by Jaron Lanier
Note: Am occasionally tweaking the answers- they are not fixed
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|Most common questions first. These are answers to questions I've been getting at talks and in interviews.||
Q: Some of the questions that used to be here are gone. Where did they go?
A: Edited versions of them are now found as a new last chapter in the paperback edition of Gadget.
Q: You’ve been uncharacteristically quiet about the Internet angle in the wave of Middle Eastern revolutions. What gives?
A: Usually I express opinions when I have unique, direct experience of relevant events.
When I write about Wikileaks, for instance, it’s because I was present during some of the formative moments that made it come about, so my perspective might be unusual and useful.
But I’ve mostly stayed out of the debates about the effect of social networking software in despotic/transforming countries. I haven’t been to Egypt, for instance. If/when I go, I’ll write about it.
Q: OK, consider them encrusted in caveats, but you must have some opinions.
A: A needed resource in the developing world might have a different meaning in the developed world. People don’t have enough to eat in much of the world - indeed rising food prices were one of the immediate motivations of the Egyptian protests - while in the developed world we face public health crises due to eating too much. (Yes, that’s a topic I have personal experience with, alas.) It’s always contextual.
Evgeny Morozov and Malcolm Gladwell are the two most visible skeptics of the utopian claims made for “Liberation through Facebook.” Their arguments seem sensible to me, though I think they lose sight of the distinction between the architecture of the Internet, which is the fundamental value brought to people by services like Facebook and Twitter, and the shallower qualities unique to those services. My impression of what has gone on in the Middle East is that the fundamental character of the Internet- connecting anyone to anyone, asynchronously, on demand, with persistent data sharing - is genuinely helpful to people on the ground.
As it happens, I’ve worked on ideas and designs that anticipated these questions for many years. In the 1990s I won a design contest with a proposal for a gadget called the “Critical Mass Communicator” that would set up a concealable, encrypted, human powered, ad-hoc wireless network for people in an impoverished, repressive environment. See http://basilisk.co.uk/portfolio/saatchi/cmc.html or this book: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/books/product.aspx?z=y&EAN=9780955304606&itm=1 The design contest was sponsored by an ad agency, an irony that also foresaw some of the problems I worry about today.
The particular designs of today’s top social networking sites might come back to haunt emerging democracies as they try to bring societies together while the connecting software is trying to regiment people into corrals for ideal advertising targeting.
For the moment, I am super delighted that digital technologies are symbols of youth and freedom, and the potential for a better future. I also note that ordinary people in the Middle East are trusting American services in difficult times, and that is a hopeful sign in a world that sometimes seems to be locked in hopeless “civilization clash.”
On the other hand, the intense American focus on the roles of the fashionable brands - Twitter and Facebook - amounts to an orgy of narcissism that once again makes the story be about us. It turns into yet another way to not listen openly to what someone in Egypt might be saying. Let’s make sure to make it a two-way exchange.
Q: You've taken a lot of heat for your position on Wikileaks. There was a print editorial - distinct from your piece in The Atlantic - that was published in various newspapers but doesn't seem to be online. Where can I read it?
A: Here it is:
A perennial problem with revolution is that revolutionaries are cute
in the jungle before they’ve won, but quickly become decrepit and
sadistic once in power. Aspirational Che was sexy but empowered
Castro was cruel. Actually Che had been cruel too, so one might
have known, but the illusion was at least possible.
Here are some older Q & As that didn't make it into the new chapter in the paperback:
Q: Are you on Facebook or Twitter?
A: No. I think some of my music might be, though. The good folks who sell the album Proof of Consciousness might use those tools from time to time, for instance. There's a Jaron Lanier page on Facebook that has nothing to do with me. My cat Loof is on Facebook with an assumed name, however, and she helps me experience and understand how it is changing.
Q: Does it bother you that the people who sell your music and books sometimes use Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace to do so?
A: Maybe a little, but I'm not a fanatic. I don't like using those tools personally, but I don't ask business partners or friends to pass a purity test. I'd rather someone spend all day thoughtfully using the software I criticize than lazily emulate my personal choices.
Q: Are you ready to pass the baton to younger generations? Or are you an older techie who is hanging on, trying to hog influence?
A: If I didn't trust and respect younger generations, I would try to manipulate them with flattery. That's how the game is played. I am showing them trust and respect by speaking my mind.
Q: Aren't you trying to predict social change, even though that's impossible, due to complexity?
A: Am sounding an alarm, since I think that's the responsible thing to do. Of course the topic is complex and it's likely that I've made some mistakes even if I am right in the big picture. Technical people have a responsibility to talk publicly about problems they see in large scale trends. That's the flip side of the privilege of getting early glimpses. If I am wrong, I'll be so happy that I won't care if people who disagree with me now have some fun saying "I told you so."
Acquiescing to the notion that it is impossible to say anything at all anything about social change is just a way of avoiding social responsibility.
You make so many negative and cautionary arguments about so many things.
Are you just trying to be a contrarian in every possible way? What
happened to the cherubic positive fellow who got so many people
interested in Virtual Reality and other technologies?
Q: OK, then, how are you optimistic?
A: My arguments are fundamentally optimistic. I argue that we
should expect the most from human potential. We should leave open
the possibilities that people are different and better than machines -
and that most people will turn out to be creative and competent enough
to invent themselves and make their livings by the achievements of their
brains and hearts. My critics are often stealthy pessimists,
because they assume the least from people. This happens when the
lazy desires of the file sharer are preferred over the file producer's
need for sustenance, for instance, because this argument suggests that
the average person is more like a passive consumer than an active
Q: Are we really sure that "lock in" is such a powerful force in technology? Don't markets eventually work their way out of lock in?
A: Maybe markets can do that, at least in some instances, but it's a different dynamic than what I'm addressing in the book. I used to use a different word for what I'm talking about. In older essays like Karma Vertigo I asserted that "Digitally-amplified Idea Sedimentation" was a distinct phenomenon from technological lock-in. In the book I decided to use the term "lock-in" for both cases, in order to keep things simple. Based on feedback I've been getting, I now wish I had continued to use a distinguishing term. There is a coupling between lock-in and "sedimentation" but they are not the same thing. Sedimentation happens when digital representations of ideas become causal forces in the evolution of those ideas. That means that the ideas become more flat and bland in addition to stagnating.
Q: Would you review my technical proposal/paper/patent?
A: Am so sorry to say I am truly fully booked up with my existing commitments. I know it can be hard to get a good idea noticed, but the world is large and diverse, and if you are determined, you will find a way. Wish I could help, but at the moment, I just can't.
Q: Did you get my email? Will you answer?
A: Thanks so much for writing. Some of the emails have been extraordinary. Am attempting to answer all the mail I get, but there's been a whole lot lately, and it will take some serious time to catch up. Please remember I do a lot of stuff plus I'm a dad, etc. Please be patient.
Q: You looked a little odd in photos and on TV during part of 2009. What was going on?
A: I had a Bell's Palsy. It's better now. I had it during the photo shoot for the book, and you'll notice that in all the photos, I'm either holding up half my face or turned away. It was kind of like having a buggy avatar in the physical plane.
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