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 50.

    You dont have to worry about anything in this article happening folks. With the proliferation of NUKES etc its unlikely the world as we know it will exist in a hundred years time.

    There are at LEAST 3 areas of the planet which WILL be incinerated, the Far East, Indian Sub Continet and TOP of the list, the Middle East. Thats not even counting the DOMINO effect, or terrorist nukes.Wake up Lanier.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Google, Wikipedia and Facebook have been built on people - freely - uploading information and sharing. They did this because they want the world to see and use what was important to them and thought they are a giant digital notice board.

    When these big companies charge everyone to access this data the penny might drop about who owns what.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    One working micropayment system is in the virtual world Second Life, run by Linden Labs. And that economy has been in turmoil recently because of a change in the rules. If you do earn money, it is harder to cash out to the real world.

    Nobody knows why, but US money-laundering countermeasures are reckoned to be a likely cause.

    Can we trust politicians to allow change? Is that too radical?

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Companies keep information about us (and sometimes "share" with their partners even though they say they never will). Government keeps a long log of all our activities, where we shop, what we buy etc.

    Just when you need to apply for a mortgage and all suddenlt they need to do credit check on you?! And even more (not-so) surprising you have to pay to perform the check about yourself!

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    What a wordy impenetrable article.Please write things that ordinary people can understand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    The information age has lead to an acceleration in the pace of globalisation. As it takes hold, it's inevitable that the poor countries will get richer and the rich will get poorer. Markets cause low skilled jobs to move to cheaper low skilled countries, and in some cases, high skilled jobs too. Software development is outsourcing to India more and more. Less about machines, more about people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    There is no such thing as "big data", like "the cloud" it's an all encompassing term for something people don't quite understand. This being a prime example, for instance, "big computer" does not necessarily equate to faster or more meaningful results anymore than putting a cake in a bigger oven will make it taste better,

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    And now the big computers will have vastly more personal data to crunch and sell-on, thanks to the 'Snooper's Charter' that will soon become law. What a legacy for the Woolwich Butchers!

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    The control of data is a very lucrative business that produces some very unethical practices. I studed a computer law module at university which focused heavily on The Data Protection Act. Since then I've come to realise that the majority of people have no clue what happens to their data or what is legal. Companies take advantage of this and make millions by walking the fine line of legality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    A most insightful article. Seeing that the opportunity to 'trade data' might be the next leg-up for the Open Innovation paradigm, the Centre for Business Innovation in Cambridge ( has assembled a consortium of blue-chips to identify opportunities and pitfalls of this approach.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Clearly, people in general don't presently consider the value of the information they're sharing freely with Google, Facebook, et al. Especially as that value is presently realised by them collecting advertising $$. It will take people disengaging from this for change to happen - legislation won't fix it. Government use of our data, though, is another (and separate) issue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    a piece of metal will always remain a piece of metal with the same functions as all inanimate objects have. That is how it will always be. People are led to believe otherwise due to the rantings of idiots who unfortunately have the so-called 'professorial status' and the henceforth gullibility of the masses believing in them, and the continued repetition of the technical progress lie.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Ok, then: launch a web service that explicitly sells your data, but pays you, so you gain from it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    #33 The problem then becomes how you guarantee that a single government would be and always remain good.

    As you said "By having multiple governments...there is always an escape" the problem is that this also applies to you or me too, and having an escape should a government go bad and effectively target me as an enemy seems like a very good idea

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    If there was increasing automation, couldn't things just get cheaper?
    In the example above, replacing surgeons with robots, wouldn't this save the NHS a lot of money that could, in theory, be passed on a a tax reduction?
    Obviously this would be tricky in practice, but would be fine in theory, right?

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    I like this: "...a strong middle class must be able to outspend the elite of an economy for democracy to endure."

    More importantly however it is deeply worrying that the primary facets of the dystopian, in simple words 'nightmare' scenarios of the novels of early to mid last century are now here, and nobody was there to stop them...

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Well thanks for that, I feel really depressed now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Very interesting article and to be honest I'm still trying to get my head fully around it!

    What I think Jaron Lanier is saying is that if computers/big business had to pay for information, it would level up the playing field...?

    How do you make them do this?

    A recurring thought for me is that the world eventually needs one government.

    By having multiple governments...there is always an escape

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    A fantasy future, to become a reality or anywhere near will require new low cost energy that doesnt damage the planet , otherwise it is just a future for the wealthy elite.

    Many "labour saving" devices are themselves unsustainable, they create a bubble of desire/want balanced with waste of limited resources.

    The future will at some time include greater restrictions due to limited resources


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