minsky’s circle. After a stint as a dreadlocked and dreamy game designer, he rose to prominence in the early 1990s as the father of virtual reality. (I wrote a profile of him for Rolling Stone in that period.) But something snapped. Now, despite holding a day job at Microsoft‘s MSFT +0.43% research division, he blasts the tech world he helped create.“Who Owns the Future?” is a sequel to Mr. Lanier’s anti-crowdsourcing jeremiad “You Are Not a Gadget.” Cut through this new effort’s meandering verbiage and you get a sharp and valid point: Huge wads of money are being made by tech entrepreneurs and investors off users’ unpaid labor, the results of which are sold to advertisers or used to attract other users. Our search behavior, book reviews and mortgage applications have become fodder for a small elite in charge of “Siren Servers,” systems that know far more than ordinary people do, creating an oppressive information inequality. (As in myth, these Sirens are irresistible but ultimately pernicious.) The Sirens he most consistently scorns are those of Google,GOOG +0.28% Facebook FB +5.27% and financial institutions like hedge funds and mortgage companies. (Microsoft, though it aspires to many of the Googley practices Mr. Lanier despises, is somehow spared criticism.)

Mr. Lanier warns that this system will become even more predatory when technological advances like 3-D printing eliminate hundreds of millions of jobs. (Here he sketches out a weird future where even our clothes are printed out daily—bad news for detergent factories and dry-cleaning establishments.) At that point, all the middle class will have to offer are things like search queries, Facebook likes and Twitter witticisms. Laugh if you will, but that stuff is already making some people super-rich.

 

Who Owns the Future?

By Jaron Lanier
(Simon & Schuster, 396 pages, $28)

Mr. Lanier’s indictment is a rambling one. But because of his charming, offhand demeanor—he can shift from anger to bemusement in a mouse-click—his detours are often fascinating. Especially welcome are anecdotes from his Zelig-like journey through the past three decades of high tech, as when he begs science-fiction god William Gibson not to make virtual reality such a dark place. In those stories, there’s an intriguing whiff of the dissonance that comes from being a Geek Apostate whose soul still resides in geekhood. (Mr. Lanier makes fun of Silicon Valley’s enchantment with ideas like a space elevator connected to a satellite—and then admits that he is working on an alternative using a “lighter-than-air railgun.”) These colorful autobiographical digressions lead one to hope that in his next book Mr. Lanier will shift from manifesto to memoir.

Mr. Lanier believes he has the antidote to Siren Servers. He names his solution after Ted Nelson, the underappreciated visionary who invented hypertext (and was maybe the first and best Geek Apostate, denouncing the Web as a shallow, debased version of his vision). The idea works this way: People get paid when their personal information is sold or utilized by advertisers. They also get micro-royalties when someone uses their ideas, pictures or clever ideas. Hoi polloi also get a cut whenever a financial institution resells their mortgage or when a department store buys their search history. In other words, people get remunerated for the value they contribute to the system.

Even the author admits that his solution is not completely baked. In order to ensure accurate payments, his scheme would involve more tracking and less privacy. (Mr. Lanier rationalizes that granting people “commensurate universal commercial rights” for these intrusions—which would happen anyway—makes this tolerable.) He wrestles unsuccessfully with the probability that his system would make poor people—who have fewer Instagram pictures and Gilt Groupe selections to offer the information gods—worse off. Ultimately, it’s fair to charge Mr. Lanier’s scheme with an epithet he flings at the hubristic techies who insist that their servers make the world a better place: “Panglossian economic daydream.”

It’s unfortunate that Mr. Lanier thinks that information inequalities can only be addressed by a grand, improbable plan. He shrugs off credible remedies like stronger privacy rules or bans on surreptitious surveillance, dismissing regulation as “old-fashioned.” But if laws and rules are so ineffectual, why are lobbyists for online giants fighting so hard against Do Not Track legislation?

Nonetheless, Mr. Lanier makes a plausible case that his model may well be superior to our current unfair system. Too bad that he spends only a few pages speculating about how such an arrangement might emerge. Even then, he concedes that his scenarios are unlikely. (One loony idea: Gather all the big tech CEOs at a fancy resort and have them forge a cabal to put the system into effect.) If he put aside his apostasy and connected with his geek side, Mr. Lanier would realize that there’s only one way to make a system like this a reality: build it. Maybe he can get Microsoft to back the project.

Mr. Levy is a senior writer at Wired and the author of “In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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