What Turned Jaron Lanier Against the Web?- page 4 | Innovation | Smithsonian
Jaron Lanier was one of the creators of our current digital reality and now he wants to subvert the web before it engulfs us all. (Robert Holmgren)

What Turned Jaron Lanier Against the Web?

The digital pioneer and visionary behind virtual reality has turned against the very culture he helped create

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(Continued from page 3)

“I was talking last year to Vernor Vinge, who coined the term ‘singularity,’” Lanier recalls, “and he was saying, ‘There are people around who believe it’s already happened.’ And he goes, ‘Thank God, I’m not one of those people.’”

In other words, even to one of its creators, it’s still just a thought experiment—not a reality or even a virtual-reality hot ticket to immortality. It’s a surreality.

Lanier says he’ll regard it as faith-based, “Unless of course, everybody’s suddenly killed by machines run amok.”

“Skynet!” I exclaim, referring to the evil machines in the Terminator films.

At last we come to politics, where I believe Lanier has been most farsighted—and which may be the deep source of his turning into a digital Le Carré figure. As far back as the turn of the century, he singled out one standout aspect of the new web culture—the acceptance, the welcoming of anonymous commenters on websites—as a danger to political discourse and the polity itself. At the time, this objection seemed a bit extreme. But he saw anonymity as a poison seed. The way it didn’t hide, but, in fact, brandished the ugliness of human nature beneath the anonymous screen-name masks. An enabling and foreshadowing of mob rule, not a growth of democracy, but an accretion of tribalism.

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, 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 Violentacrez 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 longings 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.”

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