TOPICS > Economy

Should the Government Pay for Information It Collects About Its Citizens?

June 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
What is the real price of the benefits we reap from interacting with free or convenient online networks? How can we make that system more transparent? Economics correspondent Paul Solman talks to Jaron Lanier, whose new book, "Who Owns the Future?", argues that digital networks are destroying jobs and exacerbating inequality.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: the collection of information online and its economic consequences.

The recent revelations about surveillance have raised numerous questions about the use of data by the government and service providers. We close with a look at another concern about the information that’s gathered: Is it deepening a widening class divide?

Economics correspondent Paul Solman gets that take, part of his reporting on “Making Sen$e of Financial News.”

PAUL SOLMAN: In Berkeley, Calif., the studio of Jaron Lanier, author, composer, computer scientist and lately, leading critic of the digital technologies he himself helped invent.

They’re widening the economic divide, he says, darkening our future by destroying paid jobs, like musicians, which is how he once supported himself.

JARON LANIER, Author, “Who Owns the Future?”: This is a shakuhachi. It’s classical Japanese bamboo flute.

PAUL SOLMAN: Can we hear that?

JARON LANIER: Yes, sure.

PAUL SOLMAN: Lanier has also long worked in technology, still does, as a telecommuting consultant to Microsoft research in Seattle.

But in recent years, he’s grown skeptical of the Internet. In 2010, he published “You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto,” a critique of digital networks, like Facebook and Twitter, which he calls shallow and dehumanizing.

JARON LANIER: You don’t do the “Begin the Beguine” or something like that?

I used to for money.

PAUL SOLMAN: But it was the computerization of the music industry that helped inspire his new book, “Who Owns the Future?” in which he argues that digital networks are destroying jobs and the middle class, exacerbating economic inequality by providing free stuff that’s really paid for by the information the networks take from us and sell to other big companies.

What’s the basic thing you worry about?

JARON LANIER: That we have used digital networks to organize our world, and digital networks have a certain negative side effect that none of us foresaw.

In a digital network, whoever has the biggest and best-connected computer is going to get all the power and all the money, and that centralizes the rewards so much, that it screws up the society and the economy eventually.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, this is the Googles, the Facebooks of the world?

JARON LANIER: Well, it’s not just the usual suspects like the Googles and Facebooks.

So far, there are two kinds of industries that have been overtaken by the structure of digital networks. One is finance. And the other is what we call the creative industries, journalism and music and that sort of thing.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, I can see the problem with respect to the concentration of power, but how does it affect the average person?

JARON LANIER: Well, what happens when you interact with somebody else’s giant computer over a network is always at first there is some special treat for that you entices you to enter into their game.

In the case of finance, it was really easy to get cheap mortgages. In the case of consumer Internet services, it’s free stuff. It’s the coupons. It’s free social networking and search.

PAUL SOLMAN: Free music, flee blogs, free almost everything.

JARON LANIER: Exactly.

So, what happens is, there is initial free stuff. The market contracts, because a lot of what used to be paid is made free, so that the economy gets a little bit smaller. And just notice that while you’re getting all these free treats, there’s more income concentration.

And in finance, it’s created incredible rewards for the people with the biggest computers. And in the media industries, it’s done the same thing.

PAUL SOLMAN: But is it only happening in pockets, or this is going to be pervasive?

JARON LANIER: It’s coming to basically everyplace.

We already have self-driving cars. So, eventually, all the taxi drivers, all the truck drivers go out of work. We already have 3-D printers. We have robotic manufacturing tools. Eventually, manufacturing workers go away.

We will have automatic robotic mining of raw materials. We won’t have all those people moving to the Dakotas to frack anymore. That will go away.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, in economics, the cliched phrase is “creative destruction.”

JARON LANIER: Creative destruction is great, so long as there is enough rebuilding to make up for the destruction.

What’s happening right now is all of the rebuilding, all of the wealth creation is happening around the biggest computers, and not out in the world.

PAUL SOLMAN: And Lanier thinks that’s a recipe for disaster. There’s plenty of creation in his world, of course.

What is this?

JARON LANIER: So, this was made by a guy who lived on the streets of Baltimore. And he made this out of garbage, some of the detritus of a motel that was torn down in Baltimore.

He called it the Abutar, because his name was Abu, the master flute maker of the ghetto.

PAUL SOLMAN: But even master Abu wasn’t making a living, a harbinger, Lanier fears, of a grim two-tier economy.

JARON LANIER: The problems I’m talking about with mass unemployment due to people being left out of the information economy, that is still a decade or two away. And the reason I’m talking about this now is, I think we have enough lead time to fix it.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, what do we do about this?

JARON LANIER: It turns out that the very first concept of digital networking actually solved this problem in advance.

So, the first person to talk about digitally networked culture was a guy named Ted Nelson, who started his work in about 1960. And Ted’s idea was that everybody who contributed over a digital network would get paid in little tiny micro-payments for whatever they did. And what that would do is, it would create an economy that would grow as things became more digital.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, for example, I’m driving, as I do now, and I’m part of a network. And I let people know if there is traffic up ahead. So, I would get paid for that?

JARON LANIER: A little bit, sure.

Or here is actually a better example. Right now, one thing that concerns a lot of people is that government agencies are putting up cameras everywhere. And so, as you walk around in a big city, you might be tracked constantly. I think the government should have to pay for whatever it does, including getting information from people, and should be constrained by its budget.

So, if they have to pay for collecting those images of you walking around, then they have to create a sense of balance about how often they do it.

PAUL SOLMAN: But you’re not just talking about street corner surveillance cameras. You’re talking about any computer network that is extracting information from me.

JARON LANIER: Right.

So, what we have right now is, we have thousands of computers, big computers around the world who are creating dossiers on all of us. Any information that exists because you exist should bring you rewards. You get ill, and you get better, and your medical case history and data gathered from your body becomes part of the medical databases that help other people. You get paid for that.

And, furthermore, it should be based on how valuable it turns out to be. So it might turn out that some — something about your DNA turns out to help a lot of people 10 years later can be more valuable than expected. You should benefit proportionally to its value.

PAUL SOLMAN: But how do you force a computer network to pay me for something that they have been extracting from me for years for free?

JARON LANIER: I know when I talk about these ideas, it must sound as though I’m talking about this extremely complicated thing.

But you have to remember I have been through this once because I have been involved with the Internet from the beginning. And we — a relatively small number of people brought about this pretty complicated thing already. What I’m talking about now to me is just a continuation of the same spirit.

And it doesn’t seem any more complicated than what we have already done. It’s just moving in a different direction that I think is more suitable to making a sustainable society.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, I have been naive when I have for number of years now thought, gee, free is good. Free is communal. Free may be the wave of the future.

JARON LANIER: Look, I helped make up the whole idea of free, open everything a long time ago. And there’s a lot of great qualities to it.

However, if we create a world where everybody can benefit from the information economy, even if it’s just pure information — in other words, you actually get paid for your blog post or your social network activity if you’re popular, that kind of stuff, then we can create a stronger middle class than we have ever had before as technology gets better. That is the big idea. That’s the big possibility.

PAUL SOLMAN: Jaron Lanier, thank you very much.

JARON LANIER: This was great. I’m very happy that you’re interested.