Tech guru Jaron Lanier wakes up to the reality of techno-utopianism lies
2013-01-08 0:00

By Ron Rosenbaum |

What Turned Jaron Lanier Against the Web?

I couldnt help thinking of John Le Carrs spy novels as I awaited my rendezvous with Jaron Lanier in a corner of the lobby of the stylish W Hotel just off Union Square in Manhattan. Le Carrs espionage tales, such as The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, are haunted by the spectre of the mole, the defector, the double agent, who, from a position deep inside, turns against the ideology he once professed fealty to.

And so it is with Jaron Lanier and the ideology he helped create, Web 2.0 futurism, digital utopianism, which he now calls digital Maoism, indicting internet intellectuals, accusing giants like Facebook and Google of being spy agencies. Lanier was one of the creators of our current digital reality and now he wants to subvert the hive mind, as the web worlds been called, before it engulfs us all, destroys political discourse, economic stability, the dignity of personhood and leads to social catastrophe. Jaron Lanier is the spy who came in from the cold 2.0.

To understand what an important defector Lanier is, you have to know his dossier. As a pioneer and publicizer of virtual-reality technology (computer-simulated experiences) in the 80s, he became a Silicon Valley digital-guru rock star, later renowned for his giant bushel-basket-size headful of dreadlocks and Falstaffian belly, his obsession with exotic Asian musical instruments, and even a big-label recording contract for his modernist classical music. (As he later told me, he once opened for Dylan. )

The colorful, prodigy-like persona of Jaron Lanierhe was in his early 20s when he helped make virtual reality a realitywas born among a small circle of first-generation Silicon Valley utopians and artificial-intelligence visionaries. Many of them gathered in, as Lanier recalls, some run-down bungalows [I rented] by a stream in Palo Alto in the mid-80s, where, using capital he made from inventing the early video game hit Moondust, hed started building virtual-reality machines. In his often provocative and astute dissenting book You Are Not a Gadget, he recalls one of the participants in those early mind-melds describing it as like being in the most interesting room in the world. Together, these digital futurists helped develop the intellectual concepts that would shape what is now known as Web 2.0information wants to be free, the wisdom of the crowd and the like.

And then, shortly after the turn of the century, just when the rest of the world was turning on to Web 2.0, Lanier turned against it. With a broadside in Wired called One-Half of a Manifesto, he attacked the idea that the wisdom of the crowd would result in ever-upward enlightenment. It was just as likely, he argued, that the crowd would devolve into an online lynch mob.

Lanier became the fiercest and weightiest critic of the new digital world precisely because he came from the Inside. He was a heretic, an apostate rebelling against the ideology, the culture (and the cult) he helped found, and in effect, turning against himself.


And despite his apostasy, hes still very much in the game. People want to hear his thoughts even when hes castigating them. Hes still on the Davos to Dubai, SXSW to TED Talks conference circuit. Indeed, Lanier told me that after our rendezvous, he was off next to deliver the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Ford Foundation uptown in Manhattan. Following which he was flying to Vienna to address a convocation of museum curators, then, in an overnight turnaround, back to New York to participate in the unveiling of Microsofts first tablet device, the Surface.

Lanier freely admits the contradictions; hes a kind of research scholar at Microsoft, he was on a first-name basis with Sergey and Steve (Brin, of Google, and Jobs, of Apple, respectively). But he uses his lecture circuit earnings to subsidize his obsession with those extremely arcane wind instruments. Following his Surface appearance he gave a concert downtown at a small venue in which he played some of them.

Lanier is still in the game in part because virtual reality has become, virtually, reality these days. If you look out the window, he says pointing to the traffic flowing around Union Square, theres no vehicle that wasnt designed in a virtual-reality system first. And every vehicle of every kind builtplane, trainis first put in a virtual-reality machine and people experience driving it [as if it were real] first.

I asked Lanier about his decision to rebel against his fellow Web 2.0 intellectuals.

I think we changed the world, he replies, but this notion that we shouldnt be self-critical and that we shouldnt be hard on ourselves is irresponsible.

For instance, he said, Id been an early advocate of making information free, the mantra of the movement that said it was OK to steal, pirate and download the creative works of musicians, writers and other artists. Its all just information, just 1s and 0s.

Indeed, one of the foundations of Laniers critique of digitized culture is the very way its digital transmission at some deep level betrays the essence of what it tries to transmit. Take music.

