Sunday, June 25, 2006

Q&A Jaron Lanier

Originally appeared in the Boston Globe,

By Harvey Blume

EVER SINCE musician, writer, and technological visionary Jaron Lanier coined the term "virtual reality" in the early 1980s, and headed up efforts to implement the idea, he's been a member of the digerati in excellent standing. But he's an anxious member, known to raise alarms about just those big ideas and grand ambitions of the computer revolution that happen to excite the most enthusiasm among his peers. That was the case with his contrarian essay, "One Half of a Manifesto," in 2000. He's done it again in a new piece, "Digital Maoism," which has roiled the Internet since it was posted at on May 30.

In "One Half of a Manifesto," Lanier attacked what he dubbed "cybernetic totalism," an overweening intellectual synthesis in which mind, brain, life itself, and the entire physical universe are viewed as machines of a kind, controlled by processes not unlike those driving a computer. This digital-age "dogma," he argued, got a boost from the era's new and "overwhelmingly powerful technologies," which also obscured the dangers inherent in totalist thinking. People who would steer clear of Marxism, for example, might fall for an even more grandiose world view if it had digital cachet.

"Digital Maoism" extends Lanier's brief on behalf of embattled, flesh-and-blood personhood. The threat he addresses this time comes from a phenomenon he calls "online collectivism." Exhibit A, for Lanier, is the Web-based, collectively written and edited Wikipedia. Controversy about the online encyclopedia's accuracy and editorial policies is currently making headlines, but Lanier's criticism has a different focus. "A desirable text," he writes, "is more than a collection of accurate references. It is also an expression of personality."

Personality, according to Lanier, is under-represented in Wikipedia. In our day and age, he maintains, the collective--whether called a network, a crowd, or a swarm--ominously devalues individual judgment and voice. After a century that saw Nazism and Maoism, the "resurgence" on the Internet of collectivist ideals should, Lanier argues, inspire fear rather than faith. "History has shown us again and again," he writes, "that a hive mind is a cruel idiot when it runs on autopilot."

IDEAS: Why did you write "Digital Maoism"?

LANIER: Because I'm concerned about the way ideas get embedded in software. Take the current legislative battle about network neutrality, whether the companies that run the Internet infrastructure have to treat all Internet users on an equal basis, or whether less-rich users will be disadvantaged. I'm pro-"net neutrality." Certain things like air and water and the right to vote are fundamental. You have to be a bit of a socialist in order to be capitalist. You have to have that underlying layer.

Some examples of ideas embedded in software are positive. The most dramatic positive example is the Internet itself, put together with the official Department of Defense mandate to be survivable in a nuclear war. What resulted is the possibility of the Internet as we understand it. That's a piece of good luck. If you look at other early information systems, like the French Minitel, you can see a completely different conception.

IDEAS: So people made the right decisions back then. A reader of "Digital Maoism" might ask, what's Lanier worried about?

LANIER: We all have our red lines, things that are unacceptable. Here's what's paramount for me: We can't lose ourselves--can't have computers become ways of losing personality.

IDEAS: How well did "Digital Maoism" address that issue? After all, much of the response had to with this or that aspect of Wikipedia.

LANIER: There are nerdy people who are tone deaf to the types of things I'm concerned about, and are going to continue to talk about technical details. But given the amount of activity around the essay--there were 90,000 hits by its seventh day online--I have to believe that at least some of it addressed what I actually said.

Let me be specific: I don't like people pretending something better than themselves exists in the computer. This is a great danger. I see it again and again in my life as a consultant and academic. You get a bunch of people together on a project, and they quickly become anonymous. They contribute to some sort of computer-mediated phenomenon, and treat the results as an oracle.

IDEAS: You're contesting the idea of "wise" crowds and the notion that genuine intelligence can somehow emerge from "dumb" processes like those in a network, or a swarm.

LANIER: I reject the word "wisdom" with regard to crowds. A crowd is not good with ideas. A crowd is absolutely inarticulate, vulnerable to going crazy. A crowd is actually idiotic. It's a statistical accountant, a calculating device, a certain type of thermometer or barometer. You can use a crowd as a scientific instrument.

IDEAS: You worry that individuals are losing ground to such instruments?

LANIER: Yes. It's almost a postmodern form of suicide. The motivations are easy to understand. There's death denial. People die but computers and crowds, maybe, don't. And there's liability avoidance. As an individual, you have to be responsible. As a member of a crowd--or a user of information systems--you're not responsible anymore.

IDEAS: You've used the expression "nerdy people." Meaning what?

LANIER: Over the last 60 years there's been a giant nerd wave of intellectuals responding to the computer metaphor. An early example is Noam Chomsky, who thought human language must be like a computer program. His whole scenario came out of contact with the computer world at MIT, and the new computer metaphor for the brain.

The magnitude of nerd culture, with its addiction to the computer metaphor, increases and increases, as the stuff that used to be confined to a few little labs at MIT and Stanford has become mainstream culture. The thing about the nerd culture is it has, as one part, the psychology of trying not be human, rejecting human identity.

IDEAS: Your mother was a Holocaust survivor. Your father fled the Bolsheviks. Does that background make you anxious about cultural tendencies that might strike others as less disturbing?

LANIER: Absolutely. We have to worry about the world we're creating.

Of course, I'm worried about oppressive government. But in recent history--I mean the last 150 years--what we've seen again and again is that movements for change that are only worried about the other people go bad themselves. For a lot of people now, the idea is to be as critical as possible of the current government. That's yesterday's criticism. The new criticism should be directed at what we're creating now--the digital world. It's on the ascendant and some day will be as powerful as the government.

Harvey Blume is a writer based in Cambridge. His interviews appear regularly in Ideas. E-mail

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