Friday, September 13, 2013

Could Payments for Online Information Replace Jobs?

Three months ago I posted a review of sorts of a book that perhaps unwittingly took on the jobs crisis.  Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future?, published in May, blamed both our employment situation and the Great Recession on computer networks, which made many middle-class jobs unnecessary.  I noted that he saw many of the same causes and effects, such as markets not working unless they had buyers as well as sellers, as I had in Work’s New Age.  His solution was for people to be paid for their online contributions, including data about themselves they unwittingly provided when they obtained free resources from “siren servers” such as Google and Facebook. 

Lanier’s scheme would call for the following:

-          Payment to those who provide information used by others, be it demographics, data about their own online activities helping sites make money by gathering more and more focused advertising, or ideas that others see, enjoy, implement, or otherwise benefit from.

-          Royalties lasting a long time, dependent on the number of people gaining from these online products or information.

-          Tracking of these resources through their sources to others passing them on or mashing them up, to provide these royalties to their originators.

-          Charges for products or information which are now free, to cover the above.

-          A “universal online identity,” preventing accessing sites anonymously, under government auspices.

-          Nationally provided computing resources, such as storage space and algorithmic capability, their extent to be determined and debated.

Such a setup could still be superficially similar to what we have today, with the addition of the structures to be added below the surface, and of course the payment systems.  So what are its advantages and disadvantages?

Its best point it that it recognizes the value of information.  We have read for decades about how hardware and software are declining in significance, and how data itself is all that ultimately matters, yet at the same time information is increasingly becoming free.  Such a scheme can be sustained through further technological progress, and would prevent problems such as the loss of personal data that would happen if, say, Facebook went out of business.  It is in tune with the real sources of value, in which it is clear that Twitter does not get its value from either its operating system or its several hundred employees, but from the billions of tweets provided by others. 

The disadvantages of such a payment scheme are also large.  We are used to free Google searches, free Wikipedia listings, and free LinkedIn business networking, and paying for these things, or their equivalent, would not be a popular change.  For anything beyond providing personal data, as in Lanier’s rather optimistic example of a beach sand bridge idea generating “a nice day’s earnings,” it would force anyone to be in effect an entrepreneur, which as I have shown is a course unsuitable for the majority.  Since vast numbers of people provide data about themselves free as it is, those charging for it would find few takers, as even if the largest servers got only half, a quarter, or 10% of what they have now, it would have nearly the same statistical value, which could result in such payments becoming legally mandated.   

Even if this system would work, it would raise one huge area of concern.  It would put government in charge of something new, possibly complicated, and very large.  Such a large and slow-to-change entity does best with tasks that can be explained simply, such as “guard the coast” and “deliver the mail” (“track the data” may or may not qualify”), and that is not to mention the chance of Big Brother-ish government acquisition of even more personal information.  But, as Lanier points, out, with conservatives wanting national IDs for voting and employment, and liberals wanting a universal health care program requiring the same, both sides are moving there as it is.  It could still be limited;  the best comparison, he writes, might be with social security numbers, which are permanent even if individual banks using them fail.   

So how could compensation for online data fit with another possible jobs solution, guaranteed income?  The largest disadvantage of the latter would be its cost, which at a very casual, back-of-the-envelope guess for a bare-bones no-requirements stipend would be well over $1 trillion per year, even after subtracting both the stimulus effect and the cost of then-unneeded programs such as welfare and food stamps.  A great deal of that could be harvested through extra taxation of advertising revenues collected by Google, Yahoo! and others, where money has been pooling up unproductively, making monitoring data movements unnecessary.    

Would this work?  I don’t know.  There is enough cause, though, to add online payments to the list, previously to my knowledge containing only guaranteed income and shorter work hours, of potentially permanent jobs-crisis solutions.  What more are there?

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