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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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.”


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