While the rest of us are dispensing of our privacy on Facebook and letting Google track our search habits, there’s an elite cadre of thinkers who take the time to ponder what the Internet’s societal domination actually means.
Perhaps the most widely recognized of that crew — and not just for his nappy orange dreads and bright blue eyes — is author/composer/computer scientist Jaron Lanier, who comes to UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Thursday, January 20 at 8 p.m. His recent book You Are Not a Gadget reminds us that people are more powerful than computers and offers eye-opening critiques on the latest Web trends, many of which deeply disturb Lanier, who, among other career highlights, coined the term “virtual reality” and was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2010.
Lanier, who lives in Berkeley but is a visiting fellow at UCSB’s College of Creative Studies this year, spent a half-hour speaking about his work last week with The Independent. This interview represents just a fraction of what you can expect from Lanier’s free talk at Campbell Hall. He also promises to bring some weird instruments, so prepare for entertainment on multiple levels. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.
Before we get into your newer work, at which point in the past decades did you realize that computer technology was going to become a part of every minute of our daily lives? Oh, well, I knew that a long time ago. A lot of people knew that. You have to remember that I was fortunate to connect with a lot of central people in the digital world pretty young. By the time I was 20, I was already interacting with Alan Kay and Marvin Minsky and Ted Nelson and Doug Engelbart, not to mention the people at Apple and Microsoft. So I got into the game quite early, and that’s scarily long ago now.
On recent radio shows and in your new book You Are Not a Gadget, you talk a lot about how Facebook doesn’t allow young people to reinvent themselves and that, in order to be adults, you need to do some forgetting. What are the dangers of this record of everything that we now have on the Internet? We’re living our lives as if life could be represented in digital form and, actually, it can’t be. That makes us not live life as much as we could.
The thing about my writing, if I can say this, it’s a little denser and deeper than most things written about digital stuff. Sometimes people read a little bit of it and they think they get it — for better or worse, that’s how it is. The example I gave for the need for forgetting is just one angle, and not the whole story. But you do have to be able to reinvent yourself a bit. One of the examples I use is Bob Dylan. If Bob Dylan had a Facebook page when he was Zimmerman in Minnesota, then he wouldn’t have been able to show up in Greenwich Village and create this mystique or invent this new persona because this other thing would have been with him all the time. It’s all a question of balance, because something equally as bad is total anonymity. When you are commenting on someone’s blog post totally anonymously, then you can turn into a jerk really easy. So total revelation according to some strict rule that you only have one persona — which is [Mark] Zuckerburg’s idea of integrity, or the Facebook idea — and the sort of opposite of that, which is the total anonymity of the blog rolls, both of those things fail. They both create this artificial absoluteness that’s like some programmer’s idea of what reality should be.
But in order to be a person, you have to find these in between shades of gray. That’s the thing I am trying to get across. What I find so often is people want me to be able to just say it should be all anonymous or all not-anonymous or exactly 73 percent. That won’t work either. Fundamentally, the key to being human is to invent yourself, and people have the right to do that. You have to invent yourself with some persistence and some stake in yourself. You have to do it on the fly, but not so lightweight that it doesn’t mean anything. You have to be able to have both rights and responsibilities. You have to be a whole person.
I feel like again and again, every time people design the anything on the Internet — not always, but since the turn of the century, the last 10 years — there’s been this desire to ruin them. I think I understand where it comes from, but it’s just ridiculous. I just hope that by talking about it, I can have an effect on it.
Our Web site is full of anonymous commenters. It seems to have led to a degrading of civil discourse much more so than an opening up of society. I have seen good ideas shot down by anonymous people. So what is the extent of that danger? How deep can these trolls go? Argh. For me, the thing people have to remember is that some of the things we like about the modern world are incredibly recent innovations and extremely fragile and precious. This idea of democracy, where people have a right to be heard and to be left alone, as Learned Hand put it, all of that stuff is incredibly recent. It’s just a 20th century thing, pretty much. The advent of modern democracy, with the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights, we didn’t really fine tune it until the 20th century. People don’t realize how rare and how precious that was.
There are two components that go together here. One thing is that in order for people to have rights, there has to be democracy. And in order for that to happen, clout has to be distributed. What that means is you need to have a middle class. I just don’t think you can have democracy without a middle class. You need to have a whole lot of people who collectively are richer and more influential than any band of rich people. That’s just a necessary background to having a democracy. It doesn’t guarantee it, I suppose, but I don’t think you can have one without it.
What’s happened in the last 10 years is that the original idea of the Internet was lost. The original idea, as articulated by Ted Nelson, who was the first person to think about it, was to make the Internet a way for people to buy and sell bits between each other so they had a way to make money when the machines got good enough to drive the cabs and sew the clothes and all that. It’s looking ahead to this time that we are starting to see the beginning of where physical jobs don’t make sense anymore. If you have a way to buy and sell bits, then people can still on their own time have some way of having their own clout so you have democracy.
If you don’t have that, there’s just supposed to be some institution that doles out your well-being, like some sort of socialist thing. Then all the power will accrue to whoever runs that institution, and then democracy gets ruined. This idea of buying and selling bits is the only idea I’m aware of in the history of humanity for how people can keep their dignity and democracy when the machines get really good.
What happened is we turned away from that, mostly because of Google — just the idea of using the Internet as a spying device in order to sell advertising makes a lot of money, so everyone said, “Forget all that dignity and buying and selling stuff. Let’s just go for everything being free, because people like being free, but then we can make a lot of money by spying on them in exchange.”
