What if government paid for the information it collected on its citizens? Jaron Lanier, widely regarded as the father of virtual reality and the author of “Who Owns the Future?”, suggests that would be one step toward balancing the exploitative nature of the free technology that’s making society more unequal. Paul Solman recently sat down with Lanier. You can watch their full interview — soon to air on The PBS NewsHour — above. Below is a separate excerpt from their conversation.
Jaron Lanier: I love Silicon Valley. [But] one of the things that really pisses me off about what we’re doing is that there’s only one business plan now for digital networking, which is you gather information about people, in order to manipulate them.
Being able to use the biggest computers to calculate money out of the rest of the world by manipulating it creates the greatest fortunes in history instantly. It’s also the financial schemes — the schemes that do high frequency trading, that bundle derivatives in complicated ways, that couldn’t have been done without computer networks.
Also, I think, in a way, it’s the National Intelligence Agency. And I think a lot of people have doubts about whether they can trust government agencies indefinitely with all that information about what everybody’s doing, but if the government had to pay people for information gathered from them, that would create a sense of balance.
See, I think one of the problems with making information free — we think of it as this sort of hippie-like thing that’s good for grassroots activists or something, but it also means that the government can spy for free, and I don’t think the government should be able to do anything for free.
Paul Solman: But you’re not just talking about street corner surveillance cameras, you’re talking about any computer network that extracts information from me.
Jaron Lanier: Right. So what we have right now is thousands of big computers around the world creating dossiers on all of us to try and manipulate us in one way or another, sometime, somehow in the future. If they have to pay us for that information, that would be a more effective way of moderating what they do than to try to have privacy laws, because that stuff is never enforceable and it’s impossible for the law to move fast enough to keep up with programmers.
Paul Solman: But how do you force a computer network to pay me for something that they’ve already extracted for years for free?
Jaron Lanier: Look, it used to be that people got free land in the American Midwest, and then we started to have a real estate market instead. This transition has happened before, and it will happen again.
I think having it come about will require political genius; it will require a bit of luck; it won’t be any easier than it was in the physical world, but I don’t think it’s necessarily any harder, either.
Paul Solman: But it would entail, I would think, rules and regulations that would coerce the computer networks to pay us for what we’re giving them.
Jaron Lanier: Rules and regulations are important but they can’t be the primary thing that holds a society together. What has to hold a society together is a structure that supports a social contract that people voluntarily like. So let me explain what I mean by that. First of all, there’s a technical side to it. Right now, we’ve technically designed our network so that it forgets where everything came from, and I don’t want to go over this too technically, but we can have a link to something, but there isn’t a link backwards.
So, for instance, somebody can link to your mortgage and leverage it, but you don’t know who’s leveraged your mortgage. So that idea of one-way linking is how we lose our value in the first place. If we just changed the network design technically, that would transform things. If you knew who was leveraging you, then you could invest in who leveraged you — see what I mean? So all of a sudden that would open up things quite a lot.
Paul Solman: So if people like me knew what all the cookies on our computers were doing, and whom they were serving, and how they were being sold, that would change the power relationship?
Jaron Lanier: That’s right. Right now, we create information asymmetry on the network, because you can point at something, but that thing doesn’t know it’s being pointed at. And that was a huge technical decision that was made at the birth of the Web. Before then, we always assumed networks would have two-way links. I know this is a little technical. But the fact that you only have a one-way link means that somebody can leverage your mortgage and you don’t know it. But if you did know it, then homeowners could invest in whoever was leveraging them and cancel out the effects of being overleveraged.
Paul Solman: Or they could apply political pressure.
Jaron Lanier: Or you could use political pressure, whatever it is. But the point is it would become known who was doing what if we had two-way links, and that would become the basis for knowing where value was really moving around in the network.
Once we do have visibility into what’s going on, I think it creates the potential for what we call a social contract, or what you can call the golden rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This is what I always tell students: It’s not that hard, really, to break into cars or houses, but the reason we don’t do it much is not so much that we are confident we could get caught — it’s not so much fear of the police — it’s that don’t want to live in a society where that happens a lot. We like living in a society where cars and houses aren’t broken into a lot. It’s the golden rule, and that has to take hold online.
