Friday, September 27, 2013

Book Review: Who Owns the Future

This is strike two for me with Jaron Lanier's books. It's too bad, because I really admire his thinking, but I gave a weak review to You Are Not a Gadget, and have to do the same here.

In Who Owns the Future?, Lanier posits that several technology trends threaten to have a long-term negative impact on the middle class, and on the economy in general (which is highly dependent on the existence of a thriving middle class). He asserts that (a) many of today's disruptive technologies and services constitute what he calls "Siren Servers", luring users in and making it difficult to escape, (b) that these do not give fair value back to users for what they put in, and (c) that the result is not going to net out to the new jobs replacing the old, but rather a more efficient system where the middle class loses money to a priviledged few that control those servers.

While initial idea of Siren Servers is one I agree with, and serveral of Lanier's observations are astute, that's where I start to part ways with his thinking.

Many of his arguments and suggested solutions are not only lacking in data, he hasn't even an attempted a simple modelling of them. At the same time, he dismisses the arguments of others for the same reason. For example, he dismisses the claims of those that say musicians can replace lost CD revenues by instead doing live performances, but then asks readers to accept that they can replace those revenues through a system of micro-transaction revenues magically piggy-backed onto the Internet. While proposing this, he offers even a high level examination of the technical feasibility nor a rudimentary attempt at the business model.

As a book that offers some provocative ideas and alternative ways of looking at technology and its impact on economics, it offers some value. But the solutions proposed are as pie-eyed as flying cars and teleportation without providing more than a hand-wave.

 Who Owns the Future?