Business bookshelf: 'Who Owns the Future?'

  • Updated: May 11, 2013 - 5:37 PM

Who Owns the Future by Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier, Simon & Schuster,

396 pages, $28

While working on “intriguing unannounced projects” for Microsoft Research — “a gigantic lighter-than-air rail gun to launch spacecraft” and a speculative strategy for “repositioning earthquakes” — Jaron Lanier has found time to follow up on his first book, 2010’s “You Are Not a Gadget.”

That was a feisty, brilliant, predictive work, and the new volume is just as exciting. In “Who Owns the Future?” Lanier bucks a wave of more conventional diatribes on Big Data to deliver Olympian, contrarian fighting words about the Internet’s exploitative powers. A self-proclaimed “humanist softie,” he is a witheringly caustic critic of big Web entities and their business models.

He’s talking to all the tempting Siren Servers (as he calls them) that depend on accumulating and evaluating consumer data without acknowledging a monetary debt to the people mined for all this “free” information. One need not be a political ideologue, he says, to believe that people have quantifiable value and deserve to be recompensed for it.

“Who Owns the Future?” reiterates some ideas in Lanier’s first book: that Web businesses exploit a peasant class, that users of social media may not realize how entrapped they are, that a thriving middle class is essential to keeping the Internet sustainable. When “ordinary people ‘share,’ while elite network presences generate unprecedented fortunes,” even that elite will eventually be undermined.

“Who Owns the Future?” takes some of its biggest swipes at those who presume to own the future: fans of the Singularity (the hypothetical imminent merger of biology and technology), Silicon Valley pioneers seeking “methusalization” (i.e., immortality), techie utopians of every stripe. Yes, Lanier happens to be one of them. But he still is capable of remembering when, in his boyhood, ­prognosticators foresaw lunar colonies and flying cars. Now they think about genomics and data. Mindful of that way-cool past, he says, “I miss the future.”

NEW YORK TIMES

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