Book Report by Monica Snellings

The dedication tells us where Jaron Lanier is coming from: To everyone my daughter will know as she grows up. I hope she will be able to invent her place in a world in which it's normal to find success and fulfillment.

That’s a big hope when you look at the daily headlines, but Lanier has written a book that recasts the future in a way that few of us have the ability see on our own. For almost 30 years he has been on the front lines of the digital revolution. He is a computer scientist, musician, and is best known for his work in Virtual Reality research, for which he coined the term.

He asks us, in this very readable book, to examine the digital world we engage with, contribute to and create in. He notes that humans have always been their own worst enemies. He notes that throughout history whoever controls the tools of communication has the upper hand, easily dominating and effectively oppressing.

Initially the digital revolution presented an opportunity, “a new twist” in this centuries old game because digital networks by their very nature are constantly adapting, working around flaws and errors. So it seemed logical that digital networks would be hard to control or silence. Finally, a voice for the people!

But the “particular strange way” (xxi) we have built our networks has backfired, and therein lies the dilemma that Lanier attempts to resolve in Who Owns the Future?

Lanier examines the history of mankind from Aristotle to Wiki-leaks. He questions how we have organized society through the ages and acknowledges the tension that, “People always seek the benefits of society, meaning the accommodation of strangers, while avoiding direct vulnerabilities to specific others as much as possible…. People have thousands of ‘friends’
and yet stare at a little screen in the proximity of other people.” He tackles economics, money, privilege.

Siren Servers

Lanier’s main focus however, is an examination of “siren servers.” A term he came up with to describe the mammoth enterprises driven by elite computers. They employ super fast computers to know more about you than you do about them. They scoop up data without having to pay for it and hire the very best technical minds to analyze the data, which they keep secret, and use to manipulate the world to their advantage. These giant omnipresent companies who dominate the landscape of the internet need no introduction: Google, Facebook, Amazon, and “too big to fail” banks among others.

To demonstrate the peril of a world dominated by siren servers, Lanier uses an early precursor brick and mortar example—Wal-Mart—to show how networks can transform industry on a global scale. In the 1980s when Wal-Mart began to consolidate information, economic interdependence was only a vaguely conceived notion. As Wal-Mart's supply chain, driven by real-time data, grew to dominate, it organized the demand side of manufacturing in an “awakening“ China, who did not militarize as some feared, but made stuff according to Wal-Mart’s specs and price points.

Wal-Mart recognized early that information is power, and that with digital networking you   could consolidate extraordinary power. Wal-Mart’s fledging servers gathered information   about simple but valuable conditions out in the world at large: what could be made where and when; what could be moved where and when; who would buy what, and when and for how much. Any little portion of this database would previously have been of value only to a few local players directly affected by it, but by collecting a lot of such information in one place a global picture emerged. This is the wild change of perspective that networked technology can give you. The company gradually became the sculptor of its own environment….

Once other big retailers understood what Wal-Mart had achieved, they hired their own big specialists and powered up their own big data centers. But it was too late. Wal-Mart  had already repatterned the world, giving itself a special place in it. [Vendors were often already coordinated with each other to offer the lowest prices in a particular way that was finely tuned to Wal-Marts needs.] The supply chain was optimized to deliver to Wal-Mart’s door.

At first this was great for consumers. Everything consumers wanted to buy was cheaper. Except the fallout has been decimated downtowns and small businesses; fewer jobs and less job opportunities. Efficiencies pushed vendors to the lowest possible margins and rippled outward through communities of suppliers and other connected businesses. Add to that reports of Wal-Mart’s own employees financially struggling.

Lanier sees more efficiency and fewer good jobs as a false trade-off. Today there are popular, free Internet services and tech companies who pose similar refrains: Yes, there might be fewer jobs but look at how much stuff you can get for free! Headlines like—'Instagram’s 13 employees share $100m and had 30,000 customers' underscores the issue. For Lanier, the bottom line is: “No amount of cost lowering can foster economic dignity when it also means that there are fewer good jobs.”      

His book proposes a way to meet this challenge if we have the will. This is a big book. A book that asks the reader to consider the future. It looks at where are we headed and asks is this really where we want to go? It’s heady stuff and for our high-school students and the teachers responsible for preparing them to launch out into the world—a subject well worth investigating and debating.

AuthorMonica Snellings