by Jaron Lanier

Note:  Am occasionally tweaking the answers- they are not fixed in stone...
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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 or this book:   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.
This is a familiar dilemma, and it is often said that the only response is constant revolution.  Thomas Jefferson contemplated periodic American revolutions, though not of a violent nature.  A joke that never seems far from the American stand-up comedy circuit goes, “Diapers and politicians should be changed often, and for the same reason.”
So it is natural to have sympathy for Wikileaks.  We can easily see it as the sexy revolutionary in the digital jungle.  In the back of our minds we might assure ourselves that if digital openness revolutionaries storm the capital and then turn out to be jerks, some other band of rebels can always come along to overthrow them.
But the digital jungle is different, and this is why I am not sympathetic to Wikileaks.  Digital power is tenacious because of what are called “network effects.”   It’s hard to leave Facebook because of all the connections that would have to be broken, all the data you’d lose access to.  Digital structures tend to have an all or nothing quality, just like a digital bit.  A design like Facebook will tend to either fall by the wayside or become a universal standard, and if it’s a universal standard, it becomes harder to unseat than a government. 
So when you look at a digital phenomenon starting to take off, you must not assess it as if it is cute Che in the jungle.  You must think of it as the politburo. 
Since Wikileaks is relatively small, it is cute, still in its jungle phase.  But what if it turns into something as influential as Facebook?  I am not saying that it is certain to become so influential, but the potential is there.
The scenario I fear for Wikileaks is this:  General communications in governments and companies will become phony and banal, as it is on Facebook, except when it’s pointlessly nasty and gossipy, as it also is on Facebook.  But it will not be substantial. 
Meanwhile, genuinely consequential communication will take place hidden within an encrypted bunker, in a powerful computer server that outsiders cannot penetrate.  This is the new pattern of the distribution of power among human beings.  Digital technology is re-patterning human influence around closed computers that benefit from, or leech off of, open surroundings.
Certain big computers on the Internet have become all seeing eyes, gathering dossiers on the rest of the world.  Some of these are called social networking servers and some are called hedge fund servers, some are run by intelligence agencies, and now we have the secret encrypted core of Wikileaks servers to contend with as well.  But in all cases, small groups of people gather close to these special servers and speak in secret.  When this happens, wealth and power are determined by proximity to the right computer. 
Decent government seems to persist only when there is a strong middle class, which distributes clout and influence broadly. Despite all the good things the Internet has brought, it has also been used to redistribute wealth and power away from the middle class, at least in the USA and Europe.
The mechanisms by which the middle class in the USA has been undercut usually involved computer networks.  It started with Wal Mart, the giant retailer, using computer networks to fine tune distribution systems so perfectly that it no longer mattered where something was manufactured. It’s hard to be too upset with this development, since it also funded the peaceful ascendance of China, a process that has gone more smoothly, at least so far, than anyone had dared to hope.
But then the same principles were applied directly to finance, and that allowed financiers to create profits without risk to themselves, which is the precisely same thing as concentrating wealth in a new aristocracy. 
There are new aristocracies in finance, but also in culture.  Publishers, music companies, and movie studios have become subservient to the companies that run the central cultural computers, like Apple, Facebook, and Amazon.

If the patterns promoted by Wikileaks scale, then a similar new kind of power will appear in politics.  What are these server-based aristocracies like?
One word says it:  Nerdy.  The whole world is getting a case of Asperger’s Syndrome. 
I am a nerd and I like nerds, so it’s tempting to entertain the thought that a world run by nerds would not be so bad.
What happens, though, when computers are used to concentrate power is that power becomes over-concentrated.  The only braking mechanism on the accumulation of wealth by financial computers was the imminent failures of the countries that support the currencies.  So now one hears nerd financiers speaking among themselves of creating new extra-governmental currencies.
Another thing that happens is that people who didn’t used to be nerds have to learn to act like nerds to get by.   Teenagers learn to represent themselves as data on a social networking site, and to live their lives to as to fit into the categories imbedded in the system. 
The term “advertising” is used to describe the process of access and influence buying in a world of computerized power.  While you arduously tend your fake self on Facebook, the company compiles a secret dossier about a more real you and everyone else so that access to you can be sold to political campaigns, teeth whiteners, or finance hucksters.  You are the product, not the customer.  Meanwhile the things you might offer online - your creative work, your opinions, your advice- are all made worthless in terms of the kind of real money that buys food and pays rent. 
This is all to say that the Wikileaks design, if it scales huge, would NOT promote general openness, but a redistribution of where secrets would be kept.  It would also make secrets more secret.  In a world remade by Wikileaks, the government and corporate activities you would be able to see because of the celebrated openness would be similar to the openness in social dynamics you get to see on Facebook.  Sometimes interesting, occasionally even touching, useful, and substantial, but overall banal.
The real news, the real power, would be hidden in encrypted servers.  Computers immunize people who use them for power.  When financiers use computers to concentrate wealth without taking on risk, they don’t go to jail.  Digital information is perfectly sterile, fungible, erasable, and concealable.
Wikileaks as a small rebellious group is one thing, but as a prototype for larger events, it is creating the prototype for digital immunization in politics.  The would-be nextgen dictators of the world are watching Wikileaks, and they are learning new tricks.  If someone like Assange can accumulate power with a digital strategy, what else might be done?

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.

Q: 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?

A: Am still positive in outlook and cherubic by nature.  Am not sour on a hundred things, as I might sometimes seem to be.  There is really only one thing I am criticizing; the degradation of what it is to be a person, caused by a way we can mistakenly treat digital technology.  To put it that way is to make a broad, abstract argument, however, and I find that a lot of readers don't respond to generalities.  So I work with specific examples instead, and there are a lot of them.  Underneath, they are all connected.  I try to find a particular balance where my honest optimism and cheerful nature come through even as I am savaging something I don’t like.

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 producer.

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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