Months before the words "NSA," "PRISM," and "Edward Snowden" dominated newspaper headlines, Jaron Lanier's Who Owns the Future? warned us about the amount of personal information we have floating around the web. The truth is that while companies and the government are interested in our data at a macro level, the real danger is not being more vigilant about our personal information. The opening words of the book outline the problem well: "We're used to treating information as 'free,' but the price we pay for the illusion of 'free' is only workable so long as most of the overall economy isn't about information."
Lanier is no curmudgeon though. In fact, he is a total technologist (often referred to "the father of virtual reality") who has seen the internet develop from its earliest days, knowledgeable enough to approach everything with a healthy dose of skepticism.
In a lot of ways, Lanier is a bit of an oracle. For example, there's a chapter toward the end about the "creepiness" of how the government and internet companies can easily violate our personal privacy—more or less predicting the potential of a surveillance program like PRISM. On one hand, I'm fascinated to see what a Jaron Lanier book tackling the NSA controversy would look like, but on the other hand, the fact that Who Owns the Future? retains its relevancy after the fact speaks to its strengths.
And yet for all of Lanier's criticisms, he is an optimist at heart. After all, he is a technologist, just a surprisingly rare one who believes in the good technology can bring but remains cautious enough to know that it can do just as much harm if we are not thoughtful and patient. He rails against the mindset that all technology is inherently good (he calls this "technological determinism")—a narrative that dominates most tech writing. "My view," Lanier says," is that people are still the actors."
Toward the end, Who Owns the Future? delves into philosophical territory. Lanier proposes solutions to digital economies, attribution models, and net neutrality—all parts of what he deems a "humanistic alternative" to the current picture of technology. This section of the book feels less vital than the first half, but it's fascinating to see the ideal future from a man who spends so much time thinking about tomorrow. Even Lanier admits it's pie-in-the-sky thinking ("I don't pretend for a moment that all the problems implicit in it are already known, much less solved," he concedes), but almost as impressive as his ideas is his ability to communicate these abstract concepts in layman's terms. In this way, it illustrates Lanier's best quality: he never forgets that the future must make sense for everyone, not just the technocrats.
This piece comes from our free Best Books of 2013: Reader's Guide, which you can download now for your Kindle. It features interviews, essays, excerpts, and other fun extras about the year’s top 20 titles: Donna Tartt talks about her eating habits while writing The Goldfinch; David Finkel discusses the emotional impact following the 2-16 infantry battalion in Thank You for Your Service; and much more.