He’s right, of course, that there are hucksters and gurus everywhere. Many of them, in fact, are fond of writing Internet books and launching subsequent speaking tours. Some of them can’t seem to debate their positions without shutting down the conversation by declaring that their interlocutors “just don’t understand how the Internet works.” Morozov vents:
The Internet, thus, is believed to possess an inherent nature, a logic, a teleology, and that nature is rapidly unfolding in front of us. We can just stand back and watch; ‘The Internet’ will take care of itself—and us. If your privacy disappears in the process, this is simply what the Internet gods wanted all along.
Agreed. If anyone tries to sell you this version of the Internet, then you shouldn’t buy what they’re selling, whether they’re selling a product or selling themselves. The Internet is not an autonomous force; it is run by people, according to business practices and policies that we can change if we want to. To make these changes, though, we all have to understand what’s at stake, and what our options are. All options are still open—all except slowing down, or turning back.
Of all the people imagining what could come next, perhaps the most radical thinker is Jaron Lanier, who now follows up 2010’s You Are Not a Gadget with Who Owns the Future? In it, he proposes a new way to think about our personal data: as currency. He doesn’t mean this figuratively. Lanier thinks that it’s time for us finally be compensated, in real dollars and cents, for all of the data we contribute to make services like Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook function. The data-rich elite at the top make money off of us on the bottom; why shouldn’t the transaction go both ways?
Lanier got his start as a Silicon Valley wunderkind himself, pioneering research in video games and Virtual Reality from the 1980s on. So he comes at his tech-skepticism honestly. In this book, Lanier describes his bafflement at seeing what his colleagues from the old days have done with their unique skillsets. “Hacker culture” was obsessed with personal liberty, he writes, but some of his old friends “eventually became very rich building giant cross-referenced dossiers on masses of people, which were put to use by financiers, advertisers, insurers, or other concerns nurturing fantasies of operating the world by remote control.”
Lanier coins the term “Siren Servers” to describe networks that lure us in with free services or low prices while siphoning off valuable personal information. Everything we do on Facebook becomes fodder for advertisers. Every time someone sells a book online, anywhere in the world, Amazon finds that price and undersells it. Siren servers collect and analyze all of our information, and whatever conclusions or connections are made as a result are declared “proprietary.” Lanier argues that this imbalance of power has repercussions both economic (by disempowering the middle class) and political (by handing elections to whichever side has the most data and the fastest computers).
Why not just opt out? Lanier’s argument, like Morozov’s, is that you just can’t. Take Facebook, for example: there is a certain “social immobility” to the whole experience, in that, once you’re in, you’re all in. Lanier writes:
Once a critical mass of conversation is on Facebook, then it’s hard to get a conversation going elsewhere…. It’s no longer commerce, but soft blackmail. And it’s not Facebook’s fault! We, the idealists, insisted that information be demonetized online, which meant that services about information, instead of the information itself, would be the main profit centers.
So what’s the alternative? Lanier proposes an entirely new online economy, one that has its roots in pre-World-Wide-Web thinking about the Internet. The Web now works on a single-link language, HTML: any website can link to any other, in one direction. But before Tim Berners-Lee developed HTML, Ted Nelson conceived of Project Xanadu, a hypothetical digital network with two-way linking: in this system, every node contains information about both what it links out to, and what other nodes link to it.
This, says Lanier, would be the key to a better online economy. “If the system remembers where information originally came from, then the people who are the sources of information can be paid for it.” So, for instance, every time your YouTube video was cut up into a political ad, or every time your Facebook activity was somehow used in an ad scheme that made someone money, or every time Google analyzed a translation you wrote in order to improve its Google Translate tool, you’d know about it, and you’d get a micropayment.