The call of the sirens

In ancient Greek mythology, Sirens were beautiful temptresses who were the source of many a ship’s peril as their captivating songs would enchant and then destroy as sailors were drawn towards the beauty they experienced.  In his recently published book ‘Who Owns the Future’ Jaron Lanier, the highly respected participant in, and shaper of, the digital revolution that infuses and shapes most of our lives, brings these siren calls back into the contemporary world.  One of his central arguments (there are several that interweave the text) is that ‘Siren Servers’ threaten to destroy the very fabric of a free society and functioning economic framework.

According to Jaron’s thesis, Siren Servers, including giants such as Amazon and Facebook, generate Big Data on an imperial scale.  In doing so, they take ‘our’ behaviours, wants, needs, loves and desires and build banks of data that can be used to aid prediction and as currency in its own right.  Amidst all of this, we pay for goods and services but are never rewarded for our contribution to the generated wealth achieved through data.  But this is not the end of the matter for Jaron.  More disturbing is the fact that Siren Servers run counter to the ideal of economic extension through which wealth expands as more and more people and nations are drawn into the process.  In contrast, Jaron sees Siren Servers as having two paradoxical ends.  First, they concentrate wealth in the hands of a small and decreasing number of individuals and organisations.  Second, they are anti-competitive and, by their very nature, shrink the number of active players (and, in turn, employees) in any marketplace.

There is much to think about in Jaron’s arguments.  Perhaps the most productive aspect of what he says is that commercial growth in digital space has no inevitability in terms of the realisation of benign outcomes.  To this extent, we simply ‘let things happen’ at our peril.  We can also ask how and why we managed to get to this position.  If we are, as Jaron frequently implies, on the edge of a social and economic disaster, then how and why has this happened?

But any dominant discourse will have its weaknesses, fissures and challengers.  With the rise of Siren Servers comes the opportunity to be different; to live and breathe in ways that paints a new picture on the canvas of life.  Our challenge, surely, is to understand the foundations needed for new human cosmologies that grow and prosper through the gaps that Siren Servers inevitably create.

Mark Thorpe is a Board Director at Truth with a passion for the psychologies of everyday life.