In his book Who Owns the Future (Simon & Schuster, 2013), Jaron Lanier argues persuasively that the harvesting of web users’ personal browsing data (by Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others), without paying people for the use of their data, is unjust and allows online businesses to keep the cost of raw materials off the books, so to speak. (Ever the gentleman, Lanier stops short of calling this theft, even though many would say that’s what it is.) His solution: Ordinary web users should be compensated, through a system of micropayments, every time any personal contribution to the web, of whatever kind, is utilized (or indeed even accessed) by a third party. If you post something that others read, you should get paid. If you’re spied on, you should get paid. Conversely, if you access the work of others, you should pay.
It’s in Google’s (and Amazon’s, Facebook’s, etc.) best interest to go to this kind of system of compensating web surfers, Lanier argues, for the simple reason that if we don’t go to such a system, the web will soon impoverish us all, and there will be no more purchasing class (middle class) to spy on.
Slowly but surely, the Internet is concentrating wealth and power (and employment) in the hands of the few. Lanier famously cites the example of Kodak (which at one point employed 140,000 people) going bankrupt after digital photography became a ubiquitous feature of cell phones; meanwhile, Instagram, at the time of its purchase by Facebook for a billion dollars, employed only 13 people. (Interestingly, Facebook, with barely 6,000 employees, has twice the market cap of Ford Motor Company, with 170,000 employees.) One can quibble about the validity of the Kodak/Instagram comparison. But does anyone seriously doubt that Amazon has put thousands of small bookstores out of business? Does anyone question that the Internet closed 5,000 Blockbuster stores? Would Walmart have been able to rise to dominance (and put thousands of ma-and-pa retailers out of business) without the streamlining of its supply chain made possible by big data? Lanier puts it bluntly: “The Internet has destroyed more jobs than it has created.”
Lanier’s contention is that the Information Economy may have introduced market efficiencies, but those efficiencies are not putting anybody to work; quite the opposite. Soon, Lanier points out, even the medical profession will yield to the inevitability of automation (and attendant workforce devalution), as robotic devices take over more and more surgeries and robotic attendants monitor and care for the elderly.
Laniers’s book is occasionally light on specifics. He doesn’t calculate, for example, what a typical web user’s earning potential might actually be, were Internet accounting practices to be reoriented along the lines he suggests. He seems to believe the Internet’s network architecture should include two-way accounting such that all inbound links are accounted for (and updated continuously), yet fails to say who will manage the servers that would take care of such accounting. But at this point, one senses Lanier would be satisfied merely to get a meaningful (and inclusive) dialog going among stakeholders, with regard to the ideas presented in his book—the main one being that the current system of allowing companies to steal people’s Internet-usage habits is both unethical and unsustainable.
Lanier suggests that we may not have much time left in which to debate these issues. Currently, in the U.S, there are three unemployed persons for every job opening. As the Information Economy expands relative to the brick-and-mortar economy, that ratio may become four-to-one, then five-to-one. At some point, the music stops and we all fall down. It might be best if we have a rational discussion while people are still standing.