Jaron Lanier is an extraordinary writer and equally extraordinary thinker. A computer scientist and musician, he coined and popularized the term "virtual reality" and has made numerous contributions to the field of information technology. As a musician he specializes in playing a large variety of ancient and rare acoustic instruments.
Who Owns The Future is an exhilarating read in part simply because it's so fresh. Lanier questions every routine adage about information technology. Who owns the future? is an economic question, and Lanier responds in the best vein of thinking that was once called "political economy."
Lanier shows how the present course of information technology is unsustainable: costs and risks are "off the books," externalized or socialized, and rewards are privatized. This is done through the mass aggregation and analysis of "big data" which is contributed free (so-called "shared") to the massive cloud computing summarized by his term "siren servers." Siren servers are misleading because they produce unintentionally inflated claims that become gigantically (perhaps uncontrollably) volatile. Siren servers depend on information assymetry --they know things that no one else can know and that must be kept secret (or so goes the claim). Each siren server pretends that it alone is playing that game. But the real analysis they do is highly imprecise and unintentionally leads to cascading networked effects such as crisis of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that touched off the economic crisis since 2008.
If almost every kind of work in the future will be done as software and by machines, what becomes of all the surplus workers? This is the heart of the conceptual mistake that is manner in which society and its leadership now envisions technology and economy. The old "levees" that channelled economic turbulence into change tolerable to the middle class are being breached (such as labor unions, affordable education, health care, and retirement funding). So who owns the future?
Possible scenarios ("humors") range from highly negative, Malthusian inability to control human power to improbably and superficially narcissistic socialist utopias. A practical way forward involves the equalization of information seeking, storage, and analysis so that individuals are remunerated (paid) when they supply data to a server. Thus power and justice will be more equitably distributed, rather than the fiction of "free" services in exchange for being spied on (such as the case with Google, Facebook, and others today). This future won't be perfect, but it will be humanely sustainable.
This fascinating book steers the reader into unexpected juxta-positions of the very old (Aristotle) and the very new (3-D printers). It's a wild ride, and several times I had to re-read whole chapters until I felt I might understand what Lanier is saying. It's not the words that are challenging, but the thinking. This book is a really good read and I can't recommend it highly enough.
Postscript: Lanier (for all the impact of his telling critique of Silicon Valley culture) still exemplifies a quality inherent in much philosophizing of technology: a blindness or tone-deafness to the Tragic in human affairs. This is also a very American quality: we don't do tragedy well in this culture, and those American writers, artists, and musicians who do tragedy well are almost exceptions the highlight such a general truth (--such as Eugene O'Neill, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Billie Holiday, Flannery O'Connor, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulker, Arthur Miller). A quest to overcome finitude and particularity bears the enormous burden of even guessing how it will succeed in a world that offers absolutely no evidence of any previous success. In his careful distance from any questions that evoke any religious sense (the author carefully retreats or scuttles around any mention of any god, God, or Ultimate Other), Lanier inadvertently cuts himself off from a rich vein of reflection and experience which argues against the facile optimism of too many technologists.