The problem with that is that people give up their power. Right now, if you’re close to one of the big servers, if you’re associated with the Google server or the Facebook server or the Microsoft server, you could do pretty well. And I’m one of those people — I’m very much associated with Microsoft right now, so we do great. All of us in Silicon Valley are making a lot of money and we’re all very happy.
But the problem in the long run is that it’s not sustainable. All those people out there who are just not part of the economy, but are just either on Facebook conforming and trying to avoid the evil eye or being trolls anonymously and being the evil eye, all of these masses of people who don’t get to benefit from the fruits of the spying operation, they’re just disempowered. There’s no online middle class. There’s either the rich or the unpaid. There’s no in between or well paid. You’re either fabulously rich or you’re nothing.
So there’s no such thing as an online democracy in those circumstances, and people are very opinionated and speak very loudly. If people have no political power, they kind of randomly riot. But none of it makes any sense because people don’t really have any power, people will kind of mouth off, but they have neither power nor responsibility nor hope for either. It’s a stupid way to run the world.
What I really want to try to do is bring back the original idea of the Internet, which is one where you do pay for stuff, but the only reason you’re motivated to is that you also get paid for stuff. So there’s reciprocity, and you’re not beholden to the big companies. I think the big companies would do well. I’m not anti-big company. I actually think the rising tide raises all boats, so I don’t feel any contradiction in what I’m suggesting since I work with big companies.
People have to learn to expect more and to be responsible more to become whole people. When they do that, they’ll also behave better. When you have something to lose is when you start to become decent.
You’ve suggested doing this by monetizing everything online, even tacking on a postage to email, which would clearly eliminate spam. But what about poor people who can’t even afford half a cent? Doesn’t that idea cut out a class of people who have no money? There’s no easy answer here and I don’t want to make a claim that I know the most perfectly fair solution. I don’t even know if that exists. I think supporting the middle class is essential if you want democracy. To say that the middle class will put pressure on the poor so therefore we can’t afford it, then we’ll lose democracy, which will ultimately doom the poor for a longer period of time. In almost every circumstance, the better thing for the poor is to have distributed clout where you have a middle class. To put it another way, the middle class have more in common with the poor than with the rich, so a strong middle class will ultimately help the poor more than a strong wealth class. In other words, a bell curve does disadvantage people on the low side of the bell, but not as badly as a U-shaped society does. Your objection is absolutely well-taken and for real, but I think it’s the lesser of bad alternatives.
Do you fear that we’re already too far gone for some of your ideas? We can hardly get people to agree on anything, so how could you get everyone to agree on a universal monetization system for everything? When you look at the U.S. Congress, you start to think that anything that involves any sense of agreement at all is probably doomed. You have to look at history. Ideas matter and articulating what one thinks are the best ideas, it doesn’t go to waste. There are always young people being born. I know 16-year-olds who are not viewing Facebook as the thing that differentiates them from the older people, but as the thing that was handed down from the older people, and they think it’s bullcrap. They’re rebelling in the other direction.
We live in a time where part of the sense of stagnation and just bullheadedness that permeates a lot of the world today is the fault of modern medicine, because people are living longer and we have all these older people and less a sense of generational turnover. But that’s a short-term thing. We have to think in the bigger picture. As bad as conflicts are in the U.S. right now, for instance, remember we had a Civil War. It was one of the most gruesome events in human history. As horrible as relations between Islam and its neighbors are, it’s not as bad as it’s been at times. If you look anywhere in the world, you can look into history and find times when things were worse.
There’s every reason for hope. They key thing is not to lose sight of the big ideas, not to be afraid to talk about what might really work better just because of the incredible sense of gridlock at the moment.
Isn’t the basic idea of tools and technology to make things that make life easier so that you have more time to spend thinking about the big things? How did that backfire? How are we not letting technology take over the easy stuff so we can focus on the harder stuff? It’s a perfect question, actually, because it’s true. What you would like is to be able to automate those things that don’t matter. Some of this is just an honest mistake. There wasn’t any ill-will on the part of the people who set up the system I am criticizing. Indeed, I was one of them to a significant extent. It’s just that, looking empirically, I think we were calibrated wrong and we could do better. Thinking about what should be automated and what shouldn’t and where human responsibility should really be, it’s part of the project of finding who we are and reinventing who we are. It’s not something we’ll ever get perfect. We have to look at results and recalibrate and redo it all the time. I don’t think we’ll arrive at a perfect answer that’s eternal either. It’ll be subject to continuous revisions by new generations.
This is one of those things where it’s easy to fall into the all-or-nothing fallacy, where you’re supposed to say, “Oh this is terrible or this is all wonderful.” But the answer should be in the gray. We should be able to criticize where we are without criticizing it totally and we should be able to adjust where we are without having to abandon everything. That’s what I’m trying to do.
If you read my book, you’ll see that it’s not a sort of anti-tech rant or anti-Internet rant or anything like that. I’m trying to promote this distribution of clout by distributing wealth online, which I think is a really good idea. But everything is measured — I don’t want to burn the routers or anything like that.
Jaron Lanier will discuss his new book You Are Not a Gadget and more at UCSB’s Campbell Hall at 8 p.m. on Thursday, January 20. Admission is free. See jaronlanier.com for more info on his work.