The Jaron Lanier effect

The Jaron Lanier interference pattern was bound to ripple its way back into my awareness, sooner or later. I blame this squarely on how long I stared at the pages  in the giant black+white coffee-table photobook ‘DREADS‘… in which his was one of the portraits.  And one of my favourite write-ups, I have to say.

On a serendipitous jaunt to Coles bookstore at lunchtime recently, I found a book that resonated with me and after flicking through it a bit, I flipped it over and saw a thumbnail of the author. I kept thinking, where have I seen this guy? Why does he look so familiar…! :o)

Anway… Jaron Lanier is none other than the author of You are not a gadget, a book in which “The Blankness of Generation X never went away, but became the new normal” is actually the title of a section. (ouch). My main gripe about the book though is that Canada didn’t get the cool UK cover…

The web 2.0 effect

It’s nice to know that someone else has noticed the same things: like how the crapulence that is social media has smeared itself all over the wuvvly surfaces of webspace, one crowd-assisted bowel-movement at a time. And as for holding a decent conversation or gathering feedback  in the open forums that technology makes possible, we all know how the trolls love to come out to play: anonymous posters out to desecrate that which rarely (though not rarely enough) deserves their special brand of desecration.

Of course being a technologist himself, Lanier is a wee bit more nuanced than I’m being here, but you get the idea. His core argument is two-pronged: 1) technologies very quickly cause us to adapt our cognitive and behavioral profiles to fit them, and not the other way roundm and 2) the social media / dense network- oriented trajectory we are pursuing with digital technology is a recipe for valuing crowds over individual human beings. As I’ve said myself before, we don’t wanna be whittled down to dimensionless points while our fascination with emergent / large-scale phenomena increases its hypnotic power over us.

Here’s Jaron’s stance, in a super-compressed ┬ánutshell:

So what to do?  Lanier has a hopeful and slightly more integrated approach for tackling these issues. I on the other hand take the apathy-fuelled low-road, lopping off half of the problem as inherently unsolvable:

The Collective

Lanier believes that singularity-skewed gibberings about net-based AIs are likely hopelessly flawed (is he kidding? The FLAWS are half the fun!).  But the philosophical endpoint in the ‘cybernetic totalism‘ worldview (his term) shouldn’t be tossed out with the bathwater. It’s entirely plausible that humans… as a group, are simply damned to invoke something that operates at scales several times that of the individual. Whether that thing will be a technology or a way of life, whether it will be organic or inorganic, whether it will grow out of our myriad internets or not, whether it will destroy us or fortify us, I think we are more likely than not to create something whose macro-scale effects won’t be easy to ignore. Historically, we’ve been creating larger and larger internetworks of one type or another. The resulting entity toward the end of this trajectory doesn’t even have to be a true singularity in the mathematical sense; the metaphor is just pretty and intriguing, and yes we wallow in it for far longer than he likes, but you have to admit that something even ‘only mildly recognisable as “The Singularity” ‘ would still be pretty frickin’ earth-shattering, should it come to pass.

Additionally, should the collective (of humanity and its machines) birth a superscalar structure, that structure would obey superscalar laws. Such laws don’t have anything to do with “individuals” – they are practically blind to entities such as you or me.

What I personally infer from this is that superscalar entities are their own animal; a really good, really large, really stable one that has any dependence on a large collective of humans is necessarily going to be a regressive death march toward complete eradication of individual-scale sentience. Along the way such an entity will require us to rewrite our definitions of sentience / humanity severally (Lanier has already twigged this), and on the whole it will appear that progress is being  made, because statistically more lives will have been saved and lengthened and bettered compared to some historical moving average. Actually – and here’s the kicker – progress WILL have been made, because the stats I just mentioned are likely all that will matter. As ever.

But my point is that none of this needs to have anything to do with you and me as individuals. That’s right – there is an entirely separate exercise in minding one’s own business:

The Individual

I’ve always said that there should be a personal battle raging inside each and every one of us. We must exert our own external pressure on the world (which includes technology, people, systems, cultures etc). It is this small resistance that assures our humanity/individuality, should those things happen to matter to us (because of course, different things matter to different people). Regardless of Lanier’s criticisms of shortsighted and rigid patterns in software applications and user interface design, I put it to you that this is ultimately a personal responsibility to enforce our own patterns. It’s a personal responsibility that can’t be palmed off to software makers and the techno-hegemonies they work for.

The way in which we fill the world and they way we move in it counts about as much as, if not more than, the way in which technologies mold themselves around the nooks and crannies of our personhood. The tools we choose and crucially, how we choose to use them – where we have a choice at all – are always linked in some way to our personal value system. It is for this reason (our value systems being at the core of how we are in the world) that one person will sing the praises of something like twitter while another staunchly refuses to join something like facebook. Ultimately it is our own value system that makes us pick up a tool and decide how to wield it, if at all.

For once, a useful duality

The collective exists by negating the individual; the individual exists by negating the collective. Their agendas have nothing to do with each other and they are governed by different laws of scale, while being inexorably linked. I know… it’s a bit one hand clapping, but I think it’s this dichotomy that might save us. We manifest a “collective-oriented” aspect in order to mesh gears with the larger entity, but we also fight to keep our personhood from fragmenting. It’s a “fight” only because the former is a universal force – it will grind along regardless of the quality of individuals that are fed it… whereas the latter is just you, and your human (individual) need for sense and meaning at person-scales. You’re therefore screwed, and you should start strategizing accordingly.


I do like the ‘You are not a gadget‘ manifesto so far, but fixing the digital landscape / its effects / how we build software smacks ofreaching into the bathroom mirror to fix the way you look. I say encourage the person in front of the mirror to wear something different, instead of going head-to-head with the laws of physics at mirrored surfaces. (If Lanier wanted to play ball with the worst metaphor ever, it’d prolly be along the lines of  “yes, but when you go to the closet to get new clothes they’re all packed a certain way and you can never find cufflinks  cos they don’t get enough votes, plus the only available colours are red green and yellow because you answered yes to ‘do you have dreads’ at the beginning…”, etc etc).

The battle for personhood and individuality was always supposed to rage on. As was the tendency for macro-scale structures to evolve.

But I should go finish the  book… ­čÖé


image: pilfered off of google!

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