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Beware the Siren Servers

Who Owns the Future?; Jaron Lanier

Book review by R. Alan Clanton | published Tuesday, September 3, 2013 |
Thursday Review Editor

September 3, 2013: Our relationship with technology has taken a few turns toward the surreal lately.

A few months ago a recently-hired mid-level NSA computer geek named Edward Snowden used flash drives—sometimes called thumb drives (and the sort of thing you can buy at Target or Office Depot for $9.99)—to steal what amounted to thousands of pages of evidence which showed that the National Security Administration had a program in place, using a secret court to validate its authority, which collected and collated data about virtually every transaction in our lives—from emails to downloads, from purchases to browsing history, from phone calls to text messages. Simultaneous to that event we learned that almost all of the major companies in the business of providing us with computers and communications have been sharing information the NSA, and the list of those companies was staggering: Verizon, Google, Yahoo, Amazon, AT&T, Facebook, AOL, Microsoft, Time-Warner, Apple and dozens of other data giants.

Data libertarians and privacy advocates were outraged—perhaps rightly so—at the Big Brother intrusions into our lives. The controversy was morally complex, and full of overlapping issues. Some called Snowden a hero; others a traitor. Liberals were angry, but so were plenty of conservatives (see “Your Best Secrets Worth Tracking, and Keeping,” June 9, 2013), and in revelations since that story broke we have learned that the NSA’s activities went far beyond what we imagined possible even months ago. Taken in the context of Army private Bradley Manning’s vast theft of hundreds of thousands of secret military documents, and in the wake of recent revelations about the IRS’s political overreaches and the Justice Department’s seemingly casual surveillance of reporters for the Associated Press, it all added up to what seemed like Geeks Gone Wild, or, in the more sinister view, government clearly overstepping its constitutional role.

But what, in fact, do we fear from government and its snooping agencies that we should not already fear from a world in which our every move has been tracked by businesses and their increasingly hyper-accurate and seemingly omnipotent servers? In a digital age, whether we like it or not, for better and often for worse, the value of information easily trumps the presumption of privacy.

Perhaps more importantly: what should we expect in the accompanying economic reality of a shrinking employment, devalued skills and cloud-based productivity?

In his new book Who Owns the Future? computer scientist and author Jaron Lanier asks these questions and many more.  He makes perhaps his most central point on page 53. The problem societies now face, Lanier suggests, “is that a particular way of digitizing economic and cultural activity will ultimately shrink the economy while concentrating wealth and power in new ways that are not sustainable.” Lanier calibrates this theme with an example he uses several times in his book—the collapse of the once mighty Kodak, and its replacement by tiny online start-ups like Instagram. Kodak was once a blue chip firm worth billions and employing tens of thousands of people; today stock in Kodak, now bankrupt, is worthless. By contrast, the photo-management and sharing service Instagram employed only 13 people at the time of its sale last year to Facebook for $1 billion.

Thus Lanier offers a challenge to readers to begin to come to terms with an uncertain future in which vast swaths of skilled jobs are eliminated—in some case almost completely—by the forces of cloud interventions, digitization and largely self-service applications (Instagram being a case in point).

Wikipedia has largely—some will argue completely—made the notion of the encyclopedia obsolete.  Wikipedia's hive of intellectual volunteerism means that the thousands of people once employed in the business of publishing reference materials are now out of work, replaced by the "free" labor pool of participants in the construction of content found online.  The music industry's near-total collapse was halted only by an unhappy marriage of sorts to the very technologies which brought it to the abyss.  Musicians have lost most of their control over own royalties and copyright protections, just as the retail "store" side of the music business has vanished completely (perhaps save for Wal-Mart).

In the newspaper business, the downslide has yet to reach the valley floor, and the case of Instagram’s sale to Facebook begs for a comparison to put the dollars into perspective: a few weeks ago Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, agreed to buy the venerable but struggling Washington Post from the Graham family and other stockholders for $250 million. The Post has been around for a century and in the stewardship of the Graham family for over 80 years. Instagram, a typical garage start-up built upon improvisation, social media and resource sharing, was formed three years ago near San Francisco, yet it had already joined the Billion Dollar Club at the time of its sale in 2012.

It would be a strained case to make, even by the most ardent acolyte of the web, to suggest that Instagram could be worth four times the value of the Washington Post—but, that is indeed what the market has decreed with these two defining transactions.

