Sell your data to save the economy and your future

Robot tea time Two for tea: These friendly, labour-saving robots might look harmless - but automation is replacing traditional jobs

Imagine our world later in this century, when machines have got better.

Technology of Business

Cars and trucks drive themselves, and there's hardly ever an accident. Robots root through the earth for raw materials, and miners are never trapped. Robotic surgeons rarely make errors.

Clothes are always brand new designs that day, and always fit perfectly, because your home fabricator makes them out of recycled clothes from the previous day. There is no laundry.

I can't tell you which of these technologies will start to work in this century for sure, and which will be derailed by glitches, but at least some of these things will come about.

Surgical robot On call: At the moment, humans operate surgical robots - what happens to the humans when they can operate themselves?

Who will earn wealth? If robotic surgeons get really good, will tomorrow's surgeons be in the same boat as today's musicians?

Will they live gig to gig, with a token few of them winning a YouTube hit or Kickstarter success while most still have to live with their parents?

This question has to be asked. Something seems terribly askew about how technology is benefitting the world lately.

How could it be that since the incredible efficiencies of digital networking have finally reached vast numbers of people that we aren't seeing a broad benefit?

Jaron Lanier Jaron Lanier believes that the digital revolution as it stands could be the death knell of the middle classes

How could it be that so far the network age seems to be a time of endless austerity, jobless recoveries, loss of social mobility, and intense wealth concentration in markets that are anaemic overall?

The medicine of our time is purported to be open information. The medicine comes in many bottles: open software, free online education, European pirate parties, Wikileaks, social media, and endless variations of the above.

The principle of making information free seems, at first glance, to spread the power of information out of elite bubbles to benefit everyone.

Unfortunately, although no one realised it beforehand, the medicine turns out to be poison.

Digitally unequal

While people are created equal, computers are not.

When people share information freely, those who own the best computers benefit in extreme ways that are denied to everyone else.

Those with the best computers can simply calculate wealth and power away from ordinary people.

It doesn't matter if the best computers run schemes called high frequency trading firms, social media sites, national intelligence agencies, giant online stores, big political campaigns, insurance companies, or search engines.

Leave the semantics aside and they're all remarkably similar.

All the computers that crunch "big data" are physically similar. They are placed in obscure sites and are guarded like oilfields.

The programs that the best computers are running are also similar. First comes the gathering of freely offered information from everyone else in the world.

This might include scanned emails or social media sharing, sightings through cloud-connected cameras, or commercial and medical dossiers; there's no boundary to the snooping.

In order to lure people into asymmetrical information relationships, some treat is often dangled.

Facebook data centre Information is power: One of Facebook's data centres in North Carolina - your data is held somewhere like this

The treat might be free internet services or music, or insanely easy-to-get mortgages. The targeted audience eventually pays for these treats through lost opportunities.

Career options will eventually narrow, or credit will become insanely tight.

Ordinary people, or more precisely people with only ordinary computers, are the sole providers of the information that makes the big computers so powerful and valuable.

And ordinary people do get a certain flavour of benefit for providing that value.

They get the benefits of an informal economy usually associated with the developing world, like reputation and access to barter. The formal benefits concentrate around the biggest computers.

More and more ordinary people are thrust into a winner-takes-all economy. Social media sharers can make all the noise they want, but they forfeit the real wealth and clout needed to be politically powerful.

Do no evil

In most cases there was no evil plot. Many of the people who own the top computers are genuinely nice.

I helped create the system, and benefit from it. But nonetheless, it is not sustainable.

The core problem starts with philosophy. The owners of the biggest computers like to think about them as big artificial brains. But actually they are simply repackaging valuable information gathered from everyone else.

This is what "big data" means.

For instance, a big remote Google or Microsoft computer can translate this piece, more or less, from English to another language. But what is really going on is that real translations, made by humans, are gathered in multitudes, and pattern-matched against new texts like this one.

