Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier (born May 3, 1960) is an American writer, computer scientist, and composer of classical music. A pioneer in the field of virtual reality (a term he is credited with popularizing), Lanier and Thomas G. Zimmerman left Atari in 1985 to found VPL Research, Inc., the first company to sell VR goggles and gloves. In the late 1990s, Lanier worked on applications for Internet2, and in the 2000s, he was a visiting scholar at Silicon Graphics and various universities.

Philosophy, criticism of Web 2.0

“One-Half of a Manifesto” (2000)

In “One-Half a Manifesto”, Lanier criticizes the claims made by writers such as Ray Kurzweil, and opposes the prospect of so-called “cybernetic totalism”, which is “a cataclysm brought on when computers become ultra-intelligent masters of matter and life.” Lanier’s position is that humans may not be considered to be biological computers, i.e., they may not be compared to digital computers in any proper sense, and it is very unlikely that humans could be generally replaced by computers easily in a few decades, even economically. While transistor count increases according to Moore’s law, overall performance rises only very slowly. According to Lanier, this is because human productivity in developing software increases only slightly, and software becomes more bloated and remains as error-prone as it ever was. “Simply put, software just won’t allow it. Code can’t keep up with processing power now, and it never will.”[13] At the end he warns that the biggest problem of any theory (esp. ideology) is not that it is false, “but when it claims to be the sole and utterly complete path to understanding life and reality.” The impression of objective necessity paralyzes the ability of humans to walk out of or to fight the paradigm and causes the self-fulfilling destiny which spoils people.

Post-symbolic communication (2006)

Some of Lanier’s speculation involves what he calls “post-symbolic communication.” In his April 2006 Discover magazine column, he writes about cephalopods (i.e., the various species of octopus, squid, and related molluscs), many of which are able to morph their bodies, including changing the pigmentation and texture of their skin, as well as forming complex shape imitations with their limbs. Lanier sees this behavior, especially as exchanged between two octopodes, as a direct behavioral expression of thought.


Wikipedia and the omniscience of collective wisdom

In his online essay “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism”, in Edge magazine in May 2006, Lanier criticized the sometimes-claimed omniscience of collective wisdom (including examples such as the Wikipedia article about himself), describing it as “digital Maoism”. He writes “If we start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we’re devaluing those people [creating the content] and making ourselves into idiots.”

His criticism aims at several targets which concern him and are at different levels of abstraction:

  • any attempt to create one final authoritative bottleneck which channels the knowledge onto society is wrong, regardless whether it is a Wikipedia or any algorithmically created system producing meta information,
  • sterile style of wiki writing is undesirable because:
    • it removes the touch with the real author of original information, it filters the subtlety of his opinions, essential information (for example, the graphical context of original sources) is lost,
    • it creates the false sense of authority behind the information,
  • collective authorship tends to produce or align to mainstream or organizational beliefs,
  • he worries that collectively created works may be manipulated behind the scene by anonymous groups of editors who bear no visible responsibility,
    • and that this kind of activity might create future totalitarian systems as these are basically grounded on misbehaved collectives which oppress individuals.

This critique is further explored in an interview with him on Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone, where he is critical of the denatured effect which “removes the scent of people”.

In December 2006 Lanier followed up his critique of the collective wisdom with an article in Edge titled “Beware the Online Collective”. Lanier writes:

I wonder if some aspect of human nature evolved in the context of competing packs. We might be genetically wired to be vulnerable to the lure of the mob….What’s to stop an online mass of anonymous but connected people from suddenly turning into a mean mob, just like masses of people have time and time again in the history of every human culture? It’s amazing that details in the design of online software can bring out such varied potentials in human behavior. It’s time to think about that power on a moral basis.

Lanier argues that the search for deeper information in any area sooner or later requires that you find information that has been produced by a single person, or a few devoted individuals: “You have to have a chance to sense personality in order for language to have its full meaning.” That is, he sees limitations in the utility of an encyclopedia produced by only partially interested third parties as a form of communication.

You Are Not a Gadget (2010)

In his book You Are Not a Gadget (2010), Lanier criticizes what he perceives as the hive mind of Web 2.0 (wisdom of the crowd) and describes the open source and open content expropriation of intellectual production as a form of “Digital Maoism”.  Lanier argues that Web 2.0 developments have retarded progress and innovation and glorified the collective at the expense of the individual. He criticizes Wikipedia and Linux as examples of this problem; Wikipedia for what he sees as: its “mob rule” by anonymous editors, the weakness of its non-scientific content, and its bullying of experts. Lanier also argues that there are limitations to certain aspects of the open source and content movement in that they lack the ability to create anything truly new and innovative. For example, Lanier argues that the open source movement didn’t create the iPhone. In another example, Lanier claims that Web 2.0 makes search engines lazy, destroys the potential of innovative websites like Thinkquest, and hampers the communication of ideas like mathematics to a wider audience. Lanier further argues that the open source approach has destroyed opportunities for the middle class to finance content creation, and results in the concentration of wealth in a few individuals—”the lords of the clouds”—people who, more by virtue of luck rather than true innovation, manage to insert themselves as content concentrators at strategic times and locations in the cloud. (from Wikipedia).


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