Free information, as great as it sounds, will enslave us all

Only the strong and supercomputer-equipped will survive.
Only the strong and supercomputer-equipped will survive.
Image: Getty Images
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Imagine our world later in this century, when machines have gotten better. Cars and trucks drive themselves, and there’s hardly ever an accident.  Robots root through the earth for raw materials, and miners are never trapped. Robotic surgeons rarely make errors. Clothes are always brand new designs that day, and always fit perfectly, because your home fabricator makes them out of recycled clothes from the previous day.  There is no laundry. I can’t tell you which of these technologies will start to work in this century for sure, and which will be derailed by glitches, but at least some of these things will come about.

Who will earn wealth? If robotic surgeons get really good, will tomorrow’s surgeons be in the same boat as today’s musicians? Will they live gig to gig, with a token few of them winning a YouTube hit or Kickstarter success while most still have to live with their parents?

This question has to be asked. Something seems terribly askew about how technology is benefitting the world lately. 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 anemic overall? How could it be that ever since the incredible efficiencies of digital networking have finally reached vast numbers of people that we aren’t seeing a broad benefit?

The medicine of our time is purported to be open information. The medicine comes in many bottles: open software, free online education, European pirate parties, Wikileaks, social media, and endless variations of the above. The principle of making information free seems, at first glance, to spread the power of information out of elite bubbles to benefit everyone.

Unfortunately, although no one realized it beforehand, the medicine turns out to be poison.

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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 are said 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 where they can radiate heat into the environment, and they are guarded like oil fields. They all offer excellent espresso to holders of PhDs in math and computer science from top schools.

The programs that the best computers are running are also similar. First comes the gathering of freely offered information from everyone else in the world. The ogling might include scanned emails or social media sharing, sightings through cloud-connected cameras, or commercial and medical dossiers; there’s no boundary to the snooping.

In order to lure people into asymmetrical information relationships, some treat is often dangled. The treat might be free internet services or music, or insanely easy to get mortgages. What is always true is that the targeted audience eventually pays for these treats through lost opportunities. Career options will eventually narrow, or credit will become insanely tight.

Ordinary people, or more precisely people with only ordinary computers, are the sole providers of the information that makes the big computers so powerful and valuable. And ordinary people do get a certain flavor of benefit for providing that value. They get the benefits of an informal economy usually associated with the developing world. The formal benefits concentrate around the biggest computers.

More and more ordinary people are thrust into a winner-take-all economy. It is a 21st century reprise of the Horatio Alger stories from the 19th century. A token few will find success on Kickstarter or YouTube, while overall wealth is ever more concentrated and social mobility rots. Social media sharers can make all the noise they want, but they forfeit the real wealth and clout needed to be politically powerful. Real wealth and clout instead concentrate ever more on the shrinking island occupied by elites who run the most powerful computers.

Once the data is gathered, statistical analysis is performed to create behavioral models. The consumer-facing giant computers like social media, search, or big online stores use models of people to optimize the options put in front of them to generate desired behaviors. The term “advertising” once meant an act of communication, the romanticizing of a product, but no more. Similarly, investing used to mean evaluating risk and reward, but now it has come to mean getting people locked into massive too-big-to-fail schemes in which only the little people absorb the risks and the best computer gathers the rewards.

Whether the activity of a giant computer is called “media,” “finance,” or something else, the end goal is to come up with schemes that transcend the usual connection between risk and reward. The operation of the best computers takes place at arm’s length, so that the owners don’t need to really understand what’s going on, and can take as little responsibility as possible. The financier, the social media site owner, or anyone else with a top computer is rarely held responsible for what goes on through that computer. All risk falls on those who are aggregated.

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In most cases there was no evil plot. Many of the people who own the top computers are genuinely nice. I helped create the system, and benefit from it. But nonetheless, it is not sustainable.

The core problem starts with philosophy. The owners of the biggest computers like to think about them as big artificial brains. But actually they are simply repackaging valuable information gathered from everyone else. This is what “big data” means.

For instance, a big remote Google or Microsoft computer can translate this piece, more or less, from English to another language, but what is really going on is that real human translators are being made anonymous, invisible, and insecure. Real translations, made by humans, are gathered in multitudes, and pattern-matched against new texts like this one. A mashup of old translations will approximate the new translation that is needed, so long as there are many old translations to serve as sources.

As long as we keep doing things the way we are, every big computer will hide a crowd of disenfranchised people. In the case of translation, the people are translators, and in the case of surgery, someday they will be surgeons and patients.

As it happens, the very first conception of digital networked communication foresaw a way out of this trap. I am referring Ted Nelson’s early work, dating back to 1960. The first idea of networked digital media included a universal micropayment system, so that people would be paid when data they added to a network was used by someone else.

This idea is anathema to the current orthodoxy. If you are bristling, please give what I’m saying a chance.

Just because things have a cost, that does not mean they can’t be affordable. To demand that things be free is to embrace an eternal place for poverty. The problem is not cost, but poverty.

Monetizing information will bring benefits that far outweigh the inconvenience of having to adjust one’s worldview. Consider the problem of creepiness. Creepiness is when you don’t have enough influence on your information life. Government cameras track you as you walk around town, despite wars having been fought to limit the abilities of governments to spy without contraint. Aside from governments, every other owner of a big computer is doing exactly the same thing. Private camera track you as often as government ones.

Privacy regulations attempt to keep up, but face dismal odds. Does anyone believe such regulations have a chance?  But what if you were owed money for the use of information that exists because you exist? This is what accountants and lawyers are for. The government should not be able to spy on you for free any more than should the police get free guns or cars.  Budgets create moderation.

If the biggest computers had to pay for information, they wouldn’t cease to exist. Instead big computers would have to earn their way by providing new kinds of value. Spying and manipulating would no longer be business plans, because the raw materials would no longer be free.

In fact, the owners of the best computers would do fine in a world of monetized information, because that would be a world with a growing economy. In a world of free information, the economy will start to shrink as automation rises radically, later in this century. This is because in an ultra-automated economy, there won’t be much to trade other than information.

But this is the most important thing: A monetized information economy will create a strong middle class out of information sharing- and a strong middle class must be able to outspend the elite tip of an economy for democracy to endure. While the open information ideal feels empowering, it is actually enriching those with the best computers to such an extreme that it is gradually undermining both markets and democracy.