Start Quote

As long as we keep doing things the way we are, every big computer will hide a crowd of disenfranchised people”

End Quote Jaron Lanier

A mash-up of old translations will approximate the new translation that is needed, so long as there are many old translations to serve as sources. Real human translators are being made anonymous, invisible, and insecure.

As long as we keep doing things the way we are, every big computer will hide a crowd of disenfranchised people.

As it happens, the very first conception of digital networked communication foresaw a way out of this trap. I am referring to Ted Nelson's early work, dating back to 1960.

The first idea of networked digital media included a universal micropayment system, so that people would be paid when data they added to a network was used by someone else.

This idea is anathema to the current orthodoxy. If you are bristling, please give what I'm saying a chance.

Just because things have a cost, that does not mean they can't be affordable. To demand that things be free is to embrace an eternal place for poverty. The problem is not cost, but poverty.

Monetising information will bring benefits that far outweigh the inconvenience of having to adjust one's worldview.

Consider the problem of creepiness. Creepiness is when you don't have enough influence on your information life.

CCTV monitoring in New York City Big brother: Every day thousands of cameras track us, especially those living in urban areas, creating massive data files

Government cameras track you as you walk around town, despite wars having been fought to limit the abilities of governments to do that.

Aside from governments, every other owner of a big computer is doing exactly the same thing. Private cameras track you as often as government ones.

Privacy regulations attempt to keep up, but face dismal odds. Does anyone believe such regulations have a chance?

But what if you were owed money for the use of information that exists because you exist? This is what accountants and lawyers are for.

The government should not be able to spy on you for free any more than the police should get free guns or cars. Budgets create moderation.

Start Quote

To demand that things be free is to embrace an eternal place for poverty”

End Quote Jaron Lanier

If the biggest computers had to pay for information, they wouldn't cease to exist.

Instead big computers would have to earn their way by providing new kinds of value. Spying and manipulating would no longer be business plans, because the raw materials would no longer be free.

In fact, the owners of the biggest computers would do fine in a world of monetised information, because that would be a world with a growing economy.

In a world of free information, the economy will start to shrink as automation rises radically. This is because in an ultra-automated economy, there won't be much to trade other than information.

But this is the most important thing: a monetised information economy will create a strong middle class out of information sharing - and a strong middle class must be able to outspend the elite of an economy for democracy to endure.

While the open information ideal feels empowering, it is actually enriching those with the biggest computers to such an extreme that it is gradually weakening democracy.

Jaron Lanier is a renowned designer, engineer, inventor, musician and author. He coined the term virtual reality and created the world's first immersive avatars. The Encyclopaedia Britannica lists him as one of the 300 greatest inventors in history. His latest book is called Who owns the future?


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  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    In an attempt to make a digital nirvana we've created a Orwellian big Data equivalent of 1984. Next will be wars fought by cyborg while back in the metropolis drones monitor the movements of all the "citizens".

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    A very thoughtful piece thinking into the near-future. Value-exchange mechanisms change their externals but the basics remain the same - you have something valuable and I exchange something I have in return for it. Vernor Vinge in his book Rainbows End muses about some ways of doing this, Amazon's Mechanical Turk is another. I just wish I could harness my kid's energy to clean their rooms...

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    @ Futureview:
    What are the UK government doing? I'll tell you. They will not be addressing any actual problems. They will continue lining their own pockets to ensure that when they get trounced again in 2015, they can live happily ever after on the money they stole from the people - especially the poorest and most needy. 'Evil' is not a strong enough word to describe them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    If you read the 'Copyrighting Culture' story 'Brand Maasai: Why nomads might trademark their name' in conjunction with this, it makes a lot more sense, well imo anyway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    It's ironic that by even commenting on this, we're actually giving the BBC free content to get it up the google rankings.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    It’s not the data that's valuable, it’s the interpretation and use.

