Jaron Lanier: admirable apostate of the digital revolution - RSA

Jaron Lanier: admirable apostate of the digital revolution

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  • Technology

For a society and, increasingly, a culture facilitated by digital networked tools, we have a surprisingly unsophisticated discourse about their impact, or about their aesthetics.

Past ‘new technologies’ have inspired intriguing critiques, from luminaries including Marshall McLuhan (The Medium is the Massage), David Edgerton (The Shock of the Old) and arguably even Marx. Modern luminaries, focusing on the new ‘new technologies’ of the digital networked world, are typically US-based and their contributions haven’t penetrated wider culture, even on their home turf.

Jaron Lanier, who recently spoke at the RSA on the themes of his book You Are Not A Gadget, is unusual in being a computing pioneer who stopped drinking the Kool-Aid and became a harsh - though friendly - critic of many of his colleagues.

Lanier considers the ideology that promotes radical freedom in the context of the web to be misplaced: “that freedom, ironically, is more for machines than people” he observes. “You can’t tell if a machine has gotten smarter or if you’ve just lowered your own standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machines seems smart”, he observes, noting that, in the celebrated example of Deep Blue’s 1997 chess victory over Gary Kasparov, “People, not machines, performed this accomplishment”.

You can’t tell if a machine has gotten smarter or if you’ve just lowered your own standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machines seems smart

Developing these ideas he notes that “we are beginning to design ourselves to suit digital models of us” and worries about “a leaching of empathy and humanity in that process”.

Lanier considers us to be victims of ‘digital lock-in’, restricted by apparently unimportant and pragmatic decisions made decades ago, largely by software engineers, that have become inextricably embedded in software systems.

Lanier takes on the hubris of the open source software movement, which has been instrumental in the creation of key technologies from operating systems (Linux) to web servers (Apache), and publishing tools (WordPress) to publications (Wikipedia). “Are Wikipedia and [a new version of] Unix the best we can expect 30 years on?” he asks, reflecting on what the software programmers then might have expected to see developed in that timeframe.

Yet he is not as pessimistic as he at first appears, and is a humanist at heart. Lanier notes that, in the case of the adoption of the web, “even an optimistic, idealistic philosophy is realizable”. However, he argues, the popular idea that the “internet as a whole is coming alive [has] put people back in the shadows”, partly as a result of the ‘fad for anonymity’ and technologists’ “attempt to pretend that people are obsolete”. “We can’t afford to respect our designs so much”, he concludes. However, he believes that “it’s the design, not the demographic, that concentrates bad behaviour” and that “there is still time to promote alternative designs that resonate with human kindness”.

As the book title indicates, Lanier opposes the respect given to computers over humans. Discussing ‘the singularity’ (the idea that computing power will eventually triumph over humanity) and the internet as a higher level brain, he refers to the much admonished Microsoft Clippy, arguing that it represents the idea that “the computer is evolving into a life-form that can understand people better than people can understand themselves”. According to Lanier, “[c]onsciousness is attempting to will itself out of existence”.

Lanier is a passionate advocate for the creative individual and critical of the bad faith of many ‘digital creativity’ advocates: “It is utterly strange to hear my many old friends in the world of digital culture claim to be true sons of the Renaissance without realizing that using computers to reduce individual expression is a primitive, retrograde activity, no matter how sophisticated your tools”. Rather, he argues, “What matters [is] a sense of focus, a mind in effective concentration, and an adventurous individual imagination that is distinct from the crowd”.

On social networking he believes that, with services such as Facebook, “life is turned into a database [following the] belief that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships”, and notes that “algorithms don't network people: people network people”.

He also takes on the enthusiasts who want to move to the network all social processes, such as representative democracy. “One service performed by representative democracy”, he notes “is low-pass filtering… Imagine the jittery shifts that would take place if a wiki were put in charge of writing laws”. Instead he sees value in the calming effects of ‘analogue’ processes such as democracy and the court system.

Lanier has produced a valuable contribution to the nascent discussion of the social and cultural impact of digital technologies, and the problems with his critique are unimportant considering the need for us to develop such a debate. If he has a major flaw it is that his disciplinary blinkers prevent him situating his critique in the context of broader social trends, thus endorsing the idea that technology has agency. Now it is time for those who represent the ideas he criticises to respond. To paraphrase Lanier’s hero Alan Kay’s comments on the Macintosh computer, this is one of the first analyses of digital culture worth criticising.

Nico Macdonald FRSA is a writer and consultant interested in the social context of design, technology and innovation. See the author’s shared bookmarks for reviews of Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget.

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  • I am Barrett Haynes, inventor. I imparted some of my inventions to Mr. Jaron Lanier in late '89 just prior to & after his Wall Street Journal cover article. In the article he "plegarized" copyrighted material that I had just articulated to him by snail-mail & by telephone. The same material was agian used in an IMAX Christmas movie a few years later. I am complamented that I have been pirated by such notables, as everything I claim here is documented in copyright preceeding the subsiquent infringments, so I am not in the least offended. Oh, contrare'... I will be itemizing these events in my compositions as I rise to the fore with my prototype debutes.
    Yours, J. Barrett Haynes P.S. See- Cornea Borne Image Display Device,
    AXON - I (or) Mechanthropics

  • "Lanier opposes the respect given to computers over humans"

    He can oppose something which doesn't exist all he likes, it won't make a scrap of difference. I certaily don't know anyone who respects computers more than humans.

