Orwellian Utopia? Thoughts on Jaron Lanier, Technology and the Future

A smart friend of mine once said to me:

Of course, that’s your great idiocy, your faith that technology will solve everything…

Yes, he’s a pompous git. But recently I’ve read some things which made me think he might be half right. Chief among these is Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns The Future? which is an incredibly alarming book. In a sharp departure in tone from the general Silicon Valley ethos (which is basically that technology solves everything), Lanier asserts that much recent technological progress is much more sinister than we realize. His central argument is that we as a society are regressing back to a more feudal distribution of wealth, a future without dignity, because of the way technology is rapidly going to replace typical ‘middle class’ jobs. Crucially, this transformation is going to be facilitated by big data that is mined from citizens, data which we constantly give away for free without really considering the long-term consequences. We give this data away via social media, search engines, online shops, banks, online dating sites and more, and in so doing make a small handful of people very wealthy.

The classic refrain: ‘yeah, but every time technology has replaced labor, it’s created other types of jobs’ is no longer valid, because you only need a few geeks to watch over a supercomputer (what Laron calls a ‘Siren server’ – named after the creatures fromHomer’s* Odyssey*).

It’s hard to explain this kind of stuff without some examples. Let’s think about jobs/industries that are on the way out (in say, the next 30 years):

  • Everyone who drives for a living – from taxi drivers to truck drivers. After much squawking, and a difficult transition period, the future will almost certainly be full of computer-driven cars.
  • A significant proportion of nursing work – be it in carehomes or hospitals – robots are a more cost efficient long-term solution. And costs are going to be big in Healthcare and Aged Care. The scale of the looming problem is, frankly, terrifying.
  • Most surgery (robots again)
  • A great deal of professional service work – things like tax audits are obvious areas where software can replace humans
  • Translators/Interpreters (Google will crush them)
  • Academics – this one took a while to click for me, but I really see it now. The rising cost of higher education combined with the increasing availability of that information online (for free or very little) is a powerful set of incentives. Big dogs will remain – especially in the hard sciences, but numbers will dwindle generally, particularly in the Humanities.
  • Photographers (Instagram et al.)
  • Independent book sellers and publishers (Amazon kills them)
  • A lot of high-street stores, notably clothing stores and Walmart in everything apart from groceries (home 3D printing kills them)

Obviously none of these trades will be completely wiped out, and you could argue the toss on any of these predictions. That’s not the point though. The point is that the overall pool of jobs will shrink. And the reason for this is technological progress, much of which is facilitated by big data mining. Take a look back at the list. How do you think Google will improve its translations over time? Or its understanding of tax evasion techniques? How will Amazon learn more about shopping habits, the psychology of its customers? It will learn it from people like you. And it will never pay or recognize those who help improve ‘siren server’ algorithms for their contribution. A translator could come up with a really great Spanish to Chinese translation of a proverb. Google spiders crawl the translator’s website and that translation becomes part of Google translate (this is obviously a grotesque simplification of the process, but the point stands) – that translation will then be used by millions of people in the coming years, but the great translator who came up with it? He’s out of a job. If that seems a bit distant, then some more obvious happening-right-now stuff is that any photo you upload to Instagram can be used in an advert without you being notified or paid.

Thus, the point Lanier makes is that many industries will go the way of the music industry. Technology means that you can illegally download music, or store ten thousand songs on your iPhone, market your band on YouTube, become an overnight sensation. But it also means that all those ‘steady’ jobs working for record labels, working in music stores etc., their number has shrunk. Performers themselves now make much more money from live concerts (generally) – which is hardly sustainable if you have a family or are old.

This is the ugly reality to ‘open everything’. If you assume that everything should be free, then sooner or later your piece of the pie will also become affected. This process often takes decades though, so people don’t really consider it.

I don’t have a solution. Lanier does, and I’d recommend checking the book out to learn more (it’s basically an elaborate system of nano-payments which gives people credit for their contributions). This is actually one of the reasons something like bitcoin could be really amazing, because it would allow for this type of solution.

Some friends of mine were recently talking about this, about how much data we constantly give away for free. One was of the opinion that it was OK so long as they kept it bundled so that he couldn’t be individually identified. Another friend, who has founded a tech/healthcare startup, was of the opinion: “Let them have my data. It’s better for everyone if all this stuff is open. It speeds up how quickly we can understand disease, clinical best practices, and frankly, I never want to have to watch another advert for tampons” (he’s male). When I argued that I wanted to be paid for my contributions I was met with the response:

“It doesn’t work that way, when it’s just your data then 1 + 1 = 2, when it’s combined with Google then 1+1 = 3”

True. On its own, my sole contribution would be meaningless. But if I don’t have the resources to turn it into something profitable, and someone else does, shouldn’t I still be paid for it? After all, it’s valuable to them. If I were to pick cotton, I wouldn’t know how to make a shirt from it. But a shirt-making company will still pay me something for the cotton, albeit significantly less than they will sell the shirt for. Why do we view information in such a different light? I find this mentality interesting and troubling.

It’s definitely true that a more open world comes with huge benefits – like helping us solve problems faster. The more data you have about a problem, and the more people who try and solve it, the better (generally). But what about the pitfalls? I worry about how this data will be used. Google might ‘promise’ never to sell your data to a third party…but what if one day a third party comes along (or the NSA) and offers them a BIG cheque, maybe at a time when Google needs a big cheque. What then? Am I going to try and sue Google? Will I ever know? Probably not, in both cases. The point is, these are private corporations, and they are prone to seek profit not ethical highroads. History is pretty consistent on this point.

I don’t want to have to worry that an insurance company knows my medical details. I don’t want smart toilets which tell my employer how many units of alcohol I drank the night before. Things can get Orwellian really fast.

This is why I feel so torn. On the one hand, there are the incredible benefits technology can bring – profound changes in medicine which will raise the global standard of living, and amazing innovations which will allow you to know in real time if your loved ones are still breathing. On the other hand, there’s that enormous dossier of private information that lots of people have on you. Like the all-seeing eye of Sauron, these guys are sniffing for ways to manipulate you, make money from you, thousands of times every second. It’s a scary juxtaposition.

It also strikes me that hackers (for non-coders, hacker = person who codes at a high level, not person who breaks the law) tend to view the whole scene with quite a Darwinian view. If you understand how to protect yourself, great. If not, too bad. What’s worse, most people don’t even care that they are constantly hemorrhaging personal information, so long as they get ‘free stuff’. Every time you visit a website on the internet, you are tracked by thousands of different bits of software. It occurs to me that the nonchalant shrug of ambivalence that most people under 30 give when asked if they’re worried about revealing their personal information on Facebook is very similar to the shrug I get from most Chinese people when asked if it bothers them that they can’t vote. I find this disturbing.

I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong. I’m certainly not advocating fighting against the growth of technology – that would be idiotic. I think it’s more about paying attention the trajectory technological progress is taking, so that I know which ideas are worth supporting (or perhaps creating). There’s no doubt the whole thing is bloody confusing. I do know that I will continue to learn to code, to understand more about how the internet works. I’ll continue to live in the future . And I will never forget that if you don’t know what they’re selling, then they’re selling you.