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.

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?

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.
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
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…

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.
The Countervailing Power of Individuals and Networks.

“Networked organization is based on a principle known as stigmergy—a term coined by biologist Pierre-Paul Grasse in the 1950s to describe the process by which termites coordinate their activity. Social insects coordinate their efforts through the independent responses of individuals to environmental triggers like chemical markers, without any need for a central coordinating authority.4 It was subsequently applied to the analysis of human society.5

As a sociological term stigmergy refers primarily to the kinds of networked organization associated with wikis, group blogs, and “leaderless” organizations configured along the lines of networked cells.

Networked organization is based on a principle known as stigmergy—a term coined by biologist Pierre-Paul Grasse in the 1950s to describe the process by which termites coordinate their activity. Social insects coordinate their efforts through the independent responses of individuals to environmental triggers like chemical markers, without any need for a central coordinating authority.4 It was subsequently applied to the analysis of human society.5

As a sociological term stigmergy refers primarily to the kinds of networked organization associated with wikis, group blogs, and “leaderless” organizations configured along the lines of networked cells.

Social negotiation, according to Mark Elliott, is the traditional method of organizing collaborative group efforts, through agreements and compromise mediated by discussions between individuals. The exponential growth in the number of communications with the size of the group, obviously, imposes constraints on the feasible size of a collaborative group, before coordination must be achieved by hierarchy and top-down authority. Stigmergy, on the other hand, permits collaboration on an unlimited scale by individuals acting independently. This distinction between social negotiation and stigmergy is illustrated, in particular, by the contrast between traditional models of co-authoring and collaboration in a wiki.2 Individuals communicate indirectly, “via the stigmergic medium.”3 He makes a parallel distinction elsewhere between “discursive collaboration” and “stigmergic collaboration.” “… . [W]hen stigmergic collaboration is extended by computing and digital networks, a considerable augmentation of processing capacity takes place which allows for the bridging of the spatial and temporal limitations of discursive collaboration, while subtly shifting points of negotiation and interaction away from the social and towards the cultural.”4

Stigmergic organization results in modular, building-block architectures. Such structures are ubiquitous because a modular structure:

transforms a system’s ability to learn, evolve and adapt… . Once a set of building blocks… . has been tweaked and refined and thoroughly debugged through experience… . then it can generally be adapted and recombined to build a great many new concepts… . Certainly that’s a much more efficient way to create something new than starting all over from scratch. And that fact, in turn, suggests a whole new mechanism for adaptation in general. Instead of moving through that immense space of possibilities step by step, so to speak, an adaptive system can reshuffle its building blocks and take giant leaps.

A small number of building blocks can be shuffled and recombined to make a huge number of complex systems.5

If you start with a large number of modular individuals, each capable of interacting with a few other individuals, and acting on other individuals according to a simple grammar of a few rules, under the right circumstances the modular individuals can undergo a rapid phase transition, according to systems theorist Stuart Kauffman: “The growth of complexity really does have something to do with far- from-equilibrium systems building themselves up, cascading to higher and higher levels of organization. Atoms, molecules, autocatalytic sets, et cetera.”1

Gus diZerega’s discussion of spontaneous orders is closely analogous to stigmergy. Spontaneous orders:

arise from networks of independent equals whose actions generate positive and negative feedback that help guide future actors in pursuing their own independently conceived plans, thereby continuing the feedback process. Each person is a node within a network and is linked by feedback, with each node free to act on its own. The feedback they generate minimizes the knowledge anyone needs about the system as a whole in order to succeed within it.

All spontaneous orders possess certain abstract features in common. Participants are equal in status and all are equally subject to whatever rules must be followed to participate within the order. All are free to apply these rules to any project of their choosing. Anything that can be pursued without violating a rule is permitted, including pursuing mutually contradictory goals. Finally, these rules facilitate cooperation among strangers based on certain broadly shared values that are simpler than the values actually motivating many people when they participate. Compared to human beings, spontaneous orders are “value-thin.”2

In netwar, say Rand theorists John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt:

many small units “already know what they must do”, and are aware that “they must communicate with each other not in order to prepare for action, but only as a conse- quence of action, and, above all, through action.”3

Far from submerging “individual authorial voice” in the “collective,” as Jaron Lanier and Mark Helprin claim, stigmergy synthesizes the highest realizations of both individualism and collectivism, and represents each of them in its most completely actualized form, without qualifying or impairing either in any way. Michel Bauwens uses the term “cooperative individualism”:

this turn to the collective that the emergence of peer to peer represents does not in any way present a loss of individuality, even of individualism. Rather it ‘transcends and includes’ individualism and collectivism in a new unity, which I would like to call ‘cooperative individualism’. The cooperativity is not necessarily intentional (i.e. the result of conscious altruism), but constitutive of our being, and the best applications of P2P, are based on this idea.4

Stigmergy is not “collectivist” in the traditional sense, as it was understood in the days when a common effort on any significant scale required a large organization to represent the collective, and the administrative coordination of individual efforts through a hierarchy. But it is the ultimate realization of collectivism, in that it removes the transaction cost of concerted action by many individuals.

