Technology guru-turned-Cassandra, Jaron Lanier, thinks he knows why Obama won reelection. In a recent interview with UK’s Spectator, he said:
If you have the biggest computer and the biggest data, you can calculate how to target people with a political message, and have almost a guaranteed deterministic level of success. Politics then becomes about who has the biggest computer instead of what the agenda is. The way Obama won the last US election was by having the best computer strategy. That method of winning an election works, but if that is to be the future of politics, it will no longer have meaning. The path we are on is not compatible with democracy.
It is also not compatible with reality. Obama didn’t win because he was 3D-printed into a Mecha-Candidate based on a vote-maximizing algorithm. He won because his positions line up with a majority of the electorate’s, because he is more likable than his opponent, and because his opponent espoused views that many people found extreme. The Obama campaign’s tech operation surely aided his quest, and would have mitigated a razor-thin race by goosing turnout, and it will no doubt be of use down the line, but he won because the voters liked him best.
Now, Lanier’s horror scenario is, of course, highly undesirable and is certainly possible in the future. Indeed, had he not had to weather a Republican primary, Romney might well have been this computer-generated candidate. But that’s not what happened in 2012, and it’s silly to say so. Confirmation bias, anyone?
All that said, Lanier also has a neat idea about all that data that Obama, Romney, as well as Google, Amazon, and every other company and entity in the world is harvesting about you, and using for all manner of purposes, be it advertising, crowdsourcing, or what have you. You should get paid for it:
. . . 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.
And you are suggesting that they get paid, right?
Yes. If there were micro payments made to the people who fed the big data . . . 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.
Well I’m all for that. It’s true, we are all, every day, contributing mostly-unwittingly to a vast number of companies’ knowledge of the world, of markets, of trends, of locations, etc. We are accidentally providing enormous value moment by moment, and other than in our use of some free electronic services, we get nothing in return.
If Lanier could dial back the paranoia, he might make some sense to people.
Previous posts of mine reacting to Lanier: