jaron lanier

Two Interlocking Facts

It’s great when you realize that two pieces of thought that have until now been separate can come together in an interesting way.  This just happened to me this afternoon.  Here are the thoughts:

  1. Jaron Lanier has an interesting definition of what is “real”: something is real if it cannot be represented to completion.  For example, if you think of a song as the series of notes from the sheet music, then maybe that’s not real, because it’s easy to represent completely.  However, if you think of a song as the sound from a certain musician, in a certain room, using a certain guitar, then that is real, because you could never represent all the nuances of sound, acoustics, ambiance, etc.
  2. Kurt Gödel (the great mathematician) always argued that Mathematics is inexaustable, meaning that you could never learn all there was to know - there would always be a new branch to explore or invent.

If you combine these two interesting opinions, then you get the result:

  • Mathematics is Real

As nebulous as that sounds, Godel actually believed this in a Platonic way… like mathematical truths were more “discovered” or “mapped” than they were “created”.

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.

Baudrillard and 3D Printing

In Simulations, Baudrillard talks about the history of materials. He is particularly interested in materials that have been used to simulate the appearance or quality of other materials - “a universal substance.”

1. Stucco (Renaissance): “In the churches and palaces stucco is wed to all forms, imitates everything - velvet curtains, wooden corniches, charnel swelling of the flesh. Stucco exorcizes the unlikely confusion of matter into a single new substance, a sort of general equivalent of all others, and is prestigious theatrically because is itself a representative substance, a mirror of all others.”

2. Concrete (Industrial): “to take up the creation of the world where God had left it, in its natural phase, so as to eliminate its organic spontaneity and substitute for it a single, unique, polymorphous matter: Reinforced Concrete…”

3. Plastic: “Is it not man’s miracle to have invented, with plastic, a non-degradable material, interrupting thus the cycle which, by corruption and death, turns all the earth’s substances ceaselessly one into another? A substance out-of-the-cylce… there is something incredible about it, this simulacrum where you can see in a condensed form the ambition of a universal semiotic… the fantasy of a closed mental substance.”

This history of simulating materials makes me think about 3D printing. Whatever material is being fed into these printers is the ultimate “universal substance.” Jaron Lanier refers to the material in 3D printers as goop: “It is too early to say what goops will be used in the future. Nor do we know how many goops will be needed. Maybe a single supergoop would go a long way.”

Lanier doesn’t directly oppose the idea of a supergoop - although he does talk about the risk of our compulsive desire to create technology that does ‘everything’. He calls this compulsion a desire for 'anyness’. Smartphones are an example of a technology driven by the desire for anyness. They act as phone, camera, music player, diary, bank, etc - like the stucco of the renaissance, the smart phone “imitates everything”.

The idea of anyness is also important when thinking about social media. Imagine a Facebook profile as a material that simulates the identity of whoever happens to be using it. It eliminates the “organic spontaneity” of human experience, and substitutes it for it a “single, unique, polymorphous matter.” The 'like’ button covers all experiences of positivity, for example.

Making human experience homogenous makes it easier to organise the data that humans feed into Facebook. Our lives become more like supergoop, “a representative substance, a mirror of all others”. 

Baudrillard predicted this:

“The counterfeit is working, so far, only on substance and form, not yet on relations and structure. But it is aiming already, on this level, at the control of a pacified society, ground up into a synthetic, deathless substance: an indestructible artefact that will guarantee an eternity of power.”


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?

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.


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.)

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

The architecture of the internet must support a global, universal micropayments capability.  In this way, anyone could charge for information made available online, whether it is music or a program for a future robot.  A silly YouTube-like prank might generate a windfall for a silly teenager, while a scholar’s writing might be only occasionally accessed, but over a long period might still generate enough income to be of use.  People could then re-create the best social formula that has been achieved thus far in human experience.  Middle class people could own something- the information they produce- that would give them sustenance as they have children and age.

In order for this scheme to work, there would have to be some structural changes introduced gradually, as I explain in the book.  This direction is the only way to create a human-centric internet, instead of one that serves the cultists who believe in information more than people.  It would not attempt to make information free, but instead make it affordable.  It is worth noting that this is exactly how the web would have developed if the initial design proposal for it, dating back to the 1960s, had been carried out.  (This was Ted Nelson’s vision.)  It is the obvious way to design the network if people are your top priority.

—  Jaron Lanier
Moore’s Law means that more and more things can be done practically for free, if only it weren’t for those people who want to be paid. People are the flies in Moore’s Law’s ointment. When machines get incredibly cheap to run, people seem correspondingly expensive. It used to be that printing presses were expensive, so paying newspaper reporters seemed like a natural expense to fill the pages. When the news became free, that anyone would want to be paid at all started to seem unreasonable. Moore’s Law can make salaries - and social safety nets - seem like unjustifiable luxuries.

Jaron Lanier, “Who Owns The Future

(for those not sure, Moore’s Law is the prediction that computing capacity, and maybe other measures of technological power, will double every set number of years)