Welcome to the rabbit's hole. A blog on pulp.
Jaron Lanier may be known to those who used a 56K modem to explore the barren wilderness of the new internet before the bubble burst. But for those of you whose first contact with the web was using Wikipedia to compile a last-minute presentation here’s just a short overview: Lanier may be one of those people who like to see them selves as universal geniuses. Not saying of course, that the guy isn’t incredibly talented – hell, apart from the fact, that he really knows what he’s talking about concerning everything from AI to general internet history, he’s able to use some of the world’s most obscure instruments and even poses as a visual artist.
Apart from that, the stuff Larnier is well-known for are his ‘manifestos’. The first one was on the possibility of ‘technological totalism’ and basically made the point that mankind is a) a long way from creating an AI, even if the computing power of processors doubles every year and b) computers just don’t work like human conscience which is why it is humbug to compare both.
The second now, is called ‘You are not a gadget’ and makes basically two points:
Which is basically not completely wrong, I guess. Still, the question should be rather why it is that important that the individuality exists. As for most people who value their own thinking and creativity, for Lanier, this must be a deeply disturbing idea. First, that somebody can actually just use parts of your stuff without even understanding the complexity of the whole and after cannibalising your ideas make these, your brain’s children, his own in reinterpreting them. However, this your thoughts becoming part of a new and sometimes even more complex intellectual concept is the way science works most of the time.
Still, I’m far from saying “this is good” or “this is evil”, or that it has to be that way because it just is. But if we look at the history of science we have to accept, that there is no genius. Even somebody like Lanier feeds on the ideas of others. And he just has to do so because he is not only a child of his time, but also because complex thoughts like ‘computers are not going to overtake the world’ imply a incredibly intricate network of assumptions, definitions, theories, values, fears and predictions.
Another thought closely tied to his idea of collective intellectual evolution is his criticism of mash-ups and their influence on the accesibity of information. In short: The question is, if when combining stuff I read to a new text, do I still use my own words and if I don’t: does that make them less comprehensible? Fair question, yes, but again – why so? Is a text compiled of different scraps of information less original than one written from scrap? It’s a question on how our mind works: do we produce ‘better’ implying more refined and progressive concepts, when we don’t rely on outside information? I highly doubt that.
Lanier’s third accusation goes against the fact, that you – say, you subscribe to my RSS-Feed – can basically see right now, what I’m typing. Which isn’t actually true, I can save this stuff as a draft and wait another five years before publishing it (by then it will be outdated, and probably not my personal opinion anymore, but hey, just for the sake of doing it ;). But this will give you no time to think about it, because the next minute somebody else will produce some senseless shit on the other side of the world and you’re going to read that as well. No time to think about what I wrote… and that makes you less of an individual because, according to Larnier, it’s thought that constitutes your consciousness. Adding to this, the constant flow of information that constitutes the internet anonomyses each bit of info and we cannot process it.
This is a line of argument so sophisticated, it’s hard to tackle at once. So let’s look at every assumption individually:
So, all in all: this is an incredible train of thought – based on very doubtful assumptions. I really love this guy.
I love him especially for writing stuff, that is so absurdly anti-mainstream. Nevertheless, this time he really hit my Oh-My-Conservative-Approaching-Button.
So: Apologies for this rant ;)
Sources: FAZ Netzkultur: Der digitale Maoismus ist zu Ende, Wikipedia: Jaron Larnier, Wired Magazine Jaron (1993), Jaron’s Homepage, NYC Interface: Interview with Jaron Larnier (1994), The Guardian Profile: Jaron Larnier (2001)
Thanks to blimpa for the pic.