jaron lanier


Moondust is a 1983 generative music video game created for the Commodore 64 by virtual reality pioneer, Jaron Lanier. Moondust was programmed in 6502 assembly in 1982, and is widely considered the first art video game - Wikipedia


You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier


A lot of people think Jaron Lanier is a dirty hippie or a Luddite or something, but I am about a third of the way through You Are Not a Gadget and I am finding it to feel pretty vital. So far it seems to be about remembering the necessary limitations of software and that this ‘place’ we spend a lot of time ‘on’ is a less-than as well as a more-than.

He takes quite a few shots at web 2.0-land, and the exultation exaltation (see: fallible human) of the crowd before the individual, and blah blah let’s have a blogfight about it, but what is most resonant to me is the idea that the mystery of experience and personhood in all its subtlety can never be truly expressed by 1s and 0s, and we should remember that (while still being awesome with 1s and 0s).

I read this right after I read Cognitive Surplus — mainly because Lanier is a critic of Shirky and his web optimism. I expected to completely hate it, but I didn’t, and in fact, although I didn’t love the book by any means (Meaghan told me she remembered throwing it at least once), many of Lanier’s ideas have been nagging me for the past weeks.

The list above, which Meaghan posted a while back, was my favorite part of the book, and well worth sharing.

To me a book is not just a particular file. It’s connected with personhood. Books are really, really hard to write. They represent a kind of a summit of grappling with what one really has to say. And what I’m concerned with is when Silicon Valley looks at books, they often think of them as really differently as just data points that you can mush together. They’re divorcing books from their role in personhood.
—  Digital pioneer and theorist Jaron Lanier fears that the Internet might be destroying not just literature, but also the middle class.
The system is slowly destroying itself. I’ll give you an example of how this might work out. Let’s suppose you say in the future, journalists will figure out how to attach themselves to advertising more directly so they’re not left out of the loop. Right now, a lot of journalism is aggregated in various services that create aggregate feeds of one kind or another and those things sell advertising for the final-stop aggregator. And the people doing the real work only get a pittance. A few journalists do well but it’s very few — it’s a winner-take-all world where only a minority does well. Yes, there are a few people, for instance, who have blogs with their own ads and that can bring in some money. You can say, “Well, isn’t that a good model and shouldn’t that be emulated”? The problem is that they’re dependent on the health of the ad servers that place ads. Very few people can handle that directly. And the problem with that is the whole business of using advertising to fund communication on the Internet is inherently self-destructive, because the only stuff that can be advertised on Google or Facebook is stuff that Google hasn’t already forced to be free.

In his new book, Who Owns the Future?Jaron Lanier discusses how advertising is killing journalism.

90 years ago, a newspaper journalist identified the exact same problem – goes to show how little progress we’ve made.

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…

Ellen Ullman, Close To The Machine

I’M UPSET, SO I’M TAKING APART MY COMPUTERS. If I were a poet, I’d get drunk and yell at the people I love. As it is, I’m gutting my machines.

Ullman, a writer and a computer programmer, wrote this in 1997, back when the internet and start-up culture were brand new, but so much of it seems like it could’ve been written yesterday. As Jaron Lanier writes in the introduction, “Here was a computer nerd who could write.”

To see clearly you have to have the access of an insider, but also be an outsider. You have to be right there and still have enough distance to see. Ullman had just the right mix of there and not there when she wrote this book. She was attached to Silicon Valley, but at a bit of distance, living in San Francisco. And she is a grown-up woman in a culture favoring youth, in a world where women programmers were all too rare.

It’s no surprise that Lanier wrote the introduction for the rerelease — sections of the book feel like they could’ve come straight from You Are Not A Gadget. (Remember: this was written 15 years ago!)

[I]t would not be the “content makers”— the artists, writers, multimedia makers— who would be making the money. Of course, the ones making the money would be the owners of the transaction itself. The new breed of entrepreneur: Net landlord. Content is worthless, art is just an excuse to get someone to click; meanwhile, artists watch their work circumnavigate the globe while “value arbitrageurs,” the Brians of the world, pick off a fractional cent at every click, making a fortune.


We think we are creating the system for our own purposes. We believe we are making it in our own image. We call the microprocessor the “brain”; we say the machine has “memory.” But the computer is not really like us. It is a projection of a very slim part of ourselves: that portion devoted to logic, order, rule, and clarity. It is as if we took the game of chess and declared it the highest order of human existence. We place this small projection of ourselves all around us, and we make ourselves reliant on it. To keep information, buy gas, save money, write a letter— we can’t live without it any longer. The only problem is this: the more we surround ourselves with a narrowed notion of existence, the more narrow existence becomes. We conform to the range of motion the system allows. We must be more orderly, more logical. Answer the question, Yes or No, OK or Cancel.


When I watch the users try the Internet, it slowly becomes clear to me that the Net represents the ultimate dumbing-down of the computer… The spreadsheet and the word processor— two tools empty of information, two little programs sitting patiently and passively for their human owners to put something interesting into them. Now, fifteen years later, the Internet browser is the program creating the second generation of the personal computer. The browser—a click-click baby tool for searching the Web, where everything of interest already resides.

My favorite passages are about how weird it is to freelance. (I write while wearing sweatpants and typing frantically while my son takes a nap.)

How your sense of time gets lost:

As every artist knows, every writer and homebound mother, if you are not careful, your day— without boundaries as it is— can just leak away. Sundown can find all your efforts puddled around you, everything underway, nothing accomplished.

