jaron lanier

People have often been willing to give up personal identity and join into a collective. Historically, that propensity has usually been very bad news. Collectives tend to be mean, to designate official enemies, to be violent, and to discourage creative, rigorous thought. Fascists, communists, religious cults, criminal ‘families’ — there has been no end to the varieties of human collectives, but it seems to me that these examples have quite a lot in common. I wonder if some aspect of human nature evolved in the context of competing packs. We might be genetically wired to be vulnerable to the lure of the mob.
—  Jaron Lanier
Jaron Lanier - Information Doesn’t Deserve to Be Free

[excerpt from his 2012 book You Are Not a Gadget]

“Information wants to be free.” So goes the saying. Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, seems to have said it first.

I say that information doesn’t deserve to be free.

Cybernetic totalists love to think of the stuff as if it were alive and had its own ideas and ambitions. But what if information is inanimate? What if it’s even less than inanimate, a mere artifact of human thought? What if only humans are real, and information is not?

Of course, there is a technical use of the term ‘information’ that refers to something entirely real. This is the kind of information that’s related to entropy. But that fundamental kind of information, which exists independently of the culture of an observer, is not the same as the kind we put in computers, the kind that supposedly wants to be free.

Information is alienated experience.

You can think of culturally decodable information as a potential form of experience, very much as you think of a brick resting on a ledge as storing potential energy. When the brick is prodded to fall, the energy is revealed. That is only possible because it was lifted into place at some point in the past.

In the same way, stored information might cause experience to be revealed if it is prodded in the right way. A file on a hard disk does contain information of the kind that objectively exists. The fact that the bits are discernible instead of being scrambled into mush– the way heat scrambles things– is what makes them bits.

But if the bits can potentially mean something to someone, they can only do so if they are experienced. When that happens, a commonality of culture is enacted between the storer and the retriever of the bits. Experience is the only process that can de-alienate information.

Information of the kind that purportedly wants to be free is nothing but a shadow of our own minds, and wants nothing on its own. It will not suffer if it doesn’t get what it wants.

But if you want to make the transition from the old religion, where you hope God will give you an afterlife, to the new religion, where you hope to become immortal by getting uploaded into a computer, then you have to believe information is real and alive. So for you, it will be important to redesign human institutions like art, the economy, and the law to reinforce the perception that information is alive. You demand that the rest of us live in your new conception of a state religion. You need us to deify information to reinforce your faith.

For instance, the user interface to search engines is still based on the command line interface, with which the user must construct logical phrases using symbols such as dashes and quotes. That’s how personal computers used to be, but it took less than a decade to get from the Apple II to a the Macintosh. By contrast, it’s been well over a decade since network-based search services appeared, and they are still trapped in the command line era. At this rate, by 2020, we can expect software development to have slowed to a near stasis, like a clock approaching a black hole.

Jaron Lanier, “You are not a Gadget”

This may be slightly unfair… doesn’t Google incorporate a lot of context from your IP location, etc?  Not to mention image searches, etc.  Still, this quote made me wonder what else Lanier could think of for search UI…

  • Point-and-click Decision trees?
  • Audio search?
  • A more visual/continuous display of results?

If there’s one thing Lanier excels at, it’s pointing at decisions we’ve made without noticing… it had never even occurred to me to consider the interface of search.

Can anyone else think of any groundbreaking possible changes?

What makes something real is that it is impossible to represent it to completion.

It’s easy to forget that the very idea of digital expression involves a trade-off with metaphysical overtones. A physical oil painting cannot convey an image created in another medium; it is impossible to make an oil painting look just like an ink drawing, for instance, or vice versa. But a digital image of sufficient resolution can capture any kind of perceivable image– or at least that’s how you’ll think of it if you believe in bits too much.

Of course, it isn’t really so. A digital image of an oil painting is forever a representation, not a real thing. A real painting is a bottomless mystery, like any other real thing. An oil painting changes with time; cracks appear on its face. It has texture, odor, and a sense of presence and history.

