... what I’m proposing is that finance, and indeed consumer Internet companies and all kinds of other people using giant computers, are trying to become Maxwell’s demons in an information network. ... [W]ith big computing and the ability to compute huge correlations with big data, it becomes irresistible. ... [But] what’s wrong with that is that you can’t ever really get ahead. What you’re really doing then is you’re radiating waste heat. I mean, for yourself you’ve created this perfect little business, but you’ve radiated all the risk, basically, to the society at large. And if the society was infinitely large and could absorb it, it would work. There’s nothing intrinsically faulty about your scheme except for the assumption that the society can absorb the risk.
Lanier's views have inspired a lot of ire from people I know — they react to him in the ways that, say, talking heads on TV react to bad news about anthropogenic climate change: by getting angry, or attacking him personally, or just claiming his ideas don't make any sense. And even while I disagree with the way he proposes to solve some of the problems, I agree with his diagnoses of the underlying issues. The more you build an economy around diffusing risk instead of creating things, the more you shift costs into places where they are not detected until they become impossible to sustain.
It's remarkable how innocuously, and even how promisingly, all this started. A new kind of economy was emerging, one based on information as the commodity. What everyone forgot, though, is that once things are turned into information, there's no turning them back. A whole economy based on giving things away for free en masse and in turn making up the difference en masse via advertising or selling personal data — in short, turning the market economy into one where there's nothing to buy or sell except information — has no future.
Unless you conveniently happen to be selling or building the infrastructure to do it. And the jobs to make and sell that infrastructure are not jobs that can sustain a whole world, only a tiny piece of one.