It is the ultimate in individualism because all actions are the free actions of individuals, and the “collective” is simply the sum total of individual actions. Every individual is free to formulate any innovation she sees fit, without any need for permission from the collective, and everyone is free to adopt it or not. In this re- gard it attains the radical democratic ideal of unanimous consent of the governed,..”

Kevin Carson, “The Desktop Regulatory State: The Countervailing Power of Individuals and Networks,” Copyright Kevin Carson, 2016, pp 13-15.


William Gibson - Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) [video capture of emulated 1992 Apple run through]

“The realm of the dead is as extensive as the storage and transmission capabilities of a given culture”-Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1986, 1999)

  •   The deeper one climbs into early net culture, the more often references to William Gibson pop up. A lot of these citations are totally superficial, re-appropriating prose from Gibson’s sci-fi novels to make real-life cyberspace seem half as cool as fictional cyberspace.

  •   Agrippa is an anomaly in Gibson’s ouvre. It’s a poem. It isn’t quite fictional. It’s definitely not speculative or concerned with espionage in the way his more famous works are. It’s also where themes like an obsession with physical materials start to emerge, before they become central in his later novels.

  •   In Agrippa, human life itself is beyond description; mechanical and material objects provide the closest point of access to experience and memory. A gun, a photo album, a bus station.

  •   The piece itself makes all sorts of provocations regarding material and ephemerality– it’s packaged in a distressed book, with pages that become extra-weathered when handled; the poem is hidden on a floppy disk that encrypts itself into unplayability after the first run-through. 

  • It’s almost like Agrippa makes a push back against the yee-haw posthumanism that folks pulled out of Neuromancer, saying “we’re not there yet”, “there’s no going back”, “our storage systems are not universal”.

  • This all happened in a historical moment where Timothy Leary, Autodesk Inc., Jaron Lanier, VPL Research, etc, were aggressively referencing Gibsonian cyberspace in both corporate research and public relations for their spectacularly never-released VR products. All these smart folks were trying to rush forward, when Agrippa was making the point that media and storage technologies are really always about looking back.
10 Tips for Photographers (or Other Creative Type Peoples)
  1. Be careful about what you consume. I know lots of authors have said this before, but I specifically remember fishingboatproceeds saying once that authors are only as good at writing as the books they read, and I think that’s so unbelievably true with any creative passion. You’ve got to consume good, quality art to make good, quality art. I love Tumblr for that exact reason. It’s so easy to find all these great photographers and their work is delivered straight to me. I’m never in need for more good work to get inspired by.
  2. Understand that inspiration can come from other forms of creative passions too. Just because I’m a photographer doesn’t mean I only look at photographs for inspiration. I really like how erickimphoto always talks about buying “books not gear.” He is mostly talking about photo books, of course, but I think some of the books that have been most influential on my photography have been regular, word books. In addition to books, a lot of my inspiration comes from films as well as music. I think it’s important to surround as many senses as you can with cool stuff that people have created. Sometimes it’s something completely unexpected that’ll inspire you.
  3. Create with other people who also like to create. This one is so important. I see all the time, fellow photographers feeling like creating is a lonely process, and I can attest to that, but as for me, I’ve been really lucky that I have been able to get all my closest friends into photography as well, and even made some new ones along the way because of it. I think if you’ll just start inviting your friends to create alongside you, or to be around to keep you company while you create, you’ll be amazed at how much it can heighten the process. Sidenote: most of my friends own Olympus E-PL1’s, which was my first digital camera, and it’s kind of the cutest thing ever.
  4. Talk to and/or collaborate with people you look up to. Find someone who you really like their work and try to get in touch with them. I bet you’ll find out that they are a regular person who also likes to talk shop with other fellow creatives, and even maybe like to work on a project with you or get/give some critique. This can be incredibly beneficial to everyone involved and it’s a great way to feel better about your own work.
  5. That being said, put faith in your own work, and don’t rely on other people’s likes and positive feedback alone. You created something cool, and you should feel awesome about it. Try not to forget that, even when you’re feeling unsure.
  6. Don’t let your tools define you. You Are Not a Gadget is a great book by Jaron Lanier taught me that I’m not my tools, that what I use to create doesn’t run my life, nor does it define my aesthetic. Don’t rely on your tools to create, rely on yourself. Also, go read that book, it’s incredible. 
  7. Spend your time wisely. I know you’ve heard this one so many times before, but times is important, and it’s important that you set schedules to be on and off the computer or tablet. I usually spend about an hour a day looking at photographs and checking on Tumblr, and I’m trying to break that down to an hour every two days, so I can spend a little more time creating. Find what works for you and stick with it.
  8. Don’t post your work right away. I see it happen all the time, someone will be busy uploading to a social network site and miss something fun to shoot. Or worse yet, you’ll upload something you haven’t had time to fully digest or edit properly and later you’ll be unhappy with it, and it’ll be too late because everyone has already seen it. I like to wait at the very least, a day or two before I post anything. I never share photos while I’m still out taking photos because I could miss something, and it takes me too far out of the moment. 
  9. Find your own niche and look, but don’t be afraid to step out of that comfort zone. I know what I’m good at as far as photography goes, and I know where my skills are lacking. In addition to that, I also know what works well and gets lots of notes on Tumblr because I know what my followers like to see, but that doesn’t mean that I make those specific things all the time. Make what you want, whenever you want. Don’t be afraid to try something new just because it’s not normal for you to do so. It’s how you grow as a creative.
  10. Make first; ask questions later. This is my favorite tip. It can be applied so many different ways. Instance number one: if you’re shooting candid shots at a festival or on the street, it’s much easier to take a photograph f you see one, than to try to stop the person, ask for their photo, and hope that they say yes. It probably won’t happen because that’s weird, but if you had gone ahead and taken the photograph when you saw it, the worst thing that could happen is them ask you why you’re taking photos, which, honestly is a chance to give them a business card. Instance number two: if you’re feeling unsure about what you’re creating, just keep making it. The worst that could happen is you made something that you only kind of like, and the concept of it could be something you build on later. It’s a good lesson to learn over and over again.

