The Future of Work: Stop the Stealing and Pay Us for Our Online Data

The latest entry in a special project in which business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace.
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You should be paid for those Facebook posts. (Photo: imtmphoto/Shutterstock)

You should be paid for those Facebook posts. (Photo: imtmphoto/Shutterstock)

Big Data is actually made of people, like “Soylent Green.’’ Big Data does not come from angels or some supernatural realm or a single mathematician’s mind. We need to accept the fact that the cloud programs that are starting to run the world are actually made of the activities of large numbers of people whose behavior—whether online searches, or customer reviews, or Facebook postings or tweets, or even crossing the street—is being observed by computers and used to increase the power of networks. To deny that means stealing from very large numbers of people.

Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist and pioneer in the field of virtual reality, a composer, and the author of many works including Who Owns the Future?’ This is a condensation of an interview for the "Future of Work and Workers" project.

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My solution: Pay the people from whom the data is gathered. That gets tricky and there has to be some real innovation. But the principle is simple. And it’s a fair, ethical solution to technologically degraded employment.

How to set a value on this data? In essence, we would ask: If we didn’t include data from this person, how much worse would the translation be, how much worse would the robot function, how much worse would the city be designed if we hadn’t been able to observe that person’s behavior? Based on an approximation of that value, people could price their data—high if they want privacy. Or somebody could be a “data slut’’ and offer all their data for very low cost. That would create individual freedom.

As one example, people are always being spied upon in extraordinary ways they don’t realize—algorithms estimating when women are menstruating so advertisements can be targeted to them at the right time of the month, and love lives and emotional lives being studied and manipulated over social media. You should be able to tell a marketer, “If you want to observe my menstrual cycle, I’m going to set a price.’’ If your goal is privacy you set your price high; if you want to maximize your income, you might experiment with your price.

There’d be billions of little instances in which you’re making a negligible amount of money, and cumulatively that could amount to a basic income. There are so many forms of big data that most people would also turn out to be valuable to one. Whoever’s a popular contributor on social media should be paid, for instance. If your posts mean things to people on Facebook and Twitter, you should be paid. Amazon’s service is great but it is built on taking from people—the customer reviews are an obvious example. There’s something beautiful about just sharing, but you should only do that if you don’t have to pay rent. We’re more and more lassoing all the capital and all the benefits to those closest to the biggest computer, creating an archaic system of wealth inequality.

Getting paid for your tweets might sound alien, weird, greedy, but if we’re moving into an information economy, and if you’re not paid for your tweets, then you’re being ripped off. It makes no sense to say you should pay for something online but you’re not going to be paid for what you do. I have a lot of sympathy for the people who don’t want to pay for stuff, who want something to be free, because they’re not being paid. We either have to reject the whole idea of money or you must be paid for your contributions over networks.

My solution is all the more important because of the way technology is needlessly decimating employment security and wages; not hurting everyone, but most people. Every part of the economy gradually turns into a contest with just a few winners. No more bell curve outcomes. It can happen through automation, with machines doing the work, or it might happen because of very efficient globalization in which information systems find the very cheapest workers over the network so that workers no longer have any situational advantage. Since cloud programs are really made of people, these two examples don’t seem different to me.

These big information systems over networks tend to create something similar to a natural monopoly—there will tend to be just one dominant Facebook, one dominant Google, one dominant Amazon, and one dominant Uber, and each of these niches tends to consolidate information about whatever it does so the people who act in that sector have no personal or situational information advantage. What I call “Siren Servers” begin to resemble a central planning economy more than a market economy. For instance, Uber drivers don’t really compete against each other in the traditional sense of market competition—they’re directed and chosen by a central planner. Whoever has the biggest central hub on an information network is able to avoid risk and make other people take the risks. There are only a few winners. It becomes like a casino; whoever runs the casino doesn’t take risk and everybody else does.

A lot of people hate the idea of paying for people’s data—some have called me worse than Karl Marx. But I’ve heard a lot of interest in Europe and the United States. I’m not an economist, I’m a computer scientist who probably seems naïve to some economists, so I’ve been trying to work with economists to find a way to move forward with this on their terms.

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For the Future of Work, a special project from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, business and labor leaders, social scientists, technology visionaries, activists, and journalists weigh in on the most consequential changes in the workplace, and what anxieties and possibilities they might produce.

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