Our Data Is Worth Billions to Facebook and Google. Should We Really Be Giving It Away for Free?

Reading between the lines.
May 3 2013 1:00 PM

Facebookers of the World, Unite!

If the economy of the future runs on our data, does that make us slave labor?

(Continued from Page 1)

Lanier proposes a novel solution: not a retreat into socialism or a ban on data harvesting but a market-based form of redistribution in which people are literally paid for their information, bit by bit. If your face shows up in a Facebook ad, you get a “micropayment” proportional to the value that Facebook derives from using your “likes” and your likeness for its own gain. If government surveillance cameras track you as you walk around town in order to improve pedestrian safety, they owe you a couple cents as well. The system would be underpinned by a new form of Internet architecture in which even the smallest scraps of data retain information about their human source. Whenever someone uses a data point, its source is automatically notified and compensated.

Author Jaron Lanier
Author Jaron Lanier

Courtesy of Jonathan Sprague

This far-out proposal seems highly unlikely ever to be implemented—not least because there’s a good chance our digital future will turn out to be far less dire than Lanier seems to believe.

Lanier’s analysis lumps together a bevy of problems that are really only tangentially related. For instance, the information that photographers, musicians, and writers create is not at all the same as the data exhaust that we all give off as we go about our Internet-connected lives. The former requires effort, produces a discrete result that has value in itself, and is relatively easy to trace to its creator. For this sort of creative work, there are already micropayment schemes in place, such as digital royalties. These schemes are flawed and require reform, but that’s a problem that’s confined mainly to the arts and entertainment sector rather than one that threatens the economy at large. As for the other kind of data—the kind that we emit when we browse the Web, go to the store, drive an Internet-connected car, or walk past a surveillance camera—the analogy to labor is flawed because it doesn’t cost us anything to create.

Advertisement

That doesn’t mean there’s no problem. Lanier may be right that the Siren Servers amount to virtual robber barons whose power in the marketplace will only grow and consolidate over time if left unchecked. It’s also possible that the hyper-productivity of the digital economy will lead to massive, sustained unemployment if we don’t take measures to protect working-class jobs. But Lanier at times conflates the so-far mild labor impacts of the collapse of companies like Borders and Kodak with the far greater effects of globalized trade, not to mention a financial sector run amok. Software has in fact played a big role in Wall Street’s growing volatility, a problem that Lanier struggles to shoehorn into his thesis.

Before we panic at the prospect of robots usurping our livelihoods, it’s worth recalling that similar concerns arose when machines revolutionized agriculture and manufacturing a century ago. That painful transition contributed to the Great Depression. But once we adapted our economy and our educational systems to the new realities, the U.S. economy—and middle class—flourished as never before. Our current recession may be partly attributable to a second sectoral shift, from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. Lanier is looking ahead to yet one more shift, from services to software, and it’s not unreasonable to start thinking about the potential consequences. But he may be underestimating the “creative” half of the creative destruction equation. Given the pace of change and the difficulty of predicting the future, it’s surely a little early to start floating policy proposals.

Lanier’s mind is so far-ranging, leaping from Aristotle to digital copyright in a single bound, that it often requires mental acrobatics just to follow the thread of his argument. When you reach the end, you may find yourself winded but no closer to any actionable conclusions than you were before. Still, it’s an exercise well worth performing, especially for those whose thinking about the future has grown flabby on a steady diet of Silicon Valley techno-utopianism. Lanier himself is coy as to whether he sees his micropayment scheme as a realistic solution or “a Swiftian modest proposal.” It works far better as the latter. A world in which we all eke out an income based on royalties from our data exhaust is hardly an inspiring alternative to the dystopia he fears. But if working for Facebook for peanuts sounds unappealing, perhaps it at least sounds better than working for Facebook for free.

---

Who Owns the Future?
by Jaron Lanier. Simon & Schuster.

See all the pieces in
this month’s Slate Book Review.
Sign up for the
Slate Book Review monthly newsletter.