ALA 2013: Jaron Lanier Tells Librarians Why Information Shouldn’t Be Free

In an early morning talk, Jaron Lanier, the technologist and bestselling author of You are Not a Gadget, kicked off the ALA 2013 auditorium speaker series with a rousing wake-up call to librarians: don’t let technology dehumanize the world.

In a fascinating indictment of our developing digital economy, Lanier told librarians that the digital architecture we have chosen so far represents the “the wrong kind of openness, and the wrong kind of free,” and has led to a rise in big computing that is “crippling our institutions,” and actually leading us toward economic ruin.

photo: Andrew Albanese

Jaron Lanier signing books at ALA 2013.

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For such a dire message, the messenger, in his famous long dreadlocks, was remarkably amiable, and held librarians rapt attention for over an hour as he outlined the thesis of his forthcoming book Who Owns the Future. While praising the ubiquity of information in the digital age, Lanier decried the way our networks have developed thus far, which has given organizations with the means to harness great computing power to parse citizens’ information to create schemes that enrich themselves, while shifting the costs to us.

“People who design these information networks like to believe it is totally free,” Lanier said. “And that’s a problem.”

In fact, he explained, using the metaphor of “Maxwell’s Demon,” a tenet of thermodynamics, “information is real work.” He spoke of the insurance industry, which can now use computing and network power to analyze statistical data and dump high risk patients. Of course, he noted, while that increases the insurance industry’s profits, society is left to pick up the cost. He also cited WalMart, which once used its computing power to assess its suppliers’ costs, so it could negotiate lower prices. But while that led to lower prices for consumers, it also led to lower job prospects for them. “They have created a private scheme for themselves,” Lanier explained, “but the risk radiates out to society.”

The fuel of these schemes, of course, is information, which is now increasingly freely harvested. “You are being modeled,” Lanier said of users who search on Google, and post on Facebook. “While you can tend your profile on facebook, you don’t get to see your real profile,” he explained, describing it as a “giant statistical mosaic.” And by creating models that are even just slightly more reliable than random, these companies, reap fortunes.

One such company, Lanier pointed out, is Amazon. “Amazon is ruining your business,” Lanier said. By creating its “price bot” Amazon ensures that will never be undersold. Using a “giant far-away computer” Amazon robs local players of the ability to compete, and gathers crucial customer data. And, while consumers may only see lower prices and convenience, such practices are take a toll on society at large. Even while making a choice that appears to be in your interest, such as paying a lower price, it is in fact to your detriment, Lanier argued.

Still, Lanier sounded hopeful that the public would eventually catch up, and correct course. He described the issue as “epochal” and estimated that we have about 20 years to fix the situation. After his talk, librarians were eager to ask questions, with one asking if librarians were part of the problem since they buy information and make it available for free?

No, Lanier said, because libraries hold patron information private, a value that should be embraced.

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