Rebalancing Information Economy

We are all one giant focus group upon which internet profits are based, says the author.

Published: 18th March 2013 12:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 17th March 2013 12:43 PM   |  A+A-


With every wave of new technology, doom-mongers have claimed that whole populations will be put out of work. Unions and others have argued that gadgets should be regulated so as to protect man from overweening machine. With the internet and the latest “connected” technologies, those arguments seem to be more powerful than ever. Today, they might even be true.

In previous instances, there’s been an obvious idiocy to such claims: mankind has long known that if only we could wash our clothes faster, heat our homes easier, we could get on with doing more important stuff that would ultimately create more wealth and jobs. Even today, Bob Crow’s arguments against automating London’s Tube are plainly bonkers, but he’s paid to protect his workers from progress.

Jaron Lanier is no obvious bedfellow for Crow. A computer scientist, he’s also Microsoft Research’s “scholar at large”. Yet Lanier has become a rare expert sceptic when it comes to the economics of the web.

That’s in part because online, there is no union for all us users. Corporations such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix, PayPal, eBay and many more are apparently becoming unendingly profitable thanks in part to the amount of data they are gathering about us.

Lanier argues that we need to rebalance this information economy. For every little bit of data we provide a business with, we should be compensated, he argues. Just as a market research company might pay you £50 to take part in a focus group, so he claims we are all, effectively, one giant focus group upon which internet profits are based.

Lanier conjures images of us each being remunerated by ever-cleverer technologies: if you’re a great customer of a casino, why shouldn’t it decide it’s in its economic interest to fix your heart condition?

In essence, however, he claims the logical extension of the current digital divide, between the tech-savvy and the less so, is that a decreasing number of people will gather to themselves the knowledge that comes from owning giant databases, and consequently take the profits. Online, he says, we are all consumers, and only some of us are employers. These are economic changes on an unprecedented scale.

Sensibly, Lanier doubts whether this will result in us all simply reclining in the lap of luxury. We may, of course, all become software programmers. Lanier makes a persuasive case, and it’s hard to dispute his suggestions for the future until we get there. History, thankfully, suggests he will be proven wrong.

— Courtesy: The Telegraph


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