Unmediated

Envisioning a fully paid digital future

Print edition : July 26, 2013

Inside a Google data centre in Oregon, U.S., in an undated photograph given by the company. Such data centres are used to store e-mail, photographs, videos, and other information shared by its users and to process millions of searches by users. Photo: Connie Zhou/AP

IN the ethical minefield of sting journalism, if you set out to establish that a subject, say a low- or middle-level bureaucrat, is corrupt by piling him with offer upon offer of bribe until his resistance cracks and he succumbs to the temptation and you have captured the act with a hidden camera, you are resorting to entrapment by goading someone into a criminal act, someone ostensibly without criminal intent in the first instance. It may pass off as some kind of behavioural study inasmuch as it indicates how soon you can, or how far it takes to, reach the threshold of corruption (inherent?) in a human being, but is bad journalism. It is sophistry to call this investigative journalism. It is a piece of eyeball-grabbing sensationalism and against best practices in the profession.

Such unconscionable heavy-handedness, however, is market practice for some giant multinationals in the digital media business who enable their proprietary software to be fairly freely available on the Net, deliberately do not crack down on cracked versions doing the rounds and, instead, get after the end user who may have downloaded and used it for free.

True, there may be a law (of the land or cyberspace), which the Free Software movement would in any case deny or defy, broken in the unlicensed use of the software, but when such infraction becomes the systematic basis of a marketing opportunity, even strategy, for the company to zero in on those who use their products and to penalise them for it by making them reluctant or unwilling customers, it seems more like compulsory draft than free market. The straightforward thing to do is to make the product unavailable unless paid for, like the paywall for digital content, rather than setting it up as a bait and then for the company’s marketing and compliance arms, interlocked, to be prowling on the Net and pouncing on unsuspecting errant netizens to harass, pressurise and bully them into becoming paid subscribers.

This instance, perhaps more familiar to us in India, is not specifically mentioned in Silicon Valley preceptor, and progenitor of the concept of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier’s new, but already influential, book Who Owns the Future (released in May 2013), but it is of a piece with what he describes as the “punishing network effect” of the big servers such as Google, which he calls “Siren Servers”. The “captured populations” on these servers, says Lanier, “think twice if they want to stop engaging with a Siren Server. In Silicon Valley speak it is also called ‘stickiness’. Players often cannot take on the burden of escaping the thrall of a Siren Server once a punishing network effect is in place.”

Regular users of a server like this have invested so much time and effort and money on it that the sheer prospect of having to reinvest all that all over again acts as a deterrent against shifting to another server. The dependence on Facebook is even more committing because a good part of the user’s personality has gone onto it. “Even if you capture every little thing you had uploaded, you can’t save it in the context of interactions with other people. You have to lose a part of yourself to leave Facebook once you become an avid user.… Would you ever be willing to take the risk to sever a part of your own life’s context in order to disengage from a Siren Server that ogles you?”

Compensation for personal information

One of the two big ideas Lanier proffers in this work is that even as these Siren Servers appropriate a part of us, eroding our privacy and garnering our personal details in the process, and trade that information to those who can use it to slot our consumerist appetites and proclivities into a business model, we who are the pivot of this transaction are paid nothing for it. The free services we are accustomed to enjoying online are not really free in that sense; they are premised on the value we offer in terms of our personal information. It would be a good idea, in fact necessary for long-term sustainability, for the major servers in the business to start paying the user for this data drawn from him. The user, in the very process of being one, monetises himself. A new cyber equivalent of a social contract needs to be put in place and the laws pertaining to copyright and intellectual property on the Net modified to factor in this huge hitherto missing dimension of, to pun, the exchange value of the user. This could substantially recast the economic model because, as Lanier recognises, “digital information is really just people in disguise”.

Lanier’s book was published only shortly before Edward Snowden happened. In the light of Snowden’s revelations, Lanier’s proposition that the ordinary netizen has a right to remuneration for self information acquires a whole new scale and currency. Lanier, in fact, posits this right as equal to that of the claim for payment for any creative work or software downloaded off the Net. Himself a musician of some professional standing, he is aware of the plight of the performer whose work is mass pirated on the Net, but that is only one side of the coin because “ordinary people are relentlessly spied on and not compensated for information taken from them. While I would like to see everyone eventually pay for music and the like, I would not ask for it until there is reciprocity.”

Post Snowden, we suspect or know that the Siren Servers, which are major corporations, have been working in tandem with the secret service wings of the government in accumulating and parsing the data gathered from a vast sweeping programme of massive snooping. While Lanier is bullish about the “revolutionary narrative… common in digital politics” pitting the “quickness and sophistication of online social processes” like the Arab Spring and like upsurges “against the sluggish, exclusive club of old-fashioned government or corporate power”, he is not naive either about the capabilities of the state in the digital age.

