Summary of Jaron Lanier’s “Who Owns the Future?”

Lanier blowing into a woodwind instrument with several chambers

Jaron Lanier‘s recent book, Who Owns the Future? discusses the role that technology plays in both eliminating job and increasing income inequality. Early in that book, Lanier quotes from Aristotle’s Politics: “If every instrument could accomplish its own work … if … the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves.”

In other words, Aristotle saw that the human condition largely depends on what machines can and cannot do, and we can imagine that machines will do much more of our work in the future. How then would Aristotle respond to today’s technology? Would he advocate for a new economic system that met the basic needs of everyone, including those who no longer needed to work; or would he try to eliminate those who didn’t own the machines that run society? 

Surely this question has a modern ring. If, as Lanier suggests, only those close to the computers that run society have good incomes, then what happens to the rest of us? What happens to the steel mill and auto factory workers, to the butchers and bank tellers, and, increasingly, to the accountants, professors, lawyers, engineers, and physicians when artificial intelligence improves? (Lanier discusses how this will come about in his book.)

Lanier worries that automata, especially AI and robotics, create a situation where we don’t have to pay others. Why pay for maid service if you have a robotic maid, or for software engineers if computers are self-programming? Aristotle used music to illustrate the point. He said that it was terrible to enslave people to make music (playing instruments in his time was undesirable and labor intensive) but we need music so someone must be enslaved. If we had machines to make music or could get by without it, that would be better. Music was an interesting choice because now so many want to play it for a living, although almost no one makes money for their music through internet publicity. People may be followed online for their music or their blog, but they rarely get paid for it.

So what do we do? Should we eliminate or ignore the apparently unnecessary people? Should we retire to the country or the gated community where our apparent safety is ensured by a global military empire and their paid mercenaries? Where the first victims of society sleep on street corners, populate our prisons, endure unemployment, or involuntarily join our voluntary armies? (Remember technology will eventually replace the accountants, attorneys, professors and software engineers too!) Or should we recognize how we benefit from each other, from our diverse temperaments and talents, and from the safety and sustenance we can enjoy together?

So a question we now face is: what happens to the extra people—which will soon be almost all of us—when technology does all the work or the remaining work is unpaid? Are the rest of us killed or must we slowly starve? Surprisingly Lanier thinks these questions are misplaced. After all, human intelligence and human data drive the machines. So the issue is how to think about the work that machines can’t do.

I think that Lanier is on to something. We can think of the non-automated work as anything from essential to frivolous to harmful. If we think of it as frivolous, then so too are the people who produce it. If we don’t care about human expression in art, literature, music, theatre, sport or philosophy, then why care about the people who produce it.

But even if machines write better music or poetry or blogs than human beings, we can still value human generated effort. Even if machines did all of society’s work we can still share the wealth with people who want to think and write and play music. Perhaps people just enjoy these activities. No human being plays chess as well as the best supercomputers, but people still enjoy playing chess; I don’t write as well as Carl Sagan did, but I still enjoy it.

I’ll go further. Suppose someone wants to sit on the beach, surf, ski, golf, smoke marijuana, or watch TV. What do I care? Maybe a society of contented people doing what they wanted would be better than one driven by the Protestant work ethic. A society of stoned, TV watching, skiers, golfers, and surfers would probably be a happier one than the one we live in now. (In fact, the happiest countries are those with strong social safety nets, the ones with generous vacation and leave policies.) And people in countries with strong social safety nets still write music and books, do science, volunteer, and visit their grandchildren. They aren’t drug addicts!

This is what I envision. A society where machines do all the work that humans don’t want to do and humans would express themselves however they like, without harming others. A society much more like Denmark and Norway, and much less like Alabama and Mississippi. Yes, I believe that all persons are entitled to the minimal amount it takes to live a decent human life. All of us would benefit from such an arrangement, as we all have much to contribute. I’ll leave with some words inspiring words from Eliezer Yudkowsky:

There is no evil I have to accept because ‘there’s nothing I can do about it’. There is no abused child, no oppressed peasant, no starving beggar, no crack-addicted infant, no cancer patient, literally no one that I cannot look squarely in the eye. I’m working to save everybody, heal the planet, solve all the problems of the world.

4 thoughts on “Summary of Jaron Lanier’s “Who Owns the Future?”

  1. The Holy Grail of economic policy and the key to wealth and prosperity for ourselves and future generations is full employment and stable prices. This remains true even as fewer of us work on assembly lines making widgets. There is no end to the useful things that human beings can do for each other and the planet. The problem is that our current economic system knows how to value and reward the making of widgets, but doesn’t know how to value and reward most of those other things. That needs to change.

  2. Very interesting. I can offer another angle to explore the problem from: economics. Let’s think in terms of the three factors that lie behind productivity: resources, labor, and capital. For most of human history, labor was far and away the most important factor. But the Industrial Revolution replaced labor with capital as the most important factor in productivity. Shortly thereafter, resources gained importance as well. This put labor at the bottom in terms of importance. This is why labor kept getting screwed and had to use its numerical advantages to overcome its economic weaknesses.

    But this process is now coming to its logical extreme: we are at the point where capital is far and away the biggest contributor to productivity. This presents us with a gigantic problem that few people seem to realize. The owners of capital — investors — are reaping most of the benefits of increasing productivity, while those who provide labor are falling further and further behind. This is an unstable situation in which economic forces are now in direct conflict with egalitarian expectations.

    A side note: egalitarianism is deeply built into our genetic structure:

    You can see where this situation is going, but while monkeys have only cucumbers, people have guns. The only constructive resolution I can see is a massive scheme for redistribution of wealth, taking the form of huge taxes on capital or the income from capital, combined with a guaranteed minimum income. But such a scheme is impossible to implement, because the owners of capital use their vast wealth to capture government.

    Thus, we see government in indirect conflict with the expectations of the majority of the citizenry. That conflict is generating increasing public discontent with government. Last year, that discontent expressed itself in blind rage that elected Mr. Trump. He will only make the situation much much worse. So the rage will only increase. Where will it go? This situation is so extreme that it’s difficult to predict an outcome.

    As I write this, I am multi-tasking and addressing people in a very conservative discussion area about the problem of the two factions in this country refusing to compromise with each other. All the conservatives have the same response: it’s all the fault of the left.

    We’re doomed.

  3. I agree with everything you say. And much of what you say was in Thomas Piketty’s recent best seller. And personally, I wouldn’t waste my time trying to convince closed-minded, ignorant people. You are almost certainly wasting your time.

  4. “You are almost certainly wasting your time.”
    Well, yes and no. I was the very picture of courtesy; I even thanked several of the correspondents when I left. But I confirmed that these people are far, far beyond the realm of compromise. They blame EVERYTHING on liberals. The divisiveness in America is entirely the fault of liberals. Liberals refuse to even discuss anything with them, much less compromise. Liberals are evil — yes, that’s the word they used. When I asked them if it was possible that the right could be partly to blame for the divisions, the general response was, “Well, maybe the worst hotheads on the right have gone a little too far, but…”

    So I accomplished nothing more than the confirmation of what we already know. Accordingly, I have strangled Dr. Pangloss. And I was less dismissive when my wife again asked that we buy guns. There really is political violence in our future. But I don’t think that it’s imminent.

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