Hey, I hope you enjoyed those tips. They’ve really helped me out over the years, so enjoy, and please message me if you have any questions. Thanks!

–Forrest Lane

In my recent post, I mentioned a friend of mine took part in Oliver Stone’s Snowden movie as an extra. Actually, she had been working her extra job for a total of 5 days. They were shooting interior scenes except the first day. And Scott Eastwood also appeared on the set.

My friend was informed that she has to arrive at 9 am next day. She thought that shooting of the day won’t last too long, but she wasn’t expecting schedule of extras is very tight,they were shooting for 4 continuous days,and shooting lasted 15 to 16 hours each day. It’s always 2 or 3 am when they finished works. But to my friend it’s OK. Although she was very tired, she still really enjoyed her extra experience.

The look of Joe in the movie that made him looks like a geek or otaku, he wears a casual suit with sports shoes, carrying a backpack, and of course a pair of glasses, looks very similar to the latest images of Ed Snowden. It seemed he dyed his hair lighter, but not obvious, only can be seen under brighter lights.

* The book Joe has been reading on set is ’Who Owns the Future’ by Jaron Lanier.

*And Joe’ wife (Tasha) also visited the set.

*Two guys whose birthdays are in March,one is the executive director of Germany team ,another is Scott Eastwood, People prepared B-day surprise for both of them respectively.

*Joe is always the first to arrive and the last to leave the set among all actors.

My friend is getting interested in Oliver Stone’s works when she became an extra, so she started watching his movies on rest breaks of shooting. She said Stone is a humorous and down to earth person. It’s hard to associate him with his controversial films. Here’s a funny and brief talk between her and Oliver Stone.  

Stone:” What are you doing?“
My friend:” Watching a movie. It is your movie.”
Stone: “What is it?“
My friend:” Platoon”
Stone: “Oh my God!

According to my friend, her general impression is that Joe is a calm, patience and sort of depressed person. He seemed always immersing in his own thoughts (or staring blankly? I don’t know how to accurately describe) in most of standby time, except when talking with other people or facing the camera, then he will become energetic.

In her opinion. Joe is a calm and unhurried man no matter what he does. He is like an adorable young man on stage and an aged man (not his looks, but his behavior) off stage.

And you may found that Joe always pacing back and forth when he standing by. The way he walks is that dragging and rubbing his feet on the floor, make you wonder if it can be worn a hole out on the floor. Maybe it’s just an interesting habit he has, who knows.

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.

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”