jaron lanier vs. history and the singularitarians
When we last mentioned computer scientist and researcher Jaron Lanier, he wrote a vague rumination about the field of artificial intelligence, reminding us that technology was only a tool to help promote his manifesto of a book, You Are Not a Gadget. Now, he penned a short essay at the Chronicle of Higher Ed which follows the same basic ideas as his column in the NYT, but with less coherence and more passion, saying that just using the web to share, consume, and spread information, be it by Twitter or Facebook, basically means that you don’t exist as a human until you step away from the computer and turn off your phone. As he lashes out at random YouTube videos, the use of files for storing data, laments that creativity as we know it is in a stall, and shudders at the thought of the Singularity concept, he’s beginning to mine deep into Nicholas Carr territory.
But, of course, unlike Carr, or the highly technophobic McKibben, Lanier is an accomplished inventor whose efforts played a major role behind what we know today as virtual reality. If anyone should be sober and aware of the limitations of our technology, it should be him. This is in part why his Chronicle’s focus on how today’s brand of profitable, splashy, pop sci futurism advanced by Ray Kurzweil seems so bizarre. The Kurzwelian interpretation of Vinge’s paper is a trendy fad and while it’s fun to ponder about the possibilities, ultimately, it would never really happen because rather than plan for our grand future with focused, sweeping construction and infrastructure projects, people tend to respond to their immediate needs and just leave it at that. Now this is not to say that some forms of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology or even devices capable of making us a bit more machine than human will never be built, because they absolutely will. However, we are not going to be living in a future where we simply leave our bodies at a whim to zap around virtual worlds as per the ideas behind iconic cult hits like The Matrix and Ghost In The Shell.
And not only is Lanier despairing against futurists who have always been around, dispensing predictions and insisting that the future we’ve all been expecting is on the horizon, but he’s presenting transhumanism as an affront to the idea of human specialness, reducing humans to nothing more than parts to be swapped out or replaced, and minds as little more than nodes in a global computing and information network, a network that produces nothing more than mediocrity. To call this far fetched would be mild, to say the least. Sure, we know that we’re imperfect mortals, but if anything, transhumanism is all about saying that humans aren’t just cogs, gears, and levers in a complex evolutionary machine, but that we’re special enough to start changing who we are, disregarding nature’s limitations on our bodies and minds. That may not happen for a very, very, very long time, if it will happen at all, but we are slowly starting to counter nature’s blows. And when it comes to Lanier’s lamentations on how we seemingly cease to exist as humans when we use social media, and that the web’s primary export being mediocrity and snark, it seems to me like it’s time for a brief psychology lesson.
The number one reason why we use social media today isn’t to somehow negate our existence, but to shout about who we are to the world if we can. Be it blogs with novel-length posts, or short exchanges on Twitter, a key component of social media relies on how many people are watching you. Likewise, sites like Facebook simply answer our innate need to communicate with others, an evolutionary drive that helped us build entire societies and civilizations. And today, since pretty much anyone can be seen or heard, and talent in anything creative is rather rare in relative terms, of course the vast majority of what you see online will be hum-drum or mediocre, and if that hum-drum mediocrity gets enough views, someone will try to make a profit from it, falling for the good, old bandwagon effect. Unlike Lanier claims, we are finding new musical styles, concepts in film and video, and new generations of writers and thinkers are honing their skills just like they always had. But in an age in which our technology enables anyone to audition to be a singer, writer, or pundit, there’s simply far more material to sift through until you find a gem. If the Renaissance had Twitter and YouTube, history books would be filled with lamentations of how hard it was to find great artists and scientists in the noise.
This is why I’m really not a fan of books, essays, and treatises that look back at what we’ve accomplished over the decades, focus on the downsides, and spend nearly their entire content on lamentations and derision. It’s not as if for the last 5,000 years humanity was producing amazing art, music, and science, then suddenly the invasion of lolcats and viral YouTube videos sent our species into a spiraling cycle of mediocrity. We’ve had a very long history of having to search for the next world changing invention, or for the next great thinker and just because we’re not aware of all the embarrassing fads of the past, it doesn’t mean they didn’t exist, and I think we could safely assume that they were every bit as bad as what Lanier bemoans. The best we can do is keep on looking for The Next Big Thing in creative and scientific fields, and hope that those who write history books in the future will be kind enough to whittle it down to just the meaningful ideas and inventions…