News & Views

School of Life Talk / Jaron Lanier and James Bridle in conversation

by Contagious Team

Computer scientist and author Jaron Lanier on his latest book Who Owns the Future?

Last night at London's Conway Hall renowned computer scientist and author Jaron Lanier discussed the future of technology and how we can help shape it for the better, with technologist, writer and artist James Bridle

Hosted by The School of Life, Lanier - perhaps best known for popularising the term virtual reality in the 1980s - spoke to a packed auditorium about his recently published book Who Owns the Future?, which discusses how the distribution of power and money is changing in the digital age to favour corporations and governments rather than individuals.

Lanier began by introducing the book's central idea that as automation replaces people in manufacturing and service jobs, information and data will become currencies (think Facebook selling your data to advertisers). That would be fine except that the internet economy is a shrinking one, he argued, and one ruled by a few very powerful companies such as Facebook and Google, that are in turn controlled by corporations, banks, and government agencies. As Lanier pointed out, 'not all computers are created equal - and the biggest computer will rule a network.' People unknowingly give up information to these companies that is gathered and analysed, resulting in ever-increasing revenue for those companies, for which people receive very little in return.

He then argued that instead of the current system where users give up their information for free, information should have a monetary value, so that when people give up personal data, they should get paid for it. 'Track me, but it'll cost you,' he said. Once a keen advocate of the free exchange of music, he'd come to realise as he got older, he said, that performances were a fragile way to earn a living. Royalties, by contrast, offered some security. Lanier added that the success of a very few creators (YouTube stars, for example) was covering up the fact that most people weren't compensated for their creative endeavours and online activity. His solution to that conundrum was a system first suggested by IT pioneer Ted Nelson decades ago: every version of a video file, for example, would be linked back to its original, and the creator of that credited every time it was used.

Lanier went on to explain that Google's wearable computer Project Glass will ultimately be a data-gathering opportunity for the search giant, tracking faces, places and the everyday activities of its users. Lanier argued users should instead be paid for handing over their personal information. That would result in what Lanier called a new social contract, where corporations will be less able to take advantage of people without their knowledge. 

Summing up how people could combat this data-gathering, Lanier suggested that people should launch personal experiments to become more aware about how they fit into larger networks, like Facebook or Twitter. 'Quit Facebook for six months,' he suggested 'and don't brag about it or force other people to do it - just see how it feels.'

The School of Life is a London-based organisation that regularly hosts talks and classes that explore good ideas for everyday life. Future events can be found here, and Who Owns the Future? will is available online

Here's a link to an interview Contagious did with Lanier in 2010.