February 2, 2010

Jaron Lanier is very very concerned

photo-1“Jaron Lanier is worried”, says the leaflet to accompany a keynote speech by the philosopher, digital guru and Virtual Reality pioneer at the Royal Society for the Arts.

Actually, having listened to his talk in person last night, a more accurate description of Lanier’s state of mind on this issue is “very, very concerned”.

Concerned about the future of the internet if it continues to chart its current course. In his new book, which we’ve recently discussed on this blog, Lanier argues that individual creativity has begun to go out of fashion.

He believes we have begun to believe that machines, specifically computers, are no longer just tools to be used by the human mind. What’s more, we treat computers as if they are altogether better than humans.

Lanier’s book is an impassioned, persuasive call to arms against digital collectivism and proposes richer, more productive ways in which technology might interact with our culture. It’s a good read.

Lanier used the speech to talk around his book and debunk some of the myths or untruths that have sprung up in the wake of its publication earlier this month.

He said that despite the worried moniker, he is actually very positive about the future of the internet and believes in the next 10 years we will face a turning point.

He is hopeful that we will make the right decision as he sees it in a rejection of the “rhetoric” espoused and championed by people such as Chris Anderson in his book ‘Free’.

Lanier argues that ultimately people such as Anderson are negative about the potential of human talent and endeavor, whereas he strongly believes that humans have limitless potential.

This last point was interesting to me. After reading Lanier’s book I had said in a short review on this blog: “How do you treat an illegal downloader like a house burglar when the burglars vastly out number the house owners because there are a lot more consumers of digital content than producers of it.”

Lanier’s response to this point was short and succinct: “There are as many producers as consumers of content”. In other words, to say otherwise is to underestimate the general collective talent out there.

In short, art, commerce and other creative endeavors on the internet do not belong to an elite. We all have something to contribute, and perhaps even sell for a profit.

As an interesting aside, Lanier said that although Anderson and himself disagree vehemently, they remain good friends and neighbours on the street they live on in the US.

Janier also added that he hasn’t been ostrichsized by the west coast tech community as reported, but has in fact received many letters of support from software engineers, developers, musicians and artists.

Janier said that Anderson’s book was part of a “powerful and deluded” rhetoric and that the empirical evidence simply did not stack up.

Contrary to Anderson’s and others claims that lots people are making money from the music they give away for free through t-shirts, gigs and other merchandise, the truth is that many of the examples are fake or the artists are in fact living off generous trust funds.

“The harder you look for people making money from the fruits of their labours, they fewer examples there are”, he said.

Some of the other interesting tit bits to come out of the talk included Lanier’s belief that the most visionary new media age writers were putting pen to paper long before the internet was invented. He cited H. G. Wells and E. M. Forster as the two best examples.

He said Wells’ book ‘The Time Machine’, in which society has split into two “undignified” sub-cultures – an underclass living underground and a elite living above ground – could be made possible by the internet if we did not radically reinvent the model.

Lanier also said that “older people get Facebook, young people don’t” by which he meant that your parents use Facebook for what it’s good at doing – reconnecting with old friends.

But, young people find settings such as ‘relationship status’ hard to understand – unlike older people who can simply say whether they are married and single without any ambiguity.

As a result of this, Lanier said young people are worryingly modeling and defining their personal identities on arbitrary Facebook settings.

On the subject of young people, Lanier floated the idea that the mob rule culture endemic on the internet could see a mass suicide taking place involving hundreds of thousands of people. It sounded alarmist, but Lanier put forward a convincing case.

However, Lanier’s hope that he could convince his “friends” at Google to give up advertising raised a few eyebrows at the highly unlikely prospect of the search engine giant ditching one of the most successful business models of all time.

Good luck with that!

In the meantime, while Lanier tries to change the world, read the book. It’s a worthwhile read, whether or not you buy into Lanier’s ideas.