Who Owns the Future?

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Who Owns the Future?
Who Owns the Future?.jpg
AuthorJaron Lanier
PublishedSimon & Schuster
Media typeBook
Awards2014 Goldsmith Award

Who Owns the Future? a non-fiction book written by Jaron Lanier published by Simon & Schuster in 2013. The was well received and won multiple awards in 2014: Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, The Goldsmith Award, and Top honors at the San Francisco Book Festival.



Lanier's (2013) book is an interesting perspective on digital media, specifically social networks like Facebook and large corporations like Google. The overall all theme of the book intrigues readers to think about how they use the internet. Specifically the information user input online via, social media or a search engine that doesn't want your money it's free, as long as you give up your personal information for free. Like your email address or location which seems like nothing in the moment you need that search engine or Facebook post. What Lanier is saying throughout the book is that the free data all users put on the internet is used by companies to advertise or direct market to users, and the users should get reimbursed for their contribution.[1]


Name drop[edit]

Lanier doesn't hide the fact that he is or was part of the problem the very premise his book is written on. He also doesn't shy away from naming some of the large companies and social networks that have used his services in the past, for the exact questions raised in the book. Companies like: Walmart, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Twitter for example. Lanier makes this clear early in the book saying, "At the end of the day, even the magic of machine translation is like Facebook, a way taking free contributions from people and regurgitating them as bait for advertisers or others who hope to take advantage of being close to a top server."[1](p20)

Siren Servers[edit]

Lanier compares corporations like Google or any that I previously mentioned to sirens. Yes, sirens the mythical singing creatures that call sailors by song to their demise. Lanier has dubbed these corporations as "Siren Servers" in chapter five. His official definition in the book is "an elite computer or coordinated collection of computers on a network."[1](p54) He explains in detail in the rest of the chapter and for the remainder of the book how important information is to siren servers and how valuable a commodity information is yet the people providing don't get a kickback for it. Information is a true gold mine (figuratively) for siren servers, free to sell to companies online for profit to the siren servers.[1]


There is mention of Karl Marx in the book mainly as a reference point for readers something for the mind to chew on as Lanier weaves in the implications of Marxism. Unlike Marx, Lanier is advocating for the middle class saying, "Whatever the intent might have been, the result is a wielding of digital technology against the future of the middle class."[1](p60) In chapter eight he provides the example of 3D printers and how they could reduce humans carbon footprint by no longer needing goods transported because they could make their own with a 3D printer. 3D printers are one example Lanier provides another example of future technology could effect traffic flow no more stop lights, because the self-driving cars would know where all the other car are and stop automatically.[1](pp86-87)

Final thoughts[edit]

Lanier drops hints that his book is for humanity to ensure that they aren't completely replaced by robots and technology as he says, "Someone like me a humanist softie, will complain about the oppressive feeling of having to feed information systems in order to get by."[1](p364) His book backs that up throughout even the interludes that are spread throughout the book, each one is written with humanity in mind to ensure the reader remembers that they are still valuable humans not just free data for siren servers to mine endlessly.


The book is divided into nine parts plus a conclusion (golden nuggets) that readers will continue to think about after reading this book. Lanier ends each part of the book with interludes. Each interlude is tailored to the theme of the chapters contained in each part of the book. The interludes read like mini fictional short stories and others suggest gentle guiding thoughts on what reader could take away form the theme in each cluster of chapters.


