Kirk's Wager

Review of Who Owns the Future? By Jaron Lanier. Simon & Schuster. 396 pp. $28.

Jaron Lanier is making James T. Kirk's wager. Like the fictional captain of the USS Starship Enterprise on Star Trek, played on television by William Shatner, Lanier, a computer scientist and musician, who coined the term "virtual reality" and wrote You Are Not A Gadget, is betting that technology will make the future better than the past. He recognizes, however, that at the moment his faith seems "silly and kitschy."

In Who Owns the Future?, Lanier claims that digital and social media networks --Facebook, Twitter, and Google -- have eliminated more jobs than they have produced and eviscerated the middle class by creating the illusion of "free information." If the information economy continues to run on its current track, he predicts that "markets will eventually shrink and capitalism will collapse." In its place, Lanier proposes a "humanistic information economics," a world in which "more and more is monetized, instead of less and less," information isn't free but affordable, and every individual gets paid for what he or she does and shares on the web.

Lanier is an extraordinarily knowledgeable, creative, and provocative thinker. He knows a lot about the ways in which file-sharing prevents musicians, whom he suspects are the canaries in the coal mine, from getting paid for their recordings and restricts their income to live performances. His critique of third-party social networks or search engines that create wealth for a few -- and his plea for reciprocity -- should command our attention. But his book, alas, is badly organized, repetitious, and vague. Every time you expect him (and want him) to tell you how to fix the digital economy he has convinced you is unjust and broken -- he doesn't.

Lanier recommends, for example, that if Google places an ad that refers to your marriage and earns money from auction and click-through results, you get instant remuneration proportional to Google's. Under a "humanistic information economics," moreover, every individual would set a price for every transaction. Implementing this system, Lanier adds, without elaboration, "would be more complex than I can indicate in a couple of pages, but the complexity would not be intractable." Filled with middlemen and lawyers, squabbling over what counts as information and who gets credit (and cash) for an "idea, the future proposed here will have its annoyances," he acknowledges, "but in the long term you have to pick your poisons."

At times, it's hard to tell how seriously Lanier wants you to take him. When Silicon Valley has "had its way" with books, he tells us, "readers will be economic second class citizens." A paper book can be resold; its value "can go up or down." By contrast, an ebook cannot accrue value and represents "a fundamental rejection of the very idea of a market economy." Disturbed "a great deal" by the "inequity" he has imagined, Lanier suggests a "technologist's solution:" placing an author's signature on the back of a reading slate or tablet, accumulating interesting and increasingly rare combinations of autographs (like those of cyberpunk science fiction writers) and selling them. Only later does he acknowledge, grudgingly, that readers pay less for ebooks, "which will be lauded as being good for consumers," and then makes the questionable claim that authors earn less from writing them.

Just when you're ready to give up on him, however, Jaron Lanier makes you laugh -- and remember that he is on your side. His book, he writes, is full of "hypotheticals, speculation, advocacy, and the invocation of hope." He asks you to imagine along with him a thousand engineers working to preserve democracy through information economics. They might come up with something akin to an "elevator pitch," while meeting at a "quirky, neutral location. There would be popcorn and robots." They would "congratulate themselves for saving the world again," order espresso and pizza, head to bed early the next morning, "perhaps sore from our fresh robot-applied tattoos, but also ready to sleep very well, knowing that they had not put tattoo artists out of work."