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Saturday, February 20, 2010

"You are not a gadget," by Jaron Lanier

I remember Jaron Lanier from the 80s, when he was the dreadlocked guru of virtual reality. He articulated an important point about technology that has stayed with me through the years. Some technologies were passive -- like television. Some technologies -- like telephones -- were active. You had to invest yourself in them. He found the latter more interesting. So do I.

A couple nights ago I was driving back from Denver, through one of the old neighborhoods. I could see through so many picture windows people looking at the glow ... of laptops. Just maybe, the Internet is shoving TVs right out of the living room. If so, that's a good thing.

But Lanier is an incisive critic of what he calls "cybernetic totalism." He sees a glorification of the "hive mind," spreading from Silicon Valley to Wall Street and the New York Times. He sees the reduction of human beings and their creativity to anonymous mash ups, and the elevation of advertising as all that is sacrosanct. (It's a clever insight. The Web decontextualizes people and contextualizes ads. Seen any mashed up ads lately?)

While hardly a Luddite (he's still at the forefront of tech exploration), he provides one fresh insight after another about how the deification of the Singularity (the notion that one day the Internet wakes up) is the diminution of the human. One example: what he calls the "ideaology of violation." Remember the mom who fake-friended the high school girl, and humiliated the girl to the point where she committed suicide? Noticed the nastiness of anonymous postings on newspaper sites? Are we really sure the wisdom of crowds can be counted on?

Among his many topics is this startling observation: every ten years, popular music in the west had gone through remarkable changes, profound shifts in sound and consciousness. Now we're all linked together on the Web. So between 1998 and 2008, where was the big breakthrough? What new sound emerged, as sharp as blues, or jazz, or big band swing, or the Beatles, or ska, or hip hop? Why does global mean retro?

He also takes aim at a long standing interest of mine: open source software. Who would have been excited, 20 years ago, to say that after two decades of crowd sourcing computer programming, we would wind up with a UNIX clone (Linux) and an encyclopedia (Wikipedia). I mean, we already had UNIX and an encyclopedia.

I didn't know that Lanier is also a musician. But he points out that while the Internet enriches the "Lords of the Cloud" (Google and Amazon), free content and the long tail don't seem to be doing much for the creators of the content. The Internet dismantles newspapers and the music industry. These days, reporters and musicians are finding it much harder to make a living. Wouldn't it have been more thoughtful, more productive, more conducive to a truly vibrant culture, to have designed a system that paid a penny to the producer of each song or article every time somebody accessed it, instead of suffering the ads and monthly bills of content aggregators and telecommunication companies?

Lanier is a true original. He writes as provocatively about octopi as he does about financial derivatives. His mind finds connections and surprises. Lots of people talk about critical thinking. Lanier actually does it. I bet he'd be fun to hang out with.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Thank you for pointing this book out. I had heard of it a while ago, but I had forgotten to follow up on it. It's an interesting work to compare to the statements that someone like Wendell Berry puts forward.