In an announcement of the Washington Post deal, Donald E. Graham, Post CEO and chairman conceded the future is unclear for newspapers, and declared that Bezos’ “proven technology and business genius, his long-term approach, and his personal decency make him a uniquely good new owner for the Post.” The newspaper business model was a reliable fixture in almost every American city and town throughout the 20th Century, producing jobs for writers, reporters, photographers, artists, printers, salespeople, and vast delivery and distribution systems. Now that formula has been eroded and damaged, perhaps fatally, by an online marketplace which declares that the information Americans once gleaned from their daily newspaper is “free,” and not subject to the old system where readers would “pay” for news.

And though the Washington Post sale concluded months after Lanier’s book went to press, Lanier would see these events as indicative of the one of the core truths he explores. Data libertarians once saw the web as a way to democratize information, and their quest was to anthropomorphize data as having an inherent desire for freedom. In this context, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Bradley Manning and others are engaged in a sort of liberating process which aligns them neatly alongside Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Eric Schmidt and other giants of connectivity, community and data retrieval.

But opposite argument can also be made: that ever-increasing ocean of data contains hundreds, in some cases thousands, of bits of information about us, and can be easily used widely and openly to track and scan our every movement. Most of us freely and routinely post information about ourselves on web, often daily, even hourly, using a variety of all-too-addictive tools: Facebook, Twitter, Google +, My Space, Tumblr, Linked-In, Deviant Art, and a list of other applications and social media too numerous to list here. That this data can be easily harvested by commercial entities is an open secret. Each time a Facebook user clicks “like,” that preference is tracked. Each time a person purchases a book or music CD or MP3 download from Amazon, the file servers at Amazon add a little more to their understanding of that person as a customer.

Example: a few weeks ago, when I was in the process of ordering Lanier’s book online for review in these pages, Amazon quickly and efficiently suggested that I also purchase Evgeny Morozov’s recent book To Save Everything, Click Here. Amazon customers are accustomed to this friendly goading. The baiting can be useful, even helpful at times. And indeed after a moment of consideration, I did order Morozov’s book (which we will review here in a few weeks), and I took no immediate note of the delicious irony of coupling these two books together on the same order. Only after diving into Lanier’s book did I realize the comic and cosmic connection to one of his central themes. Amazon’s smart server knew me better than I knew myself, and it added to its file on me: the heavy reader of politics, biography and contemporary history who also buys the music of Green Day, Smashmouth and The Strokes and whose favorite films are from the 60s, 70s and early 80s.  Information has value.

Lanier posits that there are alternate forms of currency and trade, our 100 year fetish for expensive, often overpriced art being an example. Andy Warhol and many of his followers in the art world proved themselves especially gifted at raising the value of art to the point that it becomes a rich man’s stand-in for cash. Similarly, Lanier suggests, information is now even more valuable, and in a digital economy data becomes currency. Some will profit from the management and exchange of this elite currency, while many more will watch as their skills become irrelevant and their career path vanishes.

Lanier also suggests that the rise of big data—especially in the form of algorithms and formulas used by banks, lending institutions, mortgage companies, and insurance agencies—increases the chance of economic instability by removing the thousands of eyes otherwise trained to intervene at a human level. Siren Servers seem able to make things more profitable in the short run by reducing a particular company’s labor cost, but in the long run contribute mightily to unemployment, or at best, under-employment, thus lowering the potential output of the larger economy.

Our central concern, as Lanier points out frequently, is that the Internet, through its processes of draconian leveling, may have “killed more jobs than it has created.” In this sense, Lanier is not alone. The question then becomes: what can be done to reverse this trend? Throughout his book, Lanier offers small, sometimes tentative antidotes, including the possibility of micropayments to individuals each time their personal information is used by the servers for larger, collective transactions.

First, let’s get it out there: Lanier’s book is all over the map. However, this turns out not to be a complaint, per se. He does not ramble, nor does he wander aimlessly. Once the reader realizes that Lanier’s talkative, easy-to-follow approach will be sustained throughout, one quickly accepts the highly fluid nature of his explorations and even begins to sense that his free-flow of philosophical outpouring is meant to help us see more clearly the possibilities—especially the economic dangers—of a world economy embedded deeply into one vast digital mainframe.

Lanier refers to what he calls Siren Servers (a reference to the Sirens of Roman and Greek mythology--beautiful, seductive figures who sang enchanting tunes to lure sailors and travelers astray), the mega machines which accumulate and track data in ways that would have been science fiction to the computer designers and programmers of the 1950s and 60s. And today’s machines, as Lanier points out, often amass that data without having to pay for it, then, redeploy that accumulated information to manipulate markets, increase customer traffic or manage profitability. Lanier cites all the high-profile examples: high-frequency trading firms, mortgage institutions, information search engines, social media networks, even modern intelligence gathering; for better or worse, benign or hostile (think of the recent NSA examples). If we can only design a machine powerful enough to track activity that looks like terrorist activity, then we can catch terrorists—without risk and with no strings attached. But, as Lanier points out, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Someone has to pay, or something has to be traded.

