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 90.

    For everything you do on your computer you have to tick I have read and understood the terms and conditions". When you open the terms and conditions you are presented with at least 6 pages in small font that would take at least half an hour to read let alone disentangle what they are really saying. So you tick the box thinking well everyone else has so it must be alright. But is it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    "As a coder working hard for years producing content in the hope that one day it would earn me some cash, I'm sick to death of people expecting everything on the Internet to be free. The only people who benefit from this system are the big computers"

    So if the 'big computers' are making it, and you're not, are you doing it wrong or are you just trying to be greedy like them?

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    Interesting that this page is on the BBC web site, who seem to have decided that their "BBC-UID" cookie is "strickly necessary", when what it is used for is "Unique identifiers set for each unique browser to allow log analysis to determine the number of unique users for various parts of". Would the BBC care to pay us for that data, which they won't even allow us to opt out of?

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    This paradigm shift will enrich the rich and make poorer the poor; after all, who can afford this technology, who can implement it?
    In fact we may be entering evil times when the wealthiest of us will not need the poorest of us - and then watch what happens to those without a golden spoon?
    A. What does one do with garbage?
    But then - What happens when the sun flares & the grid goes down?

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    The real problem is one of ownership. It's the reason why the 'Age of Leisure' which was promised to my parents as a fruit of automation never materialised, instead the benefits accruing to the 1% who owned those machines. The mathematically inevitable conclusion of near-total automation under our current (discredited) economic model is one of mass unemployment and misery. We must change course.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    @71 You are quite right, but what this latest proposal will give the police and security services, is unhindered access, without a warrant to your phone and internet activity 24/7. If deemed necessary, your conversation will be 'monitored' in real time

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    I think the point here is that the monetary system is becoming obsolete. It creates a vicious circle of keeping people working to allow them to spend to give people work to allow them to spend ad infinitum.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    As a coder working hard for years producing content in the hope that one day it would earn me some cash, I'm sick to death of people expecting everything on the Internet to be free. The only people who benefit from this system are the big computers - Facebook, Google etc. The author of this article is absolutely spot-on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    I wonder how many people on here realise just how many web sites use analytics (although sites should now give the user the option to block the cookies these use). Massive amounts of data passed back to google and their ilk about users likes, and in exchange all it costs them is some basic statistics for the site owners.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    Automation via robotics will change society irrevocably. So will 3D printers. As will expert systems and the 'brain that never forgets but keeps learning' aka Google. These bring huge boosts to productivity and opportunity but who will share the benefits? This is a political decision and nothing can take away the need for strong leadership. Which is exactly what Eric Schmidt said about taxation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.


    Mud houses, sharp stick, animal skin clothes and fire starting tools are all forms of applied technology/ knowledge, the myth that we have become too reliant on technology implies that we where able to survive without it to begin with.

    The only normal life you can live without reliance of technology is that of a dead man.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    The short term positive is that most large organisations are too fragmented to fully exploit the data (not information) they hold. This provides a two to five year window (at most) to make the cultural change and apply the identifying, charging and billing solution based on existing IT required to make this happen. Agree regs are weak and slow, though the euro directive 2014 indicates major change

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    You'd be surprised how much your web browser is already conspiring to tell people without your knowledge, and how many sites (google, facebook) get information of every single site you visit because they include common components, common analytics and use advertising cookies.

    The entire web industry is set up to harvest as much data as possible, and don't seem to see a problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    @ 62 .Mark
    They do pay their tax under the current rules set out by our government which is to pay hardly any tax. Its our government who have the conflict of balancing interest between keeping big business here by allowing them a reward in legal tax evasion set within the system as a reward for employing the working, heavily taxed individuals. See its win win for them !

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    But we do benefit e.g. by reading this free newspaper. Micro payments systems currently exist: eg iStockphoto; but something universal where 'everything has a price' is makes better Friedmanite theory than reality. Profit is not always a motivator and it's inclusion spoils: cf Sandel's 'The moral limits of markets'. Why ignore taxation's role in this debate? Complex times need diverse solutions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    Thinking logically about this.. there's an opening in the market here. If a company like google can make money from your data, then a competing company set up like a mutual.. where users are concidered owners.. could pay people as their data is used. It would be a damn site more popular. Even if users only got a pound or two a year, I think the ethos would set it apart.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    There will be no need to sell anything for profit because capitalism is defunct and it's only a matter of time before developments such as these push the final nails into the cardboard coffin of consumerism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    I think the article is a bit disingenuous. Sure there are lots of huge data collecting computers out there but if any of their owners look to profit from targeting me with adverts based on gleaned information they are sadly mistaken. However I do gain,using my small pc, to use free information which otherwise I'd not have- i.e. Google Earth, Wikipedia etc. On the whole I'm happy with the deal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    This is why you should anonymise your online presence, use a proxy and keep your real name to yourself.

    You didn't think I was really Megan, did you?

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    If you don't already realise that we HAVE a British version of the Stasi operating (and for some years) then you must be living in cloud cuckoo land?
    Most of your data is already collected and known. What prevents effective use is that much of it is in error, old or patchy and worst of all not joined-up.


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