  1. First Round
  2. The Cybernetic Tempest
  3. How This Century Might Unfold, from Two Points of View
  4. Markets, Markets, Energy Landscapes, and Narcissism
  5. Contest to Be Most Meta
  6. Democracy
  7. Ted Nelson
  8. The Dirty Pictures (or, Nuts and Bolts: What a Humanistic Alternative Might Be Like)
  9. Transition
  10. Conclusion


Joe Nocera from the New York Times said:

The most important book I read in 2013 was Jaron Lanier's "Who Owns the Future?".[2]

Janet Maslin from the New York Times said:

compared Lanier to Micheal Jackson the King of Pop vs. Lanier dubbed the father of Virtual Reality.[3]The most interesting part of the review was a mention of Karl Marx book Das Kapital. Maslin gives a quick detail about Lanier listening to something while driving and he links that to Marx. Maslin writes, "If you select the right passages, Marx can read as being incredibly current."[3]

Hiawatha Bray from the Boston Globe said:

In Lanier's world, our personal information is recognized as private property. Any business that wants to use it — Google, Amazon, your cellphone carrier, your bank — would have to pay for the privilege, sending you a few bucks every time. Even the cops would have to pay you if they subpoenaed your cellphone records. Indeed, Lanier's plan has a clever side benefit — it protects our privacy by making it costly to spy on us.[4]

Peter Lawler commented:

So Lanier gives us (Captain) "Kirk's wager." Let's be optimistic that the TV versions (as opposed to the dumb movies) of Star Trek, despite the silliness of the techno-details, are basically right. Our techno-future is not only about the endless procession of new gadgets and instruments but likely to be "a more moral, fun, adventurous, and sexy world." [5]

The Guardian said:

And yet one of the triumphs of Lanier's intelligent and subtle book is its inspiring portrait of the kind of people that a democratic information economy would produce.[6]

The Economist commented:

Mr Lanier has an audacious solution. If information is worth money (and the rise of companies trading on data would suggest that is the case) then people should be paid for what they contribute. He envisions a complicated mechanism in which services such as Facebook stop being free, but also stop obtaining data for nothing. Creators of data would be remunerated with millions of nanopayments; users of information would have to pay. Even the author admits this would be a hard sell.[7]

The Independent said:

Lanier's explicit identification of his system with a bourgeois interest is also useful – as an alternative Marxist explanation is easily to hand. The forces of production are about to take another enormous leap forward, while the relations of production are straggling far behind.[8]

Columbia Journalism Review:

Some of the most insightful passages in Lanier's book explain how themes of "self-actualization" borrowed from eastern religions have combined with Silicon Valley's tech bubble to build a faith in technology as the means to ultimate self-expression and self-perfection: "Going about my day," he writes, "there is nothing unusual at all about running into a friend at the coffee shop who is a for-real, serious scientist working on making people immortal."[9]

The Daily Telegraph said:

Sensibly, Lanier doubts whether this will result in us all simply reclining in the lap of luxury. We may, of course, all become software programmers. Lanier makes a persuasive case, and it's hard to dispute his suggestions for the future until we get there. History, thankfully, suggests he will be proven wrong.[10]

The Los Angeles Times noted:

His ideas for brokering those payments are a bit fuzzy and, because they'd require a two-way accounting of who does what where online, run counter to some of the underlying ideas of the Internet, both structurally and ideologically. He's able to layer his argument so that it makes sense to a Silicon Valley outsider, while communicating some of the insider's point of view.[11]

The New York Times commented:

..."Who Owns the Future?" takes some of it biggest swipes at those who do presume to own the future: fans of the Singularity (the hypothetical imminent merger of biology and technology), Silicon Valley pioneers seeking "methusalization" (i.e., immortality), techie utopians of every stripe.[12]

The Washington Post review said:

Lost in his own brand of digital sophistry, Lanier never gets around to asking how a fully automated society ought to function. Is the idea of education embedded in massive online open courses worth embracing? Is automated journalism — with algorithms churning out trivial news stories — compatible with a democratic society? A clever micropayment system won't answer these questions.[13]

In a somewhat critical review, Evan Hughes of The New Republic commented:

The failings of Lanier's vision, however, should not obscure his achievements. His book not only makes a convincing diagnosis of a widespread problem, but also answers a need for moonshot thinking. If the alternate society he proposes looks too flawed, he deserves to be applauded for at least putting one forward, no matter who might look at him funny while he gives his office-wide speech.[14]

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