And that’s much, much more important than enforcement and regulations, and laws and police and all that. All that stuff can cover, like, 5 percent of the population. Ninety-five percent of people have to buy into a social contract to make it viable, and I think they will when they see that it’s the source of their own wealth.
Paul Solman: So, I’ve been naive when I have, for a number of years now, thought: free is good; free is communal; free may be the way of the future.
Jaron Lanier: Well, listen, I’ve also been naive. I’ve been naive for longer than almost anybody on exactly that point. I was part of the first generation of people to think about what’s now called “open culture,” which is the thing I’m now opposing, and I made up a lot of the rhetoric that people bring up to oppose what I’m saying now.
There was a time that I really thought that making information free and open would benefit everybody, and I just neglected to think through that whoever has the biggest computer would then dominate everyone else by being able to do more with that information. And I saw that coming about in a very real way, where people in the music business that I really loved were really suffering as it got digitized.
Like, I saw real people who shouldn’t have suffered suffer, and I wasn’t willing to take the attitude: Well, to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs. I just was not willing to do that. You know, if people are suffering in our utopia, it’s the wrong utopia. And I really do believe that more and more people will come to see that suffering is real and this open ideal is not working.
Paul Solman: An author friend of mine and I argue about this. She rants against all the free blogs; I say they are wonderful. And she says: no, “free” is depriving a whole class of people of a way to make a living.
Jaron Lanier: Well, you know, I’m worried about something even a little deeper than people not making a living.
Wealth does concentrate around whoever has the biggest computer. And that, in turn, screws up our politics, because it turns into so much wealth concentration that we create what our founders called an aristocracy around the biggest computers.
This is not new for digital networks, it’s just that digital networks make this problem much more acute because we can act stupidly with such efficiency these days.
Paul Solman: When you say stupid, you mean it’s stupid long term because if you concentrate wealth in a few hands, that’s not a sustainable society.
Jaron Lanier: Right. So, to have a sustainable society, and I mean that both economically and politically, you need to have a broad enough distribution of benefits that there’s sort of a middle class hump that can outspend the elite — that’s what creates a stable democracy, but that middle class hump is also where all the investors come from. It’s also where all of the customers come from. If you don’t have that, an elite by itself eventually becomes fragile and falls apart anyway. So, even for the elite, it’s to their long term benefit to make sure that the whole is healthy.
Paul Solman: But why can’t the moneyed elites just buy everyone off — I mean, kind of like ancient Rome: bread and circuses. Virtual reality — seriously! Plug everybody in, give them enough to eat, keep them warm — nobody’s freezing in America, nobody’s starving…
Jaron Lanier: I sometimes wonder if that’s what we’re headed towards. One of the things I’ve thought about is that some of my friends who’ve become very wealthy through using digital networking, wealthier than anybody else in history, actually, they’re very interested in funding exotic medical research that might make them live a very long time, or be immortal. But meanwhile, there’s also this funding of sort of fake immortality, where you create media effects or sort of fake ghosts of people who’ve died, so that other people can interact with them as if they’re still alive.
I sometimes wonder if we are headed towards this two tier society of a small number of immortals that are descendants of people who have the biggest computers today, and everybody else kind of churning through these sort of fake experiences of interacting with dead loved ones and that sort of thing.
Paul Solman: It’s possible.
Jaron Lanier: It’s possible. Interestingly, that was exactly the future foreseen in HG Wells’ novel “The Time Machine” in the late 19th century.
Paul Solman: And Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”; all kinds of science fiction.
Jaron Lanier: Science fiction as a genre was more or less invented because this possibility was foreseen in the 19th century. The idea of the left and Marxism, as well as science fiction, are both cultural inventions to deal with exactly the possibility that we seem to be hurtling towards. But I personally don’t believe that the elite would be able to survive all by itself in a little island, no matter how powerfully it’s defended. I think it would fall apart as it always has.