Big Data’s Humanist Manifesto


A review of Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? (2013) Simon & Schuster

By Dan Wilcock

In early 2013, IBM made the mind-boggling claim that 90% of the data in the world had been created in the previous two years alone. Facebook, which crested one billion users in October 2012, is but one of many platforms elevating Big Data’s exponential growth curve.  

Big Data—the vast digital Sahara of trillions of aggregated binary-code sand grains—may well be this century’s fulcrum of wealth and power. The data centers that comprise “the cloud” are now arguably as central to global commerce and security as the hubs of the petroleum industry. The recent revelations about NSA internet surveillance are further confirmation that a new era has dawned. 

And no matter how many people unplug their Facebook accounts, as I did shortly after reading Who Owns the Future?, we can’t go back to a pre-networked world. Short of some kind of unwanted cataclysm that knocks us off our current course, the momentum is just too strong. New developments in networking, such as the ‘internet of things’ which harnesses data and internet connectivity to make our cars, homes, and appliances ‘smarter,’ portend almost limitless network growth.

Nor can we erase the data we’ve already created. “The option to ‘delete’ data is largely an illusion,” write Google executives Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen in their book The New Digital Age, published less than two weeks before Who Owns the Future?

Lanier’s book presents a caustic but indispensable minority report to such Silicon Valley triumph literature. It takes companies like Google and Facebook to task for driving a new economic order in which wealth and power are consolidated where entrepreneurs, the best computers, and best computer scientists converge to harvest Dig Data. The list of industries being disrupted grows each day.

As a minority report, it also sketches an alternative vision of new economic system in which individuals get paid for the data they generate. There are some problems with this idea, which I’ll detail below, but his aim is respectable. He wants ordinary people to survive and thrive in the new era. He calls himself a “humanist softie,” which I think is an admirable position to take.

 The Rise of the Siren Servers

This moment of ascendant power has long been the dream of technology companies. Lanier identifies himself as someone who helped build today’s commercial and academic internets. The dust jacket calls him a co-creator of “start-ups that are now part of Oracle, Adobe, and Google: and the recipient of a lifetime career award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Lanier writes about how the progressive vision of a humanistic digital economy imagined by internet pioneers such as Ted Nelson, whose writings in the 1960s presaged today’s digital sharing and the use of hyperlinks, has been clouded by the rise of what he calls “siren servers.” These he defines as: “an elite computer, or coordinated collection of computers, on a network. It is characterized by narcissism, hyperamplified risk aversion, and extreme information asymmetry.”

 He puts this in slightly simpler terms in the following paragraph:

Siren servers gather data from the network, often without having to pay for it. The data is analyzed using the most powerful available computers, run by the very best available technical people. The results of the analyses are kept secret, but are used to manipulate the rest of the world to advantage.

To what advantage do today’s tech giants slice and dice our data? Riches for company founders and an increasing pile of advertising revenue from companies vying to grab more market share. For companies, the servers offer the ability to get precise and immediate feedback on customers, to whom they sell products and services more efficiently (with fewer employees). For government security agencies, the analysis yields a gold mine of previously-unavailable mission-critical information about threats.  

Jaron Lanier is also a musician who works with rare instruments (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
In addition to being a computer scientist and author, Jaron Lanier is also a musician who plays rare instruments (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Who Could Argue with “Free?”

Big Data is provided to siren servers “for free” because users get a “free service” in return. Google brings us to the information we need faster. Facebook gives us a window into the unfurling lives of remote family and friends. Skype allows us to video chat without paying them, and thus we can save hundreds of dollars in international long-distance charges in the process.

The word free above is placed in quotations because the exchanging information for a service means the service isn’t really free. The fact that something is provided without cost usually just means that you, as the user, are not the customer. You are the product. You are being sold. The implication from Lanier’s book is that you are increasingly being ripped off.

He points to musicians who now have to sing for their supper each night because they no longer can rely on support from labels and translators whose works get fed into online translation engines without consent. Technology and the lure of free content make it tough for some folks to make a living these days, and Lanier argues that the ranks of such people will continue to grow as servers advance in developing artificial intelligence.

