What Turned Jaron Lanier Against the Web?

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

Jaron Lanier
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

I couldn’t help thinking of John Le Carré’s spy novels as I awaited my rendezvous with Jaron Lanier in a corner of the lobby of the stylish W Hotel just off Union Square in Manhattan. Le Carré’s espionage tales, such as The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, are haunted by the spectre of the mole, the defector, the double agent, who, from a position deep inside, turns against the ideology he once professed fealty to.

And so it is with Jaron Lanier and the ideology he helped create, Web 2.0 futurism, digital utopianism, which he now calls “digital Maoism,” indicting “internet intellectuals,” accusing giants like Facebook and Google of being “spy agencies.” Lanier was one of the creators of our current digital reality and now he wants to subvert the “hive mind,” as the web world’s been called, before it engulfs us all, destroys political discourse, economic stability, the dignity of personhood and leads to “social catastrophe.” Jaron Lanier is the spy who came in from the cold 2.0.

To understand what an important defector Lanier is, you have to know his dossier. As a pioneer and publicizer of virtual-reality technology (computer-simulated experiences) in the ’80s, he became a Silicon Valley digital-guru rock star, later renowned for his giant bushel-basket-size headful of dreadlocks and Falstaffian belly, his obsession with exotic Asian musical instruments, and even a big-label recording contract for his modernist classical music. (As he later told me, he once “opened for Dylan.” )

The colorful, prodigy-like persona of Jaron Lanier—he was in his early 20s when he helped make virtual reality a reality—was born among a small circle of first-generation Silicon Valley utopians and artificial-intelligence visionaries. Many of them gathered in, as Lanier recalls, “some run-down bungalows [I rented] by a stream in Palo Alto” in the mid-’80s, where, using capital he made from inventing the early video game hit Moondust, he’d started building virtual-reality machines. In his often provocative and astute dissenting book You Are Not a Gadget, he recalls one of the participants in those early mind-melds describing it as like being “in the most interesting room in the world.” Together, these digital futurists helped develop the intellectual concepts that would shape what is now known as Web 2.0—“information wants to be free,” “the wisdom of the crowd” and the like.

And then, shortly after the turn of the century, just when the rest of the world was turning on to Web 2.0, Lanier turned against it. With a broadside in Wired called “One-Half of a Manifesto,” he attacked the idea that “the wisdom of the crowd” would result in ever-upward enlightenment. It was just as likely, he argued, that the crowd would devolve into an online lynch mob.

Lanier became the fiercest and weightiest critic of the new digital world precisely because he came from the Inside. He was a heretic, an apostate rebelling against the ideology, the culture (and the cult) he helped found, and in effect, turning against himself.


And despite his apostasy, he’s still very much in the game. People want to hear his thoughts even when he’s castigating them. He’s still on the Davos to Dubai, SXSW to TED Talks conference circuit. Indeed, Lanier told me that after our rendezvous, he was off next to deliver the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Ford Foundation uptown in Manhattan. Following which he was flying to Vienna to address a convocation of museum curators, then, in an overnight turnaround, back to New York to participate in the unveiling of Microsoft’s first tablet device, the Surface.

Lanier freely admits the contradictions; he’s a kind of research scholar at Microsoft, he was on a first-name basis with “Sergey” and “Steve” (Brin, of Google, and Jobs, of Apple, respectively). But he uses his lecture circuit earnings to subsidize his obsession with those extremely arcane wind instruments. Following his Surface appearance he gave a concert downtown at a small venue in which he played some of them.

Lanier is still in the game in part because virtual reality has become, virtually, reality these days. “If you look out the window,” he says pointing to the traffic flowing around Union Square, “there’s no vehicle that wasn’t designed in a virtual-reality system first. And every vehicle of every kind built—plane, train—is first put in a virtual-reality machine and people experience driving it [as if it were real] first.”

I asked Lanier about his decision to rebel against his fellow Web 2.0 “intellectuals.”

“I think we changed the world,” he replies, “but this notion that we shouldn’t be self-critical and that we shouldn’t be hard on ourselves is irresponsible.”

For instance, he said, “I’d been an early advocate of making information free,” the mantra of the movement that said it was OK to steal, pirate and download the creative works of musicians, writers and other artists. It’s all just “information,” just 1’s and 0’s.

Indeed, one of the foundations of Lanier’s critique of digitized culture is the very way its digital transmission at some deep level betrays the essence of what it tries to transmit. Take music.

“MIDI,” Lanier wrote, of the digitizing program that chops up music into one-zero binaries for transmission, “was conceived from a keyboard player’s point of view...digital patterns that represented keyboard events like ‘key-down’ and ‘key-up.’ That meant it could not describe the curvy, transient expressions a singer or a saxophone note could produce. It could only describe the tile mosaic world of the keyboardist, not the watercolor world of the violin.”

Quite eloquent, an aspect of Lanier that sets him apart from the HAL-speak you often hear from Web 2.0 enthusiasts (HAL was the creepy humanoid voice of the talking computer in Stanley Kubrick’s prophetic 2001: A Space Odyssey). But the objection that caused Lanier’s turnaround was not so much to what happened to the music, but to its economic foundation.

I asked him if there was a single development that gave rise to his defection.

“I’d had a career as a professional musician and what I started to see is that once we made information free, it wasn’t that we consigned all the big stars to the bread lines.” (They still had mega-concert tour profits.)

“Instead, it was the middle-class people who were consigned to the bread lines. And that was a very large body of people. And all of a sudden there was this weekly ritual, sometimes even daily: ‘Oh, we need to organize a benefit because so and so who’d been a manager of this big studio that closed its doors has cancer and doesn’t have insurance. We need to raise money so he can have his operation.’

“And I realized this was a hopeless, stupid design of society and that it was our fault. It really hit on a personal level—this isn’t working. And I think you can draw an analogy to what happened with communism, where at some point you just have to say there’s too much wrong with these experiments.”

His explanation of the way Google translator works, for instance, is a graphic example of how a giant just takes (or “appropriates without compensation”) and monetizes the work of the crowd. “One of the magic services that’s available in our age is that you can upload a passage in English to your computer from Google and you get back the Spanish translation. And there’s two ways to think about that. The most common way is that there’s some magic artificial intelligence in the sky or in the cloud or something that knows how to translate, and what a wonderful thing that this is available for free.

“But there’s another way to look at it, which is the technically true way: You gather a ton of information from real live translators who have translated phrases, just an enormous body, and then when your example comes in, you search through that to find similar passages and you create a collage of previous translations.”

“So it’s a huge, brute-force operation?” “It’s huge but very much like Facebook, it’s selling people [their advertiser-targetable personal identities, buying habits, etc.] back to themselves. [With translation] you’re producing this result that looks magical but in the meantime, the original translators aren’t paid for their work—their work was just appropriated. So by taking value off the books, you’re actually shrinking the economy.”

The way superfast computing has led to the nanosecond hedge-fund-trading stock markets? The “Flash Crash,” the “London Whale” and even the Great Recession of 2008?

“Well, that’s what my new book’s about. It’s called The Fate of Power and the Future of Dignity, and it doesn’t focus as much on free music files as it does on the world of finance—but what it suggests is that a file-sharing service and a hedge fund are essentially the same things. In both cases, there’s this idea that whoever has the biggest computer can analyze everyone else to their advantage and concentrate wealth and power. [Meanwhile], it’s shrinking the overall economy. I think it’s the mistake of our age.”

The mistake of our age? That’s a bold statement (as someone put it in Pulp Fiction). “I think it’s the reason why the rise of networking has coincided with the loss of the middle class, instead of an expansion in general wealth, which is what should happen. But if you say we’re creating the information economy, except that we’re making information free, then what we’re saying is we’re destroying the economy.”

The connection Lanier makes between techno-utopianism, the rise of the machines and the Great Recession is an audacious one. Lanier is suggesting we are outsourcing ourselves into insignificant advertising-fodder. Nanobytes of Big Data that diminish our personhood, our dignity. He may be the first Silicon populist.

“To my mind an overleveraged unsecured mortgage is exactly the same thing as a pirated music file. It’s somebody’s value that’s been copied many times to give benefit to some distant party. In the case of the music files, it’s to the benefit of an advertising spy like Google [which monetizes your search history], and in the case of the mortgage, it’s to the benefit of a fund manager somewhere. But in both cases all the risk and the cost is radiated out toward ordinary people and the middle classes—and even worse, the overall economy has shrunk in order to make a few people more.”

Lanier has another problem with the techno-utopians, though. It’s not just that they’ve crashed the economy, but that they’ve made a joke out of spirituality by creating, and worshiping, “the Singularity”—the “Nerd Rapture,” as it’s been called. The belief that increasing computer speed and processing power will shortly result in machines acquiring “artificial intelligence,” consciousness, and that we will be able to upload digital versions of ourselves into the machines and achieve immortality. Some say as early as 2020, others as late as 2045. One of its chief proponents, Ray Kurzweil, was on NPR recently talking about his plans to begin resurrecting his now dead father digitally.

Some of Lanier’s former Web 2.0 colleagues—for whom he expresses affection, not without a bit of pity—take this prediction seriously. “The first people to really articulate it did so right about the late ’70s, early ’80s and I was very much in that conversation. I think it’s a way of interpreting technology in which people forgo taking responsibility,” he says. “‘Oh, it’s the computer did it not me.’ ‘There’s no more middle class? Oh, it’s not me. The computer did it.’

“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.”

Well, that is a difference. And he couldn’t have done it without the anonymous screen name. Or he wouldn’t have.

And here’s where Lanier says something remarkable and ominous about the potential dangers of anonymity.

“This is the thing that continues to scare me. You see in history the capacity of people to congeal—like social lasers of cruelty. That capacity is constant.”

“Social lasers of cruelty?” I repeat.

“I just made that up,” Lanier says. “Where everybody coheres into this cruelty beam....Look what we’re setting up here in the world today. We have economic fear combined with everybody joined together on these instant twitchy social networks which are designed to create mass action. What does it sound like to you? It sounds to me like the prequel to potential social catastrophe. I’d rather take the risk of being wrong than not be talking about that.”

Here he sounds less like a Le Carré mole than the American intellectual pessimist who surfaced back in the ’30s and criticized the Communist Party he left behind: someone like Whittaker Chambers.

But something he mentioned next really astonished me: “I’m sensitive to it because it murdered most of my parents’ families in two different occasions and this idea that we’re getting unified by people in these digital networks—”

“Murdered most of my parents’ families.” You heard that right. Lanier’s mother survived an Austrian concentration camp but many of her family died during the war—and many of his father’s family were slaughtered in prewar Russian pogroms, which led the survivors to flee to the United States.

It explains, I think, why his father, a delightfully eccentric student of human nature, brought up his son in the New Mexico desert—far from civilization and its lynch mob potential. We read of online bullying leading to teen suicides in the United States and, in China, there are reports of well-organized online virtual lynch mobs forming...digital Maoism.

He gives me one detail about what happened to his father’s family in Russia. “One of [my father’s] aunts was unable to speak because she had survived the pogrom by remaining absolutely mute while her sister was killed by sword in front of her [while she hid] under a bed. She was never able to speak again.”

It’s a haunting image of speechlessness. A pogrom is carried out by a “crowd,” the true horrific embodiment of the purported “wisdom of the crowd.” You could say it made Lanier even more determined not to remain mute. To speak out against the digital barbarism he regrets he helped create.

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