How when you work where you live, your boundaries are destroyed:

My work hours have leaked into all parts of the day and week. Eight in the morning, ten at night, Saturday at noon, Sundays: I am never not working. Even when I’m not actually doing something that could be called work, I might get started any minute… Delivery guys love us: We’re the new housewives. We’re always home…. Am I earning a living, I wonder, or just trying to fill a very large, self-made solitude?

How your sense of space gets lost:

The sense that I am in the middle of the world and anything might happen to me here. How will all this happen to me, once I am safe at home, and everything has been flattened to two dimensions, a screen, a keyboard, and a mouse?

How weird it is to have a digital identity:

[H]aving a Web page has become the way we must prove our existence. We have a “presence” on the Web: we are therefore real. Click here to learn all about Project Jerry. Here are our hours and services. Come use us, we say. In the end, we simply do what everyone else does on the Net: we advertise.

And how you often dream about going back to the “security, routine, and camaraderie of the office”.

Really great read. Recommended.

(Thanks Robin Sloan and Paul Ford.)

Software may reduce humans, but there are degrees. Fiction reduces humans, too, but bad fiction does it more than good fiction, and we have the option to read good fiction. Jaron Lanier’s point is that Web 2.0 “lock-in” happens soon; is happening; has to some degree already happened. And what has been “locked in”? It feels important to remind ourselves, at this point, that Facebook, our new beloved interface with reality, was designed by a Harvard sophomore with a Harvard sophomore’s preoccupations. What is your relationship status? (Choose one. There can be only one answer. People need to know.) Do you have a “life”? (Prove it. Post pictures.) Do you like the right sort of things? (Make a list. Things to like will include: movies, music, books and television, but not architecture, ideas, or plants.)

But here I fear I am becoming nostalgic. I am dreaming of a Web that caters to a kind of person who no longer exists. A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and—which is more important—to herself. Person as mystery: this idea of personhood is certainly changing, perhaps has already changed.

—  Zadie Smith
Our times demand rejection of seven word bios.
—  In his recent conversation with Paul Holdengräber at the Live from the New York Public Library series, Jaron Lanier, techno-dystopian author of You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, makes a cultural statement by thusly defying the NYPL series’ famed tradition of 7-word autobiographies of cultural icons
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.

Is the Internet Turning Us Into a Nation of Hate-Filled Trolls?

It’s taken a while for this prophecy to come true, a while for this mode of communication to replace and degrade political conversation, to drive out any ambiguity. Or departure from the binary. But it slowly is turning us into a nation of hate-filled trolls.

Surprisingly, [Jaron] Lanier tells me it first came to him when he recognized his own inner troll—for instance, when he’d find himself shamefully taking pleasure when someone he knew got attacked online. “I definitely noticed it happening to me,” he recalled. “We’re not as different from one another as we’d like to imagine. So when we look at this pathetic guy in Texas who was just outed as ‘Violentacrez’…I don’t know if you followed it?”

“I did.” “Violentacrez” was the screen name of a notorious troll on the popular site Reddit. He was known for posting “images of scantily clad underage girls…[and] an unending fountain of racism, porn, gore” and more, according to the Gawker.com reporter who exposed his real name, shaming him and evoking consternation among some Reddit users who felt that this use of anonymity was inseparable from freedom of speech somehow.

“So it turns out Violencacrez is this guy with a disabled wife who’s middle-aged and he’s kind of a Walter Mitty—someone who wants to be significant, wants some bit of Nietzschean spark to his life.”

Only Lanier would attribute Nietzschean longing to Violentacrez. “And he’s not that different from any of us. The difference is that he’s scared and possibly hurt a lot of people.” - Continue reading at Smithsonian.com.

Photo of Jaron Lanier by: Robert Holmgren


Try this sentence on for size:

“…colors and sounds can be measured with rulers, but odors must be looked up in a dictionary.”

This is a quote from “You are not a Gadget” by Jaron Lanier, and it is an odd way to put things to say the least.  But on reflection, you can see where he’s coming from.

Light and color can be broken down into three degrees of activation corresponding to our three types of color-sensing cells (think RGB for programmers or Red Yellow and Blue for those that learned colors in kindergarten like me).

Sound, in all its variety, corresponds to pressure waves in a medium, and like all waves they are defined by a couple of numbers (amplitude, frequency…).  Digital synthesizers have done a fairly good job mimicking natural sounds for a long time.

But smells… well, Lanier says a smell is a synecdoche.

  • Synecdoche: A part of something standing in for the whole.

Usually a synecdoche is linguistic, like “wheels” referring to a means of transport, or “suits” referring to businessmen.  But with scents, it is literal… to smell an apple, a tiny pieces of the apple actually have to get into your nasal cavity and connect with the appropriate odor-sensing neuron.

That’s where the dictionary comes in.  The tiny piece of apple stands in for the whole apple by triggering a whole host of memories, etc related to apples, be it eating, grocery shopping, or the orchard where you spent your childhood summers.  The “whole” is the apple, yes, but also everything that apples mean to you.

One consequence is that smell is not likely to be digitized soon - don’t expect scents in virtual reality or coming from your web browser.  There are something like 1000 types of distinct odor-sensing neurons (and correspondingly many groupings and combinations), which dwarfs the simple numerical breakdowns of color and sound.

Another more obscure (but more interesting!) consequence is that maybe the processing of odors has something to do with the processing of language!  But if you want to know how Lanier builds that bridge, you will have to buy the book!  (Honestly, you wouldn’t be sorry.)