Lanier doesn’t bring them up, but the infamous instant messages sent by Mark Zuckerberg to a friend that describe Facebook’s early users as “dumb fu*ks,” for trusting him with their information confirms the suspicion that the mega servers are conceptually designed to rip people off. But Lanier doesn’t spend time blaming the owners of siren servers for taking their opportunities:

And it’s not Facebook’s fault! We, the idealists, insisted that information be demonetized online, which meant that services about information, instead of the information itself, would be the main profit centers.

Instead of people getting paid, they get pumped for data for which, by express consent in the user agreements that everyone signs without reading, they are blocked from seeking payment. Lanier writes:

Even the most ambitious outcomes in the most fabulous futures articulated in the moneyed dreamspace of Silicon Valley, those where the world isn’t utterly wrecked by nuclear war or some other disaster, tend to leave people behind. Even the optimism is dismal for people. People will be suppressed and left behind.

The Experimental Path Away From Creepiness

My own decision to quit Facebook had been brewing for some time. I absolutely hated the AT&T ad campaign that launched the Facebook Phone, which in one ad featured dancing freaks on an airplane and a smirking guy who keeps using his phone to “like” things after the flight attendants tell him to turn off his phone. It reminded me of all the idiots who can’t stop using Facebook, even when they are behind the wheel.

Then Facebook started using friends’ faces on advertisements for and other companies. It exemplified what Lanier calls the creepiness of siren servers:

Creepiness is when information systems undermine individual human agency. It happens when you feel violated because the flow of information disregards your reasonable attempts to control your own information life.

At the book’s conclusion, Lanier makes the following suggestion for anyone beginning to have doubts about the value of siren server services like Facebook:

My suggestion is, experiment with yourself. Resign from all the free online services you use for six months to see what happens. You don’t need to renounce them forever, make value judgments, or be dramatic. Just be experimental. You will probably learn more about yourself, your friends, the world, and the Internet than you would if you never performed the experiment.

I took Lanier up on this suggestion with regard to Facebook. This kind of decision is just a part of a larger technology-related journey on which most people are traveling these days. As a master’s degree student in technology management at Georgetown University, part of my aim has been to learn how to manage technology and not be managed by it. This is just part of my journey.

Lanier’s Economic Model and the Porn Problem

Enough about me, and back to the book (and I’ll explain what the latter part of the above sub-headline is about in short order). Lanier’s book isn’t merely an accusation. It also points toward what he thinks would be a better way for our economy.

In a nutshell, Lanier wants to foster an expanding economy based on humanist values rather than what he perceives to be a contracting economy characterized by disruption of middle class livelihoods and wealth consolidation. In the long run, he argues, both people and businesses will be better off with a system that helps ensure broad-based prosperity and rewards individuals for bringing value to the digital marketplace.

Lanier’s website contains a useful four-point condensation of this plan:

  • Universal micropayments
  • All information is valued, and valued in connection with the people who enabled it to exist
  • Individuals are 1st class participants, just like big players
  • Two way links; no copies needed

The fourth point refers again to tech visionary Ted Nelson, who argued that hyperlinks should be read in both directions. Links should do more than point. They should also record what is pointing at them. Thus there is more historical accountability to how the original content gets used and there’s less need for mindless copying. Lanier calls his model “Nelsonian” in tribute.

He admits that he doesn’t have the technical expertise to fully formulate this plan and that implementing it would entail a lot of painful trial and error. I’d like to see him team up with a cogent economist and produce a sequel to this book that would spell out how it all might work.

Yet a couple of problems spring to mind that I’m sure Lanier has thought of (his imaginativeness is his great strength—he refers in several places to the outlandish sci-fi-type projects he works on for Microsoft Research). My guess is that he didn’t want to unwind these balls of string. The first might be called the “porn problem.”  If universal micropayments are made and all information is valued based on usage patterns, adult-film industry workers might become phenomenally wealthy.

