Jaron Lanier: Economic Devastation in the Name of Religion is Silicon Valley’s Game

GENEVA – This barefoot blogger made the pilgrimage to Geneva to listen to Jaron Lanier’s keynote address at a WIPO conference. Lanier is an American technologist, futurist, writer, composer, musician and author of several books that have greatly inspired Netopia, such as You Are Not a Gadget – A Manifesto (A. Knopf 2010) and Who Owns the Future (Allen Lane/Penguin 2013).

Jaron Lanier explains how the new monopolies from Silicon Valley can be so successful, it’s not like the old monopolies where the income was collected by a single company, but rather gathering wealth reverting risk and reaping reward. Lanier uses Uber for an example: it’s fine to share cars and rides through the mechanics of the network, the problem is that there is a player in the center that takes no risk. The underlying social contract has been broken, says Lanier. In the long term, this collection of wealth on fewer and fewer hands creates social tension. But it would be a mistake to discard Lanier as a socialist, quite the opposite, he wants to save the market economy and the middle class.

What we see is the economics of the one having the biggest computer collecting the rewards of the work of others and reverting all the risk. Those of you who read his most recent book will be familiar with the example of algorithmic translation, which is really just the re-use of existing translations. There is no artificial intelligence, just selling our work back to us. Lanier argues that every time somebody creates a piece of data (”pile of bits”) that should have provenance, to be able to share back some of the revenue generated. To Lanier this is technologically trivial, in fact it was part of one of the original concepts for the web; ”Project Xanadu”, the first hypertext project from 1960 by American technologist Ted Nelson.

There is no artificial intelligence, just selling our work back to us.

What stands in the way of the solution is something quite different, according to Jaron Lanier, namely: Religion. That’s right, the religious belief that we can live forever through technology. ”Fix death” in Silicon Valley newspeak. With enough data, there will be a supercomputer powerful enough to allow us to upload our minds and live forever. It may sound like something like you would hear from somebody wearing a tin foil hat, but Lanier says this is spoken openly by for example the founders of Google. This writer may add that perhaps the most prominent bearer of the idea of immortality through technology Raymond Kurzweil was hired by Google in 2012.

Today’s ruling class in California is probably the nicest and most well-educated elite in history, according to Lanier. But who can tell who comes after? asks Lanier. What happens when this power is passed on to other people? And how come we trust these companies more than our own governments? How can we be sure Apple tells the truth about not being able to look inside our phones?

We are at a crossroads, we can accept the current development which will bring us into systems of universal basic income and similar, pushing people out of the economy. Or we can create a system with a new social contract, where everybody can get a share of the value they help create, through some kind of redistribution system. To Lanier this of course is technologically trivial compared to other software problems that have already been fixed. We are used to having our income in big lumps but our consumption very granular, but in the future our income may be more fine-grained, just like consumption.

In the improvised Q&A after the talk, this writer was able to get a few comments from Jaron Lanier

Is it really problem if Silicon Valley is driven by religious motives? (asked by different person)

I want to respect everyone’s religion, the problem is when religious people want everyone to have their religion.

PS You created virtual reality, now it’s becoming a consumer offer through the investment of some of the companies you call the ”Lords of the Clouds”, how do you feel about that?

It’s good to see a new generation pick it up. It can be a means of manipulation or a wonderful experience, depending on what we do with it. But I am not critical of those companies as such, I am part of that community, we can do better. I think criticism doesn’t only have to come from the outside, but also insiders should be critical.

PS What is it in the psychology of tech-developers that gravitate toward realising dystopia? Many of the sci-fi novels that today’s technologies are modelled on or inspired by were written as warnings.

I know! There is no utopian sci-fi anymore, like the way Star Trek used to be a utopian sci-fi. Now there are all dystopian. Same old horrible human behaviour but with lasers! I don’t know why it is so attractive [to developers]… long pause … but I regain some form of optimism.

PS There’s even a drink called Soylent now!

JL Haha, I know!

(Soylent Green was a dystopian sci-fi movie in 1973 where food was replaced by a nutrion wafer by that name)