He points out that a visit to “a modern, digitally networked, national intelligence agency, such as the CIA/NSA/NRO complex in the United States... feels very much like a visit to the Googleplex or a major high tech finance venture. The same sorts of cheery recent PhDs from top schools cavort in an airy and playful environment with lots of glass and excellent coffee. Spymaster Siren Servers thrive in all countries by now. We tend to hear more about the excesses of foreign ones in China or even Britain, but the trend is universal.”

Snowden must have been one of those not so cheery and not recent PhD types in the NSA contractors’ fold. And Snowden’s disclosure about the nudge-and-wink relationship between dominant Siren Servers and the U.S. government must give Lanier pause in his implicit assumption that the U.S. state and the digital corporations are on different sides of the fence. In fact, he sounds almost dirigiste when he advocates that the principle of businesses having to pay for use of public airwaves be expanded to apply to all flow of information—and that would include the information tapped from citizens participating in the digital economy with or without their knowledge, because “everyone is measured and tracked in the network age. So why not have government collect compensation for the use of that value in order to fund social welfare?”

The other major idea running through the book is that the digital economy must squarely be one of the middle class, and not be allowed to be hijacked, as is happening, by a few multibillionaire stars who render it “like the old feudal or robber baron economies”. He seems to suggest that the star system with its “winner takes all” mentality, given pop cultural expression in TV shows like “American Idol”, is a far cry from the ethos of the start-ups in garages in Silicon Valley by brilliant young entrepreneurs who “announce that their goal is to change human culture globally and profoundly, within a few years. And that they aren’t ready yet to worry about money, because acquiring a great fortune is a petty matter that will take care of itself. Furthermore, these bright little young bands succeed regularly. This is just Silicon Valley’s version of normal.”

Against the star system, which he believes is unsustainable, Lanier suggests the bell curve model of distribution where “there is a bulge of average people and two tails of exceptional people, one high and one low”. This leavening, privileging and centre-planking of the middle class becomes essential because “that is where customers come from. Neither a petro-fiefdom, a military dictatorship, nor a narco-state can support authentic internal market development, and neither does a winner-take-nearly-all network design.”

Lanier’s discursive contemplation, Who Owns the Future, would be scholarly if it were not, for a good part, zany. He claims not to be swayed by the fad of de-narrativisation in the digital era; not to be caught between what the director of the Matrix film series, Lana Wachowski (describing his new project Cloud Atlas), called “the future idea that everything is fragmented and the past idea that there is a beginning, middle and end”. But his ideas are as dense as they are eclectic and dispersed, almost at random, through his work.

Digital media cartel

Lanier’s propositions and prescriptions seem at times at odds with one another. The mammoth digital corporations or Siren Servers, by only drawing saleable information from their middle-class customers and not recompensing them for it, may be eroding their own market base; a “star” server like “Google might eventually become an ouroboros, a snake eating its own tail, unless something changes. This would happen when so many goods and services become software-centric, and so much information is ‘free’, that there is nothing left to advertise on Google that attracts actual money.” How this and the middle-class dominant “bell curve” model he espouses ties in with his vision, towards the end of the book, of a concentrated cartelised digital media market, a “confederacy” of a handful of the biggest Siren Servers who “make log-ins interoperable”, is not clear.

In his wishful scheme of things, the citizen, embodying the middle class, should be monetarily incentivised to become and remain a customer, and it is but inevitable if, in the process, the customer is divested of some of his democratic citizenship entitlements. His concept of empowerment seems to aim at parity of the man and the machine: currently, so seems the argument, the machines alone have unique identities like IP addresses, the people who interact with the machines should be given unique identities to bring the two on par.

Every now and then in the work, Lanier quixotically spars with an invisible ghost of Marx. Lest his countercultural persona and some of his unconventional ideas be misunderstood as coming from the ideological Left (although there is no reason for any confusion—his celebration of capitalism is unequivocal), he goes to great lengths to put down Marxism, apropos of nothing, even as he cannot help admitting that there is a Marx applicable to every situation.

Sample this: “Marx wanted something that most people, including me, don’t want: a committee to make sure everyone gets what’s best for them. Let’s reject the Marxist ideal and instead consider the question of whether markets can be counted on to create middle classes as a matter of course.” Even we begin, after a while, to imagine with him the groans of his “lefty” friends at his cuts and thrusts at poor Marx.

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