cover image Who Owns the Future?

Who Owns the Future?

Jaron Lanier. Simon & Schuster, $28 (400p) ISBN 978-1-4516-5496-7

Information can’t be free if the digital economy is to thrive, argues this stimulating jeremiad. Noting that the Internet is destroying more jobs than it creates, virtual reality pioneer and cyber-skeptic Lanier (You Are Not a Gadget) foresees a future when automation, robotics, 3-D printers, and computer networks will eliminate every industry from nursing and manufacturing to taxi-driving. The result, he contends, will be a dystopia of mass unemployment, insecurity, and social chaos in which information will be free but no one will be paid except the elite proprietors of the “siren servers”—Google, Facebook, Amazon, and the like—that manipulate our lives. Lanier’s extrapolation of current trends to an economy where almost everyone will be judged redundant is incisive and scary. Unfortunately, his proposal for safe-guarding the middle class—micropayments for the supposedly valuable but currently free information that ordinary people feed into the Web, from consumer profiles and friending links—feels as unconvincing and desperate as the cyber-capitalist nostrums he derides. Lanier’s main argument spawns fascinating digressions into Aristotle’s politics, science-fiction themes, Silicon Valley spirituality, and other byways. Even if his recommended treatment seems inadequate, his diagnosis of our technological maladies is brilliant, troubling, and well worth the price. Agent: Max Brockman, Brockman Inc. (June)