The other, perhaps more elementary, problem is that such a system of micropayments might reward many people for ‘being,’ rather than ‘doing’—an inversion of classic values (at least in America) An example of this might be the rise of digital loafers who make a career of gaming the payment system (wait, on second thought, I realize that SEO analysts and social media experts are already pioneering this space).

In order to provide commensurate payments for online activity that really advances humanity, the market and civil society will need to make judgments. Yet there is deep precedent for exactly that—extending back to John Locke’s version of utilitarianism that placed higher values on certain moral outcomes.

Conclusion: Will We Be Reading This Book in 20 Years?

My guess is that Lanier the internet futurist is again ahead of the times. He’s seen the writing on the wall, and he cares enough about fellow human beings to initiate a conversation about how to build a more productive alternative the emerging era of winner-take-all server wars. Time will tell if the book will be as important as Silent Spring was for environmentalism. The geeky aspects of the book may be a strike against him in this regard, but there’s a strong chance that this minority report will increasingly win converts.

This is a challenging book for anyone immersed in today’s data-driven world (perhaps especially for anyone who loves their Facebook account). Many people may not care about the implications of using social media or Google’s “free” tools. They just want their free stuff. This book isn’t for them. Others, when confronted with issues such as the government’s online surveillance, may find the need to take nuanced positions. This book may help think through the implications of Big Data.

It’s not about purism or self-righteousness. Almost everyone uses Google tools every day and I don’t see a good alternative coming about any time soon even though I realize their business model is very similar to Facebook’s. There’s no escape from Big Data short of moving to rural Bhutan.

Thus I highly recommend this book, which I think of as Big Data’s humanist manifesto—it’s hard to imagine a recent book more relevant to the future of information technology.

Amherst’s Faculty: Dignity and Solidarity over MOOCs

By Dan Wilcock

The 70 to 36 decision by faculty members at Amherst against accepting an invitation to join EdX, a pioneer in the field of massive online open courses (MOOCs), signals to me that there’s some hope for higher education.

EdX is good at making education more widely available. For millions of people around the world who might not otherwise be able to catch a glimpse of a Harvard classroom, much less matriculate in Cambridge, MOOCs offer the educational equivalent of window shopping. It will never be like sitting in the classroom and interacting with the professor, but you can see what the class has to offer. Even if you never “own” the class in the form of a something that will add up to a degree, you can be get the gist of a topic and self-study your way to mastery.

I think the profs at Amherst, one of America’s best liberal arts schools, placed the right bet. MOOCs are part of the pattern that Jaron Lanier describes in Who Owns the Future?, a fantastic book published this month, in which “ordinary people will be unvalued by the new economy, while those closest to the top computers will become hypervaluable.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education article cited above states that EdX, which was founded by Harvard and MIT, has only 12 partner institutions, but has received membership inquiries from 300 colleges and universities. A lot of schools want to get on this bandwagon. Yet Amherst, when offered a coveted seat  “closest to the top computers” (to use Lanier’s terms), it did two remarkable things:

  • It put the choice to a real vote among the faculty
  • It allowed faculty members, many of whom have clearly thought through the implications of building a video database that may threaten their livelihood and those of their peers, to frame the debate

This example of democracy and public reasoning leading to a rejection of a coveted invitation from Harvard/MIT to join the shiny-new-cloud solution to higher education is refreshing to witness. The faculty committee is correct to observe that MOOCs will “enable the centralization of American higher education.” Whether MOOCs will “create the conditions for the obsolescence of the B.A. degree,” is something I’m not qualified to judge, but viewing the stakes starkly demonstrates wisdom. Putting lectures in the cloud may seem smart today, but when thousands of professors start to get laid off it will be clear exactly whose lives the technology intended to disrupt.

I don’t support the educational bloat and skyrocketing tuition that have led to the educational bubble, but I also don’t support laying off massive numbers of people who are central to America’s character. When the bubble pops, the MOOCs will be a convenient cost-cutting tool. In the Amherst committee’s language, I sense they are proactively voting in solidarity with professors across the country.

As I wrote before, I don’t think MOOCs spell the end of higher ed. Amherst’s wisdom makes me more confident in my prediction.