- Jaron Lanier, the eminent American computer scientist has long sounded dire sirens about the dangers of a world over-reliant on the internet.
- The current state of the tech industry is ripe with danger and poses an existential threat, he believes.
- The web is not a free market of information as originally envisioned. It is a gamed system being rampantly abused.
There are all kinds of intermediaries. They might be the people who own a platform, recently Elon Musk, or third parties who are good at sneaking in influence. The interveners can be varied. Some are official, some are revealed, others hidden. Some are competent, some incompetent. Some are random, like an algorithm that someone made but didn’t understand.
Extinction Is On The Table
The stakes are high. “I still think extinction is on the table as an outcome. Not necessarily, but it’s a fundamental drama. If we can coordinate ourselves to solve the climate crisis it’s a fundamental sign we haven’t become completely dysfunctional,” Lanier said.
Throughout his career, Lanier’s focus has lain outside the ones and zeros of computer code. He helped create modern ideologies – Web 2.0 futurism, digital utopianism, among them. But Lanier is no longer a fan of how the digital utopia is coming along. He called it “digital Maoism” and accused tech giants like Facebook and Google of being “spy agencies”.
In his 2010 book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto , he warned of the dangers of web ideologies and the “hive mind” that could lead to “social catastrophe”. Approval, disapproval or being ignored, such techniques can be manipulated online as part of what is euphemistically called “engagement” and the creation of addictive patterns for individuals and then – by proxy – eventually whole societies.
Power, Intermediation and Influence
“As we enter an era where nothing means anything because it’s all just about power, intermediation and influence, it’s very hard to put ideas out and very easy for them to come across not as intended,” he said.
Once distinct personalities, he wrote, each had “veered into being bratty little boys” in their public behavior – a result perhaps of being “Twitter poisoned”, a more contemporary term for operant conditioning. Coming from someone who has over the years described himself as “worried optimist”, his interpretations come with weight. People have been pretty awful throughout history, so it’s hard to make a causal link to our current dysfunction. The most profound problem here is, can we be sane enough to communicate and coordinate for our survival.
Even people who are willing to cooperate may not be able to because they’re not operating in an environment where they’re heard in the ways they imagine. That goes for Lanier’s own thoughts too. Though, he fervently hopes he is proved wrong.
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