Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Lanier: Who owns the future?

The virtual world is still one of the fastest growing that we experience. The pace of technological change and digital intrusion into our lives is starting to raise a number of important questions for all of us. Issues of net neutrality, data protection, data security, and how we feel about whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden are becoming ever more relevant.

It is precisely these topics that Jaron Lanier addresses in his latest book, Who Owns the Future? (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2013). Lanier is best known for coining the term "virtual reality" and has been an active participant on the bleeding edge of technological development for quite some time. He is anything but a technological luddite, but on the other hand, he's not the sector's biggest cheerleader either.

For Lanier, it is humans who direct the technology, not the other way around. We may be on the verge of giving up this key position, but abdicating our own responsibility for our own future may not be the most reasonable way to go. In a world of hyperbole and exaggeration, Lanier is a voice of balance and reason, and this why he deserves our attention.

Besides reviewing recent technological developments, Lanier's focus is developing an alternate, plausible scenario for a more just and beneficial future, a program he terms "humanistic information economics". He makes very clear that our current techno-economic model, one based on what he calls the "Siren Server"; that is, an information gatherer that, by attracting more information to itself, beats down and eventually eliminates all competition. In other words, it is a model that eventually shrinks the economy as a whole. Lanier, by his own admission, is seeking an alternative that will lead to a growing economy and a more just distribution of wealth for us all. And, he does this in a clear, easily understandable way, and with a healthy does of wit and humor besides.

Who Owns the Future? is an important book, and one definitely worth the time it takes to read it. As the old adage goes, "if you always think what you always thought, you'll always get what you always got." It's time to start thinking outside the box, and Lanier's book is a sound step in that direction.

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