Another way to think about it is to recognize that there is no such thing as a digital object that isn’t specialized. Digital representations can be very good, but you can never foresee all the ways a representation might need to be used. For instance, you could define a new MIDIlike standard for representing oil paintings that includes odors, cracks, and so on, but it will always turn out that you forgot something, like the weight or the tautness of the canvas.

The definition of a digital object is based on assumptions of what aspects of it will turn out to be important. It will be a flat, mute nothing if you ask something of it that exceeds those expectations. If you didn’t specify the weight of a digital painting in the original definition, it isn’t just weightless, it is less than weightless.

A physical object, on the other hand, will be fully rich and full real whatever you do to it. It will respond to any experiment a scientist can conceive. What makes something fully real is that it is impossible to represent it to completion.

A digital image, or any other kind of digital fragment, is a useful compromise. It captures a certain limited measurement of reality within a standardized system that removes any of the original source’s unique qualities. No digital image is really distinct from any other; they can be morphed and mashed up.

That doesn’t mean that digital culture is doomed to be anemic. It just means that digital media have to be used with special caution.

—  Jaron Lanier’s chapter “Digital Creativity Eludes Flat Places” in his 2012 book You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto. 133-134.
Summer 2011 Reading List

A few of the books I read this past summer in preparation for thesis:

And for the more practical hands-on skills that I’ll most likely be needing for thesis:

What did I learn? 1) Magellan took a giant leap of faith in exploring the unknown, 2) Genghis Khan proved to be very adaptable and flexible in his style of conquering and later governing, 3) the internet is in danger of becoming a closed system controlled by the titans of industry, 4) in the near future all mass-produced objects will be able to communicate with us and with each other, and 5) we spend way too much time working for computers instead of the other way around.

While none of these books are centered around my thesis ideas of maps or mapping interfaces that serve some greater purpose, they all touched upon related ideas of exploration, wayfinding, connections and cohesion over vast geographic areas, control over technology and the control technology has over us. Food for thought…

Anonymous blog comments, vapid video pranks, and lightweight mashups may seem trivial and harmless, but as a whole, this widespread practice of fragmentary, interpersonal communication has demeaned interpersonal interaction.

Communication is now often experienced as a superhuman phenomena that towers above individuals. A new generation has come of age with a reduced expectation of what a person can be, and of who each person might become.
—  You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier.

Information wants to be free, but the world isn’t ready

Jaron Lanier, Aaron Swartz, and the complexities of ‘free’ digital stuff 

“Free culture,” as some call it, is not economically kind to artists, musicians, writers, and creative folks in general. Almost all cultural product today is digital, infinitely replicable and instantly available to everyone with web access. This tends to devalue and demean creative types as we’re pushed down into the shit end of the Long Tail alongside the vast, relatively unskilled hordes who are happy to provide their own content, thank you very much, and to grab up our stuff for free. The creative middle class is effectively being removed from the supply chain. It’s being disintermediated.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how computation is a human-centric concept. In the abstract, aliens don’t recognize our bits. There has to be a cultural setup for us to recognize stored information. And that cultural setup can bring into it all kinds of fundamental ideas which could have a huge effect on how society runs, how the economy works, and how our lives are put together.
—  Jaron Lanier
Ideal computers can be experienced when you write a small program. They seem to offer infinite possibilities and an extraordinary sense of freedom. Real computers are experienced when we deal with large programs. They can trap us in tangles of code and make us slaves to legacy - and not just in matters of obscure technological decisions. There’s a rule of thumb you can count on in each succeeding version of the web 2.0 movement: the more radical an online social experiment is claimed to be, the more conservative, nostalgic, and familiar the result will actually be. It’s still strange that generations of young, energetic, idealistic people would perceive such intense value in creating [Wikipedia]. Let’s suppose that back in the 1980s I had said, “In a quarter century, when the digital revolution has made great progress and computer chips are millions of times faster than they are now, humanity will finally win the prize of being able to write a new encyclopedia!” It would have sounded utterly pathetic.
—  Jaron Lanier, You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto. Penguin: 2010. 121-22.

