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Culture and technology
24 April 2013

In the previous century socialism was the biggest threat to the free market, in this century it could be the internet

Do we use computers, or do computers use us

It’s a silly question, of course – computers don’t have minds of their own, but they do run algorithms that serve the agendas of those who created them. 

As our lives become increasingly – and often invisibly – reliant upon computer networks (of which our laptops, mobiles and tablets are mere access points)  we need ask ourselves some questions about the position this places us in.

Jaron Lanier, one of world’s leading computer scientists, has been asking the questions on our behalf. Interviewed by JP O’Malley for the Spectator, his answers merit attention:

  • “...one of the earliest computers was an automated loom. Let us suppose in the future there is some sort of automatic loom that can just turn out clothing for you. Where does the design for the clothing come from? Somebody might say: from an artificial intelligence algorithm, running on cloud software, using big data. But this data actually comes from a large number of people who have been anonymized and disenfranchised. If there was proper counting of where the data came from we would see that even in this highly advanced hypothetical automated loom, there would be real people who make the data possible to create a design.”

Companies like Google and Facebook are already living off our data in this way – generating vast revenues from personal information that we give them for free. 

Many people worry about the implications for privacy, but in some senses the problem is the opposite – because, economically-speaking, we are de-recognised. Our decisions, our preferences, our very identities have become a valuable resource, but one to which no price is attached. Lanier believes this must change:

  • “If there were micro payments made to the people who fed the big data — which allowed that automated loom to make the artificial clothing for you — then there would still be an economy.  It’s not as if the people have disappeared from the economy, it’s just that we pretend they don’t exist.”

Lanier goes on to argue that the free market can be thought of as a giant algorithm – one that processes information from millions of people generating valuable intelligence about supply and demand in the form of prices:

  • “...in capitalism, we make certain decisions of not trying to intervene on the function of a market place… we say instead of allowing human politics to decide everything, we are going to limit our reach, and allow this more abstract mathematical thing of the market place to sort out our affairs.”

Lanier believes this is good thing, but that “this is why it is so critical that market places can’t be corrupt and need to be honest.” In a properly functioning market, no one is ‘running the algorithm’ because no single entity controls the 'network' – i.e. the different contexts in which all those buyers and sellers interact. However, when it comes to the likes of Facebook and Google, the network and the algorithm is controlled by a single entity.

  • “The problem with our cloud software right now is that it does tend to be run by the person with the biggest computer on the network, and serve certain interests more than others. It’s not an honest broker. We are constantly running into a situation where a company like Google is saying: we are being the honest broker. Of course that is ridiculous because they are a commercial concern.”

Of course, no one is being forced to run their entire lives through any particular provider of digital services. However, from social networks to search engines to supermarket loyalty cards, this is what they constantly encourage us to do. 

Without us thinking about who is ultimately in control, they want us to move our lives on to their networks. In effect, what they are attempting is the privatisation of what should be the most public of all institutions: the free market.


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