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MICHAEL HILTZIK

Virtual pioneer Jaron Lanier warns: Machines make bad masters

February 07, 2010|Michael Hiltzik
  • Jaron Lanier has been pondering the effect that the World Wide Web -- its ideology as well as its design -- has had on creativity, society and commerce for years.
Jaron Lanier has been pondering the effect that the World Wide Web -- its… (Robert Durell / For the Los…)

"People have to be able to make money off their brains and their hearts," Jaron Lanier was telling me. "Or else we're all going to starve, and it's the machines that'll get good."

It sounded a little bit like Dickens, and a little bit like a line from the "Terminator" movies. But it was all reality, coming from a true computing pioneer and one of modern technology's most insightful critics.

Lanier, 49, has been pondering the effect that the World Wide Web -- its ideology as well as its design -- has had on creativity, society and commerce for years.

The inquiry resulted in a book, or "manifesto" according to his own label, published this year titled "You Are Not a Gadget." The title should provide a clue that he hasn't found much to like.

Lanier is an imposing man with dark brown hair wound into long dreadlocks, and a way of throwing off incisive observations about technology and the world in a soft, almost apologetic tone of voice. His resume places him squarely in what he might himself term nerd royalty: He was an early pioneer in virtual reality, a term he "either coined or popularized," according to the bio on his home page.

A college dropout, he has been a visiting faculty member at Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania and UC Berkeley. He composes music and has performed with Philip Glass and Ornette Coleman. He has founded or served as an executive of companies later acquired by Google, Sun Microsystems and Adobe; at the moment, his work is financially supported by Microsoft.

That background may be the reason his critique has the feel of something that could come only from a disenchanted ex-believer in the destiny of personal computing to improve our lives.

Almost everywhere he looks, he finds the dead hand of a Web culture increasingly dominated by advertising and aimed at imposing conformity.

The craze for social networking, for instance. Lanier's critique of sites such as Facebook has attracted wide notice in the online world, much of it uncomplimentary.

He told me when we met for an interview recently that he appreciates the way Facebook allows older users -- "people who already have lives" -- to connect with trends and people with similar interests.

But he fears that its tendency to inflict peer rule on teenagers will interfere with their natural inclination to find themselves by trying new and different selves on for size.

"America's Facebook generation shows a submission to standardization that I haven't seen before," he says. "The American adventure has always been about people forgetting their former selves -- Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac went on the road. If they had a Facebook page, they wouldn't have been able to forget their former selves."

One of Lanier's main themes is our misplaced faith in the intelligence of machines and networks. There are the supposedly foolproof computer algorithms that lead Wall Street into one disastrous love affair after another with complex investment instruments we can't really control. We evaluate schoolteachers on the basis of their success in training pupils to pass standardized, machine-gradable tests.

Even the gold standard of artificial intelligence, the defeat of chess world champion Garry Kasparov by IBM's "Deep Blue" in 1997, is not the AI watershed it was once touted to be. The victory actually was the product of Deep Blue's gargantuan computing power, as even AI researchers acknowledge today. "Instead of a computer that thought and played chess like a human," Kasparov wrote recently, "they got one that played like a machine . . . winning with brute number-crunching force."

Our enchantment with the device instead of with the human imagination that invests it with life is the focus of some of Lanier's most penetrating insights.

The Web, he writes, has fostered "a new kind of social contract" in which "authors, journalists, musicians, and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay" to Web aggregatorslike Google and YouTube.

Those companies collect advertising dollars by pushing these fragments out to the consumer, but none of the money goes back to the creators. In fact, the more fragmentary the content, the more it's appreciated -- think of the re-edited mash-ups of movie clips, often accompanied by amusing voice-overs, that attract millions of YouTube viewers.

Who pays the creators of the original clips for this usage? Not YouTube, and not you, the viewer. In return for the appropriation of their creativity, the creators are supposed to be pleased to receive "self-promotion," Lanier observes, not money.

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