Facebook’s assault on privacy and anonymous comments on blogs are both examples of antihuman software design, even though they might seem like opposites.

Enforcing radical anti-anonymity puts people in a similar position as radical anonymity. In each case, people are no longer able to define themselves. The digital system sets the rules and boundaries, instead of each person.

How does Facebook fight personhood? Consider: would we have had a Mark Twain or a Bob Dylan if the Facebook doppelgängers of Samuel Clemens and Robert Zimmerman dogged them at every step? Strategic forgetting is part of personhood, and it is threatened. To be a person you have to find a sweet spot in which you both invent yourself and are real.

There seems to be a Facebook generational divide that is at odds with the cliche. People old enough to have a life–jobs or kids, for instance–use Facebook to connect to their own pasts, and generally have good experiences. It’s the youngest ones who more often find themselves trapped or challenged by cartoon versions of themselves on Facebook.

In particular, a “post-Facebook” generation has begun to appear since the first edition of this book. For these young people, Facebook is not something that supposedly differentiates them from older generations but is instead an inherited burden. They are comfortable criticizing the service, and it will be their fate to wrestle with it.


–Jaron Lanier, in the afterward to the paperback edition of You Are Not a Gadget

I finished this book yesterday and got a lot out of it. This passage in the afterward really struck me. In part because it is foreign to my experience. My early life and a large chunk of my adulthood are completely undocumented online, so Facebook, though I don’t think about it or use it much, seems pretty innocuous. But the thought of having a “cartoon version” of myself up there in perpetuity is something I can easily imagine causing a lot anxiety. It’s something I’ve heard about from people younger than me, though never articulated quite this clearly. 

I had an epiphany once that I wish I could stimulate in everyone else. The plausibility of our human world, the fact that buildings don’t all fall down and you can eat unpoisoned food that someone grew, is immediate palpable evidence of an ocean of goodwill and good behaviour from almost everyone, living or dead. We are bathed in what can be called love.
—  Jaron Lanier in “You are not a gadget”

When you see the context in which something was written and you know who the author was beyond just a name, you learn so much more than when you find the same text placed in the anonymous, faux-authoritative, anti-contextual brew of the Wikipedia. The question isn’t just one of authentication and accountability, though those are important, but something more subtle. A voice should be sensed as a whole. You have to have a chance to sense personality in order for language to have its full meaning.

- Jaron Lanier on Wikipedia in his essay Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism

…my position is that we eventually shouldn’t ‘pirate’ files, but it’s premature to condemn people who do it today. It would be unfair to demand that people cease sharing/pirating files when those same people are not paid for their participation in very lucrative network schemes. Ordinary people are relentlessly spied on, and not compensated for information taken from them. While I would like to see everyone eventually pay for music and the like, I would not ask for it until there’s reciprocity. What matters most is whether we are contributing to a system that will be good for us all in the long term. If you never knew the music business as it was, the loss of what used to be a significant middle-class job pool might not seem important. I will demonstrate, however, that we should perceive an early warning for the rest of us.
—  Jaron Lanier, at Wired
Jaron Lanier: "The Internet has destroyed the middle class"

“At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak

employed more than 14,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography has become Instagram. When Instagram was sold to Facebook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only 13 people. Where did all those jobs disappear? And what happened to the wealth that all those middle-class jobs created?”

“So Kodak had 140,000 really good middle-class employees, and Instagram has 13 employees, period. You have this intense concentration of the formal benefits, and that winner-take-all feeling is not just for the people who are on the computers but also from the people who are using them. So there’s this tiny token number of people who will get by from using YouTube or Kickstarter, and everybody else lives on hope.

That’s not a middle-class.  It’s an all-or-nothing society.”

~Jaron Lanier, former computer science pioneer and author of “Who Owns The Future?”