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 230.

    Totally agree. A big company pays millions to get an advert in front of my eyes, that I have no choice about. So why shouldn't I get a small slice of those millions? If you want me to watch your ads, pay me for doing so, and I'll happily watch them. Otherwise, don't intrude on my life. We are now bombarded with ads, and it's getting worse all the time. The model has to change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 229.

    At my supermarket you must have a store member card to get discounts and specials - as I never use a charge card at the store, I did not give them my e-mail, phone number, or full address. I also used different spelling for my name - so if it came up at checkout it would be pronounced correctly but not matchable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 228.

    My name is Duck. Mr C T Duck. Honest!

    I could be a terrorist, arms dealer, drug dealer, money launderer.

    For further information please send £1,000 in used fivers to:

    3rd nest from the right,
    Big Pond,
    Northern England.

  • rate this

    Comment number 227.

    Jaron is right, technology is "the death knell of the middle classes" but only in the UK, as the class system goes global, though perhaps with a different name. The middle classes must learn to invest successfully today, or become the poor of tomorrow. As the world gets 'smaller', the new middle classes will likely be those in high population manufacturing countries such as India and China.

  • rate this

    Comment number 226.

    Sell your data to save the economy and your future, do I get any of the money, NOPE! Thanks for taking my information & selling it making money yourself NOT ME whats next!

  • rate this

    Comment number 225.

    IBM's Watson database search engine if put over a constantly updated medical database (as in medical books, magazine articles, drug interactions, side affects, even symptoms and resolutions reported in blogs) may become a tool for doctors and even patients to narrow down what is wrong with someone - but it will be a tool - it will still be up to humans to evaluate information.

  • rate this

    Comment number 224.

    223. Alan T --- Generally You get several copies because their is a slight variation in the way an address is loaded into the particular computer system. Fort both multiple copies and dead person copies best way is to refuse delivery, return to sender - and mark why.

  • rate this

    Comment number 223.

    Sound scary, data processed sold and shared so precisely! But how come my wife gets three copies of every Cotten Traders cat? Why do I get several copies of every Maplin booklet, same name, same address in both cases. Why do we still get computer addressed letters for the previous owner of our house - now dead 7 years? Lots of data, but I hope no-one is basing important decisions on it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 222.

    Democratic consensus politicians are toadies to Big Money.

    It's interesting how all sorts of stuff is online free of copyright but the tech firms who run the Internet protect their IP with patents AND copyright AT THE SAME TIME. A programme is an invention and a literary text they claim meriting protracted protection.

  • rate this

    Comment number 221.

    It comes as no secret that consumer data, in virtually every category, is tracked, analyzed and sold. It’s a great deal for the vendors (cellphone, computer companies) and the buyers (everybody who wants to sell you something.) It is a safe assumption that the vendors do not give this data away. it’s not too farfetched to suggest that consumers monetize this data..

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    This is a panic that surfaces about every 10 years or so. On YouTube Watch "Can Machines Think?" from 1961. Listen to "In the beginning" by The Moody Blues from 1969. Watch a Horizon from 1979 "The Chips are Down" - watch another Horizon "Digital Frontiers" from 1993. They ALL prognosticate that man will become the servant of the machine. Anyone who knows how computers really work just laughs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    The internet has provided a method of exploiting cheap labour in the 3rd world countries. Simple as that. That is why they are getting rich, and the lack of working class jobs in USA & UK is making us poorer, except the rich. Yes, use 3rd World labour, and encourage them to build their own internal markets from natural resources, and remove corruption, like the UK once did.

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    What a load of old dribble? Been watching Terminator too much it seems. Computers are for the wealthy, the vast majority of people on this planet have no interaction with computers at all. Big data means absolutely nothing to the millions and millions that live hand to mouth. There is no way that will be resolved this century.

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    Wheezes. If you give out your name invent a fake middle initial and make a note of each one you invent against who you gave it to. If you get spam you'll know who it was from and can officially notify them to stop selling your info. If you have to give a phone number for no reason, drop a digit out of it - most data collectors can't spot that you did that. These concerns are similar to the 60s.

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    One thing I can't wrap my head around - by putting a pricetag on data, surely you're widening the gap between rich and poor? The richest companies/people would be able to afford information whereas the poorer wouldn't, which would eventually lead to a monopoly & privatisation of the data flow? I'm maybe way off the mark (I'm not very clever, admittedly) but would love this explained?

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    Maybe its time to give the computers and robots ago. We have been around for 200,000-500,000 years. And we still havent learned how to get along. Half the peeps I see these days may as well be pugged into the matrix as all they do is look at screens and tap buttons all day long. The rise of the machines won't be stopped, unless we get back to what matters. Real life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.

    Time and again, humans set their systems up for failure by so privileging one member of an oppositional pair (e.g. open or credit) that the essential contribution of the other member is drowned out. Human systems are handed (chiral). There are always four components: right, not left; not right, left; and the boundary between these made up of not right, not left and right, left.

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    Power corrupts. Empowering the Police corrupts their function in society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 212.

    Well that's a different question, to which I'd ask "is a person defined by his/her societal input"?

    And if all tasks become automated then what should people aspire to? I think the answer lies in the question. The one thing machines cannot do is to aspire.

    Freed of the need to work a day job I'd hope people took more time to invent, explore and become better.

    But then, I am an idealist...

  • rate this

    Comment number 211.

    All the examples I see of inequality from data are not about crunching power, they're about retricted access to data.

    From High-Frequency trading (where machines are placed at the stock exchange - paying millions for it - to be the first to get the data) to big-brother surveilance where it's all about who can access surveilance data.

    It's always been the data that's restricted by gatekeepers


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