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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  • Jason Lanier was a breath of fresh air. It's fascinating that a relatively small number of mainly North Californians have created an internet-based ideology around ideas of freedom, commerce and open-source, that has become so pervasive worldwide. It's high time we started to unpick these ideas and expose how skewed these ideas often are.

    What Lanier's work does is remind us how much there is still to play for. I think we need to start looking much more widely at the effects of this technology.

    Just one area that fascinates me is the debate around copyright and DRM in the music industry that was swamped by the net. Paradoxically, while devaluing the idea of copyrighted material, the net appears to have increased the value of the live performance. Ticket sales are now the main driver for innovation in a lot of sectors of the music industry. Something akin to Walter Benjamin's idea of culture in the mechanical age is taking place, in which the reproduced artefact has lost its aura, while the special moment of performance has increased. I think this is directly related to how we consume music via the web. To me this is a sign of hope; that virtual networks could possibly be seen as a way to increase the value of real face-to-face networks.

  • Thanks for your comment, Andrew. For me, and I would hesitate to speak for Lanier, I am optimistic about what we could do with these technologies. But I am also critical of the narratives that are associated with them, particularly around the reasons for their creation and the impact _they will have on society_. There is much bad faith exhibited by those who have invested technology with the power to effect social projects that have otherwise failed for want of good arguments. But with the right arguments leading to the right situations the potential of these technologies is great, which is partly why I am optimistic about the future while our political leaders are pessimistic.

  • Nico, a thoughtful post about a fascinating book. But my response to this and similar arguments about interactive technologies and "disempowerment" always comes down to the "compared with what?" question.

    There are no ethical absolutes, only comparisons. We need to consider the interactive affordances of new media and the media regime and political culture that interact with and mutually shape those affordances. If we see things in the context of what came before, particularly the press and broadcasting regimes, with the impoverished sociotechnical characteristics of television, for example, we'll have firmer grounds for optimism.

    Andrew Chadwick (http://www.andrewchadwick.com)

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