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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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.’


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