Occasionally a book will provide the opportunity for the reader to travel back in time and delve into the mind of an author that was thinking far ahead, at least as far as the reader’s present. What a pleasure to now read Jaron Lanier‘s Who Owns the Future? which was published in the months following reelyActive’s incorporation. Then was a time when we were thinking about humans’ place in a world of ubiquitous radio-identification and real-time location. Lanier was thinking about humans’ place in the evolving information economy. In 2015 we took a critical look back on our first ever pitch. In this blog post we’ll take a critical look back on our history in light of Lanier’s predictions and arguments, starting with the central premise of his book:
The foundational idea of humanistic computing is that provenance is valuable. Information is people in disguise, and people ought to be paid for the value they contribute that can be sent or stored on a digital network.
We’re off to a good start as this is directly in line with our long-established mission: to unlock the value of the data you choose to share. Nonetheless, our mission has often been a hard sell in the absence of a marketplace in which such contributions can actually be monetised. However we’re not alone in envisaging this as we discussed last year in Micro-transactions with macro-implications. And the notion that Data is Human is not without precedent either.
But how will the provenance of people’s contributions be captured and recorded?
Everyone will need to have a unique commercial identity in a universal public market information system. That contrasts with the way things work currently, where machines have unique identities, like IP addresses, but people don’t.
In 2013, the year the book was published, we were hard at work on the premise for people to have unique identities, not unlike IP addresses. Before Apple officially launched iBeacon, we demonstrated how the technology could be used in reverse to serve this exact purpose. A few months later, in a presentation entitled Advertise Yourself, we pitched this concept to industry leaders, including to those of tech’s Big Four, at Bluetooth World in Silicon Valley.
But who will administrate these unique personal identities?
This is one of those cases where you have to choose the least of evils. You might not like the idea of a universal online identity, but face it, if you don’t allow one to come about in the context of government, it will happen anyway through companies like Google and Facebook. You might like and trust these companies now more than you like or trust the government, but you should see what happens to tech companies as they age.
In 2017 we demonstrated how Google could use their Physical Web as a means for users to opt-in to a physical-digital identity, as well as how Facebook could leverage their mobile app to a similar, although likely less transparent, end. A year later, Google had killed off their Physical Web and Facebook was mired in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. You should see what happens to tech companies when they age indeed!
So when might we expect this all to turn around?
Another basic function of the design of power must be to facilitate long-term thinking. Is it possible to invest in something that will pay off in thirty years or a hundred, or is everything about the next quarter, or even the next quarter of a millisecond?
That’s a question we asked that same year in our post on creating the next computing industry. As Alan Kay, veteran of Xerox PARC (which did think long-term) and creator of the Dynabook (which inspired the iPad), wrote to us: “I’ve never heard of VCs being interested in time frames like that.”
So there’s no chance for a startup to bring to life this vision of the future?
[A] startup-driven scenario is not absolutely impossible. A new startup could conceivably gain more clout that Facebook, and then stay true to its original intent, goading a critical mass of other, older Siren Servers into a new, humanistic phase of activity.
A—funded—startup staying true to its original intent is easier said than done, which is perhaps why Lanier seems not overly optimistic about this scenario. However, there are emerging alternatives as we discuss in Purpose, commitment and accountability, specifically around rethinking ownership. It would be fair to say that we’ve embraced the arduous task of actually testing whether a startup-driven scenario is in fact not absolutely impossible.
Should we press on? How do we stay true?
Please do that, but please also stop once per hour and check yourself: Are you still keeping people in the center? Is it still all about the people? Are you really avoiding the lazy trapdoor of falling back into thinking of people as components and a central server as being the only point of view for defining efficiency or testing efficacy?
Taking comfort in our alignment with Lanier’s hypothesis and predictions in this critical look back at our past seven years, we shall indeed press on, continuing to keep people in the centre of our vision for the future. Who owns the future? Perhaps reassuringly, there is still no consensus on the answer to that question!