A piece by Jaron Lanier entitled “Sell your data to save the economy and your future” is more relevant than it may seem at first.
He asks why the wealth created by computation is unevenly distributed:
This question has to be asked. Something seems terribly askew about how technology is benefitting the world lately.
How could it be that since the incredible efficiencies of digital networking have finally reached vast numbers of people that we aren’t seeing a broad benefit?
How could it be that so far the network age seems to be a time of endless austerity, jobless recoveries, loss of social mobility, and intense wealth concentration in markets that are anaemic overall?
The answer turns out to be quite similar to that raised by Norbert Wiener a half century ago. Lanier says:
While people are created equal, computers are not.
When people share information freely, those who own the best computers benefit in extreme ways that are denied to everyone else.
Those with the best computers can simply calculate wealth and power away from ordinary people.
It doesn’t matter if the best computers run schemes called high frequency trading firms, social media sites, national intelligence agencies, giant online stores, big political campaigns, insurance companies, or search engines.
Leave the semantics aside and they’re all remarkably similar.
All the computers that crunch “big data” are physically similar. They are placed in obscure sites and are guarded like oilfields.
His recommendation is a bit facile, I think. Basically he wants Facebook to pay you for your boring family picnic reports.
I think what’s really at issue is our model of wealth – which is that it is made up of capital and labor, and that it can grow indefinitely. Labor becomes relatively irrelevant over time. Resources and waste disposal become critical and cannot grow without bound. A pure information economy cannot actually feed anybody.