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Digital elite: A bleak vision of the future

Sophie Elmhirst meets Jaron Lanier.

“The prophet of Silicon Valley”, proclaims the American edition of Jaron Lanier’s new book, Who Owns the Future?. The author, a large man with waist-length dreadlocks, throws his hands to his head in mock horror. He might be on a book tour, staying in a marbled London hotel, but he is not a guru. “I’m always running into people in Silicon Valley with business cards saying something like ‘corporate visionary’,” he says, derision lacing his gentle west coast accent. “It’s just, urgh.”

Lanier, a computer scientist and writer and one of the earliest internet pioneers, has a fairly bleak vision of the future for one raised in the sunny valleys of Californian optimism. He sees a world where people say they are “addicted” to digital interaction but rarely “fulfilled” by it, where instead of living in a networked paradise, we inhabit a dystopia in which a few megacorporates – Google, Facebook, Amazon – hold vast amounts of wealth and power and middleclass people will lose their jobs. It’ll be not just the musicians and journalists – the obvious victims of changing technology – but health workers, truck drivers, manufacturers, anyone who can eventually be replaced by a machine. The power rests in what Lanier calls the “Siren Servers”: giant corporate repositories of information about our lives that we have given freely and often without consent, now being used for huge financial benefit by a super-rich few.

We’ve already felt the brutal effects of this, he argues. “The phenomenon of the Google/Facebook style of information concentration is precisely the same as what brought about the austerity crisis” – that is, the technologically sophisticated but catastrophic virtual world of high finance which triggered the 2008 financial crash. Marx looms large (“his writing on alienation is really applicable to Facebook”), though Lanier concedes that talking about the philosopher in the US is “like declaring oneself a jihadist”.

His diagnosis of the problem is as interesting as his gloomy prognosis. Computing, he says, was developed by two groups – a hyper-technical elite after the Second World War and the post-Sixties hackers, who believed that advanced technical ability would create a perfect socialist world, not realising that most of us would struggle to adjust our Facebook settings.

“You have the Pirate Party types sometimes defending corporations like Google because information should be free and the state shouldn’t be involved,” he says, “but it’s just bizarre, because what is actually happening is this extreme wealth concentration and the creation of the least free information in the world, which is this giant spy database on everybody used to manipulate their lives.”

By way of a solution, Lanier proposes that we should be financially compensated for any content we share – whether a photo on Instagram or when we’re unwittingly tracked by government software. It might seem naive, but it stems from his fervent belief that all our digital progress is reliant on one thing: people. Years ago he used to extol the virtues of open source, until a musician friend of his, financially weakened by the collapse of the music industry, suddenly couldn’t afford a vital operation in hospital. “We’re systematically destroying dignity and security for people who once had it and calling it paradise,” he says, pained at the memory.

Ultimately, Lanier is the best example of his creed. It takes individual human effort to make something of lasting value, and it should be rewarded. His own contribution is that rather endangered, beautifully old-fashioned thing, a book.

Sophie Elmhirst is a freelance writer and former New Statesman features editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes