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 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)
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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.”


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