It’s usually worthy of note when a digital pioneer turns against the very culture he helped create, and so we read with interest in a recent issue of Smithsonian Magazine (January, 2013, “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold 2.0”) about Jaron Lanier, one of the folks behind the Web 2.0, that social amalgam in the ether that helped spawn ventures like Facebook and others. While building out the Internet into a so-called hive mind was once seen as an act of evolutionary creativity, today Lanier rails against what he sees as its ability to “destroy political discourse, economic stability and the dignity of personhood” all leading in his view to “social catastrophe.”
Lanier’s computer career started in the 80s when he was a digital guru rock star. He was a pioneer and “publicizer” of virtual-reality technology (computer simulated experiences). As Lanier pointed out in his article in Smithsonian… “there is no vehicle that wasn’t designed in a virtual reality system first. Every vehicle of every kind built – plane, train – is first put in a virtual-reality machine and people experience driving it [there] first.”
While Lanier today is a research scholar at Microsoft and on a first name basis with Google founders Brin and Page, he freely admits the contradictions inherent in being both a pioneer and now an apostate rebelling against the ideology of the social web. Lanier believes he and his associates changed the world when they helped invent virtual technology when he was just in his 20s. Later he had an early video game hit and authored a provocative book; these and speaking gigs help fund his life as well as his love for, of all things, arcane Asian musical instruments.
But on the subject of today’s social Web 2.0, his feelings have evolved and reversed, and they are clear.
“I’d been an early advocate of making information free,” he says. ‘Free’, of course, being “the mantra of the movement that said it was OK to steal, pirate and download the creative works of musicians, writers and artists” notes article author Ron Rosenbaum. What turned Lanier’s mind was a personal experience with a development that caused his defection. “I’d had a career as a professional musician and what I started to see is that once we made information free, it wasn’t all the big stars that were consigned to the bread lines (they still had huge tour profits)… instead, it was the middle-class… a very large body of people” who, in essence, were have trouble making a living, even making ends meet. As Lanier says, “I realized this was a hopeless stupid design of society and that it was our fault.”
Lanier sees the same thing happening, for example, with Google Translate, a graphic example of a giant company that “takes” and then monetizes the work of a crowd (in this case, translators the world over that created Google’s indexed translation phrases) without compensation.
Today, Lanier sees the world of Wall Street and high finance operating along a similar axis. Super-fast computing has led to nanosecond hedge fund trading stock markets. In his new book, “The Fate of Power and the Future of Dignity” he suggests that a file-sharing service and a hedge fund are essentially the same things. Whoever has the biggest computer can analyze everyone else to their advantage, thereby concentrating wealth and power. Lanier sees this as a way to shrink the overall economy and says he thinks of it as “the mistake of our age.”
There’s much more to Lanier’s story, which you might check out in Smithsonian, where he also discusses his thoughts on “the Singularity” (the notion of machines achieving artificial intelligence and eventually consciousness, a belief set popularized by a number of tech mavens, most notably Ray Kurzweil), and the recent outing of Violentcranz the screen name of a notorious troll who was shamed on the popular site Reddit.
Get hold of a copy of Smithsonian, and read it for yourself. You may find your own opinions about the social web evolving in directions you’d never considered before.