MIDI, Lanier wrote, of the digitizing program that chops up music into one-zero binaries for transmission, was conceived from a keyboard players point of patterns that represented keyboard events like key-down and key-up. That meant it could not describe the curvy, transient expressions a singer or a saxophone note could produce. It could only describe the tile mosaic world of the keyboardist, not the watercolor world of the violin.

Quite eloquent, an aspect of Lanier that sets him apart from the HAL-speak you often hear from Web 2.0 enthusiasts (HAL was the creepy humanoid voice of the talking computer in Stanley Kubricks prophetic 2001: A Space Odyssey). But the objection that caused Laniers turnaround was not so much to what happened to the music, but to its economic foundation.

I asked him if there was a single development that gave rise to his defection.

Id had a career as a professional musician and what I started to see is that once we made information free, it wasnt that we consigned all the big stars to the bread lines. (They still had mega-concert tour profits.)

Instead, it was the middle-class people who were consigned to the bread lines. And that was a very large body of people. And all of a sudden there was this weekly ritual, sometimes even daily: Oh, we need to organize a benefit because so and so whod been a manager of this big studio that closed its doors has cancer and doesnt have insurance. We need to raise money so he can have his operation.

And I realized this was a hopeless, stupid design of society and that it was our fault. It really hit on a personal levelthis isnt working. And I think you can draw an analogy to what happened with communism, where at some point you just have to say theres too much wrong with these experiments.

His explanation of the way Google translator works, for instance, is a graphic example of how a giant just takes (or appropriates without compensation) and monetizes the work of the crowd. One of the magic services thats available in our age is that you can upload a passage in English to your computer from Google and you get back the Spanish translation. And theres two ways to think about that. The most common way is that theres some magic artificial intelligence in the sky or in the cloud or something that knows how to translate, and what a wonderful thing that this is available for free.

But theres another way to look at it, which is the technically true way: You gather a ton of information from real live translators who have translated phrases, just an enormous body, and then when your example comes in, you search through that to find similar passages and you create a collage of previous translations.

So its a huge, brute-force operation? Its huge but very much like Facebook, its selling people [their advertiser-targetable personal identities, buying habits, etc.] back to themselves. [With translation] youre producing this result that looks magical but in the meantime, the original translators arent paid for their worktheir work was just appropriated. So by taking value off the books, youre actually shrinking the economy.

The way superfast computing has led to the nanosecond hedge-fund-trading stock markets? The Flash Crash, the London Whale and even the Great Recession of 2008?

Well, thats what my new books about. Its called The Fate of Power and the Future of Dignity, and it doesnt focus as much on free music files as it does on the world of financebut what it suggests is that a file-sharing service and a hedge fund are essentially the same things. In both cases, theres this idea that whoever has the biggest computer can analyze everyone else to their advantage and concentrate wealth and power. [Meanwhile], its shrinking the overall economy. I think its the mistake of our age.

The mistake of our age? Thats a bold statement (as someone put it in Pulp Fiction). I think its the reason why the rise of networking has coincided with the loss of the middle class, instead of an expansion in general wealth, which is what should happen. But if you say were creating the information economy, except that were making information free, then what were saying is were destroying the economy.

The connection Lanier makes between techno-utopianism, the rise of the machines and the Great Recession is an audacious one. Lanier is suggesting we are outsourcing ourselves into insignificant advertising-fodder. Nanobytes of Big Data that diminish our personhood, our dignity. He may be the first Silicon populist.

To my mind an overleveraged unsecured mortgage is exactly the same thing as a pirated music file. Its somebodys value thats been copied many times to give benefit to some distant party. In the case of the music files, its to the benefit of an advertising spy like Google [which monetizes your search history], and in the case of the mortgage, its to the benefit of a fund manager somewhere. But in both cases all the risk and the cost is radiated out toward ordinary people and the middle classesand even worse, the overall economy has shrunk in order to make a few people more.

Lanier has another problem with the techno-utopians, though. Its not just that theyve crashed the economy, but that theyve made a joke out of spirituality by creating, and worshiping, the Singularitythe Nerd Rapture, as its been called. The belief that increasing computer speed and processing power will shortly result in machines acquiring artificial intelligence, consciousness, and that we will be able to upload digital versions of ourselves into the machines and achieve immortality. Some say as early as 2020, others as late as 2045. One of its chief proponents, Ray Kurzweil, was on NPR recently talking about his plans to begin resurrecting his now dead father digitally.