Lanier points out that a common dictum of our time is the one which encourages people to gain the skills and training which will place them, they hope, close to the Siren Servers. But the problem is that the nature of the space around the Siren Servers means that only the tiniest fraction of those people will arrive in those jobs. Think again of the Instagram example. Think again of the demise of the great American newspaper. Despite their many millions of “users,” Facebook, Google, My Space and Linked In employ relatively few people.

Lanier embraces capitalism (and rejects other experiments in mandated leveling, such as Marxist-Leninism), but he fears that our multi-directional addiction to server-driven economics will undercut the basic market forces which gave rise to large middle classes in the developed world, and lifted many underdeveloped nations into the mainstream of the global economy. In his worst-case scenario, the world would be populated by a few hundred billionaires—at the top—and the rest of humanity, numbering in the billions, struggling to find work. He sees this as obviously flawed and self-destructive, a kind of deconstructionist marketplace in which almost everything is “free” but in which little economic activity flow in either direction. Without millions of middle class people working and thriving, there could be no billionaires.

Conversely, Lanier sees flawed reasoning in the utopian visions. On the surface each new innovation seems like an example of democracy in action through market forces and people power. The cost of using a travel agent to help plan a trip could be costly. Why not find a way in which people can reserve hotel rooms, book airline flights, obtain passes to national parks, and even buy theme park tickets--often with the help of hundreds of other real world customers who offer up ratings and reviews. Viola! Online travel booking, once a novelty, is now a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Consumers save that middleman cost; in the process, travel agencies and their employees have been rendered irrelevant. Who gains from this, and who loses? His book offers dozens of similar examples, but we can easily think of even more examples in the brief period since his book was published.

Lanier recognizes, as many of us do, that there are at least two sides to each of our points of interaction on the Internet. For example, there is our routine, daily activity on Facebook—our posts about ourselves and our families, our photos, our likes and dislikes, our “shares.” But then there is that behind-the-scenes file on us—invisible but perhaps more important, the data about us being fed into the server and which can be shared with the other servers which do business with Facebook, directly or indirectly. You can never “see” this dossier, even though it is your own information, nor would the data make any sense even if you could hold it in your hand.

Lanier offers numerous Swiftian examples—ranging from outlandish to seemingly right-around-the-corner—of Siren Server distortions. Even his most outrageous scenarios seem less like sci-fi and more like something we can expect within our lifetime. What makes these parlor games effective are his constant reminders that recent many of the services we now take for granted were themselves once deemed improbable. Who would have predicted 25 years ago the demise of the household or office encyclopedia, now retained only for their nostalgic elegance on bookcases? Napster and other tools so radically altered the business model for the music industry that CDs themselves may go the way of the 8-track tape. Borders, Circuit City and other major retailers could not survive the onslaught of Amazon. Lanier points out that in the libertarian take on capitalism, such trends and transitions are necessary, even healthy. After all, Amazon and Napster seek to save the consumer money, which ought to be a good thing (in the same way that we often thought of the Wal-Mart business template—despite its lowering of expectations and diminished employee value—as providing low cost goods to shoppers).

Toward the end of the book, for example, Lanier takes on the notion of books and publishers. If large-scale industries like newspapers and music can be upended by the Siren Servers and the advanced algorithm, what makes books special? Nothing. And Lanier suggests that books themselves might soon be channeled through this same gauntlet of market constriction, leaving consumers with only electronic books and little else—a seemingly “green” solution, but one prone, like in other areas of internet activity, to control by the mighty servers and their seductive powers. Like the other narrow, tall pyramids, there will be only a handful of genuine “authors” being published; offset by millions of self-published writers with virtually no access to the top of that business model. Like TiVo, Google, Yahoo and Amazon, books will be largely self-selected for each potential reader, based entirely on their past preferences. The content of books will be churned out in cloud mills, in much the same way content on Wikipedia is harvested and managed.

Lanier is, if nothing else, something of an optimist about all of these processes and developments. There are solutions, perhaps hundreds of them, waiting to be deployed—but only if people are willing to take control of that uncertain future and assert their humanity.

On the readability scale from zero to ten, Who Owns the Future? is a 9.5 or better. It moves quickly, so fast that its 365 pages of text can be easily and comfortably digested even by those with only a marginal understanding of the internet, beyond, say, their Facebook password or their Linked In username. In fact, if those are the limits of your online challenges, this book is even more important.