    Video data of me walking around is worthless until you spot I drink coffee at 11.00 and you send me a text at 10.55 telling me your shop is 100 yards away

    But where is the increased leisure time computers were going to bring us.?
    We now work longer hours for less money in service industries feeding computers with data

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    In a world where there is too much free time (thanks to 'labour-saving' devices), we have to find new ways to live. We could:
    -turn our backs on digitised content. Read books. Write books. Talk to each other more -instead of 'networking'.
    -create uniqueness instead of things to be copied. (What about a inventing web site that sells only one copy of a song -which can only be played once?)

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Are the people who hand over their information freely the same fools that wear / display brand names on their clothing and cars and advertise for free? DOLTS!
    Wait until the insurers get hold of your DNA tests that were done when you have a 'free' check-up!
    Remember - nothing is for free, and if you give something away don't expect anything from those who gain from your folly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    From5. Charlietractorboy:
    "Interesting theory. However before I divulge my thoughts further, please forward me £250..."

    That is not a micropayment. :) Just saying....

    So as not to waste a post entirely I'll add that those who stated that this is opinion, of course it is, but I'd rather read a well-considered opinion page like this than read the bogus cr*p that so often passes for facts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Micropayment system, and just how do you police that?

    It's called BIG data because there's a lot of it, making enforcement of any micropayment impossible for the already overstretched HMRC.

    Even if enforcement were possible who's going to have the better lawyers- the 'austerity' government or Google?

    Zuckerburg's 'Companies above nations' is becoming reality (eg. Google, Amazon tax avoidance)

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    "in an ultra-automated economy, there won't be much to trade other than information"

    Rubbish. If such a thing existed then innovation would be key.

    The "Elite" in the UK cant help but out source everything to China and India - that is the real problem, skills are being lost.

    Worse lack of skills in middle and lower classes means more power and total control for the elite.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    This sounds familiar.oh yes, that great british institute the DVLA makes thousands of pounds a year sending your name, address and car details to private firms abroad if your caught speeding. There should be a law against big firms using your own information given freely against you or what chance does society have in years to come to protect itself from these big corporations!

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    There may well be a payment for using your information in the future. I can see how that would work, with most people not getting any net payment but very popular data like entertainment media will make money for the participants. This seems like a mental exercise and a possible model for the futuer rather than anything sinister.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    From 13. ritey:
    "It could only be a workable solution if everyone was decent."

    He's suggesting a payment method. Those work even if people are not decent. There will always be shoplifters but do you imagine that people will all shut up shop because of it?

    His ideas are amongst the best I have seen, few people see it, they sign up to Facebook etc with no thought to who gains power over them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Muppet Master @3
    The peasants also have to pay to find out what credit rating they have.
    Should they then not be paying US to hold that information?
    If these mega companies had to pay us for data held, would they then not feel they could abuse it more?

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Speaking as a musician it is harder now to make a living thanks to free streamed services, but that is just "how it is". Better that than have music industry dinosaurs being gatekeepers of all recorded music, so a good trade-off for "free" use of my music. Consequentially I've ended up doing more "old-fashioned" work such as live performance, because that's an experience that can't be replicated.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    OK I am in the middle classes in the UK and worried, to stop this being an opinion piece and provide some solutions, what does the UK Gov. have to say about this view of the future. Or is it over their heads?

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    It could only be a workable solution if everyone was decent. And if everyone was decent we wouldn't have to worry about our data anyway.
    Now that is your eternal paradox.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Sarah Conner effect coupled with the Victorian Industrial revolution?

    New Idea's putting humans second, and computers being "overseer's!

    What happens if all computers fail????? How do we live?

    can't do shopping? can't access medical records, bank accounts with unknown balances on account? even cars that can't start.

    There is something to be said to "old fashion" methods

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    That all makes sense (although the article seems a bit hacked down and hard to follow on places). Data centres (capital and running costs) don't come "free" - they cost a huge amount of money and that money must be coming from somewhere - ie us.

    I wonder if the author proposes any solution, though. For example, a social media network / browser suite that pays its users?


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