Some of Laniers former Web 2.0 colleaguesfor whom he expresses affection, not without a bit of pitytake this prediction seriously. The first people to really articulate it did so right about the late 70s, early 80s and I was very much in that conversation. I think its a way of interpreting technology in which people forgo taking responsibility, he says. Oh, its the computer did it not me. Theres no more middle class? Oh, its not me. The computer did it.

I was talking last year to Vernor Vinge, who coined the term singularity, Lanier recalls, and he was saying, There are people around who believe its already happened. And he goes, Thank God, Im not one of those people.

In other words, even to one of its creators, its still just a thought experimentnot a reality or even a virtual-reality hot ticket to immortality. Its a surreality.

Lanier says hell regard it as faith-based, Unless of course, everybodys suddenly killed by machines run amok.

Skynet! I exclaim, referring to the evil machines in the Terminator films.

At last we come to politics, where I believe Lanier has been most farsightedand which may be the deep source of his turning into a digital Le Carr figure. As far back as the turn of the century, he singled out one standout aspect of the new web culturethe acceptance, the welcoming of anonymous commenters on websitesas a danger to political discourse and the polity itself. At the time, this objection seemed a bit extreme. But he saw anonymity as a poison seed. The way it didnt hide, but, in fact, brandished the ugliness of human nature beneath the anonymous screen-name masks. An enabling and foreshadowing of mob rule, not a growth of democracy, but an accretion of tribalism.

Its taken a while for this prophecy to come true, a while for this mode of communication to replace and degrade political conversation, to drive out any ambiguity. Or departure from the binary. But it slowly is turning us into a nation of hate-filled trolls.

Surprisingly, Lanier tells me it first came to him when he recognized his own inner trollfor instance, when hed find himself shamefully taking pleasure when someone he knew got attacked online. I definitely noticed it happening to me, he recalled. Were not as different from one another as wed like to imagine. So when we look at this pathetic guy in Texas who was just outed as Violentacrez...I dont know if you followed it?

I did. Violentacrez was the screen name of a notorious troll on the popular site Reddit. He was known for posting images of scantily clad underage girls...[and] an unending fountain of racism, porn, gore and more, according to the reporter who exposed his real name, shaming him and evoking consternation among some Reddit users who felt that this use of anonymity was inseparable from freedom of speech somehow.

So it turns out Violentacrez is this guy with a disabled wife whos middle-aged and hes kind of a Walter Mittysomeone who wants to be significant, wants some bit of Nietzschean spark to his life.

Only Lanier would attribute Nietzschean longings to Violentacrez. And hes not that different from any of us. The difference is that hes scared and possibly hurt a lot of people.

Well, that is a difference. And he couldnt have done it without the anonymous screen name. Or he wouldnt have.

And heres where Lanier says something remarkable and ominous about the potential dangers of anonymity.

This is the thing that continues to scare me. You see in history the capacity of people to congeallike social lasers of cruelty. That capacity is constant.

Social lasers of cruelty? I repeat.

I just made that up, Lanier says. Where everybody coheres into this cruelty beam....Look what were setting up here in the world today. We have economic fear combined with everybody joined together on these instant twitchy social networks which are designed to create mass action. What does it sound like to you? It sounds to me like the prequel to potential social catastrophe. Id rather take the risk of being wrong than not be talking about that.

Here he sounds less like a Le Carr mole than the American intellectual pessimist who surfaced back in the 30s and criticized the Communist Party he left behind: someone like Whittaker Chambers.

But something he mentioned next really astonished me: Im sensitive to it because it murdered most of my parents families in two different occasions and this idea that were getting unified by people in these digital networks

Murdered most of my parents families. You heard that right. Laniers mother survived an Austrian concentration camp but many of her family died during the warand many of his fathers family were slaughtered in prewar Russian pogroms, which led the survivors to flee to the United States.

It explains, I think, why his father, a delightfully eccentric student of human nature, brought up his son in the New Mexico desertfar from civilization and its lynch mob potential. We read of online bullying leading to teen suicides in the United States and, in China, there are reports of well-organized online virtual lynch mobs Maoism.

He gives me one detail about what happened to his fathers family in Russia. One of [my fathers] aunts was unable to speak because she had survived the pogrom by remaining absolutely mute while her sister was killed by sword in front of her [while she hid] under a bed. She was never able to speak again.

Its a haunting image of speechlessness. A pogrom is carried out by a crowd, the true horrific embodiment of the purported wisdom of the crowd. You could say it made Lanier even more determined not to remain mute. To speak out against the digital barbarism he regrets he helped create.

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