    "Discussing the singularity (the idea that computing power will eventually triumph over humanity) "

    That's the dumbest definition of the singularity I've ever seen, and I've never heard anyone else describe it this way.

    “According to Lanier, consciousness is attempting to will itself out of existence"

    How on earth he reaches this conclusion, I don't know. It's like saying the invention of the loom was 'clothing attempting to will itself out of existence'. I'm afraid I just can't take the guy seriously.

    "using computers to reduce individual expression"

    <boggle> Tell that to all the artists, musicians, film makers, mathematicians, philosophers, historians, cooks, journalists, schoolkids, architects, etc., etc., etc. who use computers precisely to enhance their individual expression far beyond what they are capable of alone.

    If he thinks that people are not organic machines, that non-organic machines can never be conscious, or that some mystical life-force ebbs away every time someone accesses a Wiki page, he should come right out and say so, and justify his belief.

    Deep Blue beat Kasparov because people used a machine to do what they couldn't do on their own. Creating a false polarisation between people vs. machines is disingenuous, it's people plus machines, and it always has been, ever since we came down from the trees.

    If Lanier is worried about the singularity sweeping away humanity, perhaps he could be working on making sure it's an inclusive singularity, that will sweep humanity upwards, instead of bleating about computers being dehumanising and advocating unrealistic relinquishment of the very tools that have enabled us to flourish so far, and that are helping to combat ignorance and fear all over the world right now.

    Ben Zaiboc

  • I seem to be in a minority here. I found Lanier's book intensely annoying, and blogged about it at the time: "On the undue adulation for ‘You are not a gadget’". I believe the reaction to what Lanier says is at least as interesting as the book itself.

    Yes, there are many drawbacks with uncritical adoption of Internet culture, and with the destruction of value that ensues. But others have written about this before, better, including Nick Carr in "The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google" and Ken Auletta in "Googled: The End of the World As We Know It". Next time either Carr or Auletta are visiting London, it would be great to see them speaking at the RSA.

    I take particular issue with Lanier’s sustained insistance (repeated in his RSA lecture) that anyone who thinks that humans are machines is “loopy”. It’s easy to say that humans are not “gadgets” and shouldn’t be treated as such. However, machines can be very much more sophisticated than gadgets. It’s obscurantist to view (with Lanier) human nature as somehow beyond scientific investigation and technological improvement. This fits, alas, in a very long line of bad tradition.

    I’m all in favour of emphasising and elevating humanity. But that’s fully compatible with recognising our own mechanical and computational infrastructure!

    By the way, it's a bizzarely negative definition of ‘the singularity’ that it's "the idea that computing power will eventually triumph over humanity". Instead, the singularity is the idea that computing power will become more powerful than native human intelligence, particularly in the capacity for recursive self-improvement. It's an open question whether that means humans will become deeply subservient to computers, or instead that it will allow humanity (augmented by computing power) to flourish as never before, as in a new renaissance.

    // David Wood

  • Nico, thank you for this very useful critique. Jaron's voice to me is a profound, wise and important one amidst the ebullient noisy rush of enthusiasm at the moment for all things social surrounding digital technology. Like him, I have concerns for this giddy rush and the loss of sense-making that seems to be a part of it.

    To point out that human creativity, kindness, craftsmanship and conscience could, if we're not careful, become the great casualties here of our cultural progress inevitably stirs up opinion that something's better than nothing, which I guess is Andrew Chadwick's point here.

    If we need proof however of how the easy option, rather than the right one, has the advantage of winning out at cost to the greater good, look no further than the internet stats for Feb 2010 here http://vimeo.com/9641036.

    Our lizard brains naturally resist effort, creating a group mind at scale with a built-in cultural couch potato effect. Laron's perspective on the sum value of potential actually realized to date by open source is an important signal to stop and re-evaluate the lack of vision and leadership that's a byproduct of being social and how to address it.

    I completely support his statement you cite' “What matters [is] a sense of focus, a mind in effective concentration, and an adventurous individual imagination that is distinct from the crowd”. What we have here is the chance to self-actualize our highest cultural intentions, yet we seem to be at risk of squandering them. This is an important topic, you have my appreciation for focusing on it.

  • It's always been interesting to me how not many people write about the middle ground with technological advances, especially social media ones. I suppose controversial and slanted pieces tend to attract more attention, but there really needs to be a more balanced analysis.

    Now more than ever people are just fervently adopting any and every new technological "innovation" without really assessing if it's valuable to them and if they can be a valuable part of it. For every addictive adopter there is a person that heavy handily criticizes everything and clings to the past technologies (If I had a quarter for every time someone said Twitter was a fad...)

    It's an exciting and emerging topic and I hope that more rational commenters like yourself will provide a voice of reason in the wilds of hyperbole that currently dominate the field's discourse.

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