Posts Tagged ‘innovatorinresidence


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This article is by Brandon Reynolds, a 2010 graduate of the Masters in Specialized Journalism program and a recipient of a USC Annenberg Graduate Fellowship, who spent a few days following Jaron Lanier, USC Annenberg’s “Innovator in Residence.”

I have basically two jobs these days. One is writing SEO stuff, basically fluff content to push businesses’ search rankings up higher. It’s a modern-day Greek parable about trying to fill the bottomless hole. The other job is dog-walking, which means acting as a sort of modern-day Victorian governess for another species. In the one job I pick up crap; in the other I lay it down.

For better or worse, both of these jobs may someday become obsolete — because of better machines. This I came to realize over the three days Jaron Lanier was visiting USC. Lanier is called an “internet guru” and “the father of virtual reality” — and while it’s clear that he was present through the rough adolescence of the internet, he’d have you believe that he was its midwife.

Lanier was at USC as Annenberg’s “Innovator in Residence.” He talked to classes, sat in on round-table discussions, stirred a variety of pots in his half-week at the school. Lanier lives in Berkeley and looks like it — a big guy with a beard and dreadlocks, a collection of exotic instruments, and a steady supply of black t-shirts. He’s sold a company to Google and studied cephalopod intelligence and the connection between language and the sense of smell.

He thinks my jobs are on the way out because we’re building machines that will do more and more stuff for us. This idea isn’t new, of course. As Lanier explained during his visit, Karl Marx imagined a world where machines would give us limitless free time, while sci-fi guys like H.G. Wells fretted that machines would make us obsolete and eventually either destroy us or split us into the “haves” and the “underground mutant cannibals.” E.M. Forster rounds out Lanier’s menage a dystopia with a story called “The Machine Stops,” in which we become dependent on our technology until it fails us and we’re forced to once again discover truth in nature, in the original processes of the world.

Lanier believes Forster’s version of technology is closest to what’s happening to us, but disagrees that rejecting technology is the way to truth. He’s in an interesting position to argue this, interesting because he claims responsibility for developing the many online evils that he is now trying to save us from. In his meetings with classes and faculty, he was able to be on both sides of the argument.

Case in point: He writes about those days of developing VR with his friends and thinking they were sitting in “the most interesting room in the world.” He also frames his objections to the free exchange model of the internet by disclosing that he was the guy who came up with that theory in the first place, when he was young and foolish. It’s hard to frame a debate around a subject who occupies every side — like arguing with funhouse mirrors. But he made it clear in those three days at USC how essential a discussion of ideas is in developing a culture. Often he proved this necessity by avoiding discussion altogether.

Sitting in on these classes and meetings, I heard him run through many of the same ideas with a knowledgeable, though sometimes dismissive, air. I saw how the regurgitation of his ideas over and over wore him down, and began to wonder if his insistence that intellectual property remain bound to its creator was getting in the way of something more creative, or at least more useful. He was his own best example of the “file.” (More on this later.)

It’s fair to say that he does have plenty of ideas to discuss. He’s written about the origin and fate of the internet in columns for Discover magazine, articles for The New York Times, and a lot of panel discussions. His prolific output has all been finally sort of corralled in a book, You Are Not a Gadget. This book is called a “manifesto” and reads as such. It’s personal and fascinating and self-indulgent, often to the point of solipsism. But it is a valuable piece of work on our internet culture — where it came from, where it might be going, where it could be going better. Lanier’s a humanist at heart, and his rebellion is aimed at those entities we all love the most.

He believes the internet’s masters, corporate monsters like Google and Facebook and the hedge-fund systems that caused so much financial crisis make us expect less out of other people as real-live human beings. The internet masters reduce our expectations of one another by controlling our access to other people and to the web at large. He also believes that the current design of the internet encourages simplification of people and supports foolish, socialist notions of communal ownership. All of which means, in the spirit of any good sci-fi dystopia, that we’re dehumanizing ourselves to the point of ruin, just as we’re trying to make a working economy out of the internet.

He argues that the internet got to be where it is because of some early design decisions that seemed easy at the time, but that got locked-in as other software came to depend on it. Meaning we were stuck with designs that may not have been the best of all possible worlds. Really basic stuff like the way we type line-item entries into Google searches, for example, are vestigial tails of earlier programming designs.

The rebel in Lanier emerges as he encourages us to resist these designs. He tosses his long dreads over his shoulder and leans across tables to emphasize that we’ve put power in the wrong hands. In one class he says it’s an attitudinal thing “about not accepting the digital world as given, recognizing it’s entirely a very recent, very arbitrary new world of human invention that could be a million other ways.”

His solution is adapted from an earlier internet guru, a Jaron 1.0 named Ted Nelson. Nelson’s idea of an internet, from way back in 1960, was for a system that had only one copy of any file, whether it be music or art or a poem or whatever. And that its creator had control of it, and could give it away or rent it out or whatever, but that you would always return to the source if you wanted to experience it. It retained, as Lanier says, its provenance.

And that keeps things honest, trackable. Lanier’s expansion involves everyone having their own universal account allowing them to buy, sell, or rent on their own. A marketplace, he thinks, will arise, where commerce will be equal and dispersed and democratic and profitable for everybody, not just those Googles and Facebooks who make their money as advertising hubs. His other great staple of sci-fi dystopia is that those two powerhouses make their money by spying on we, the users. Every search we make, everything we buy, the casual content of every Gmail we send, all gets absorbed and processed and used to create a profile of us. And it’s that profile that is used to determine what kinds of ads we see alongside our search results, or to determine what kinds of new friends are being recommended to us. We’re being corralled, Lanier says again and again, and I for one totally share his latent paranoia. I’ve gotten a lot of ads on my various pages lately for New Balance and messenger bags, stuff I recently bought online. It’s like walking through Times Square and having every one of those giant screens projecting your deepest, most innermost personal feelings on pants and burritos right back at you. The solipsism is contagious.

So we get put in boxes to make it easier for advertisers to find their ideal audiences, and Google and Facebook make all the money. Meanwhile we’re giving everything away for free, all our ideas and creations, to be replicated and copied and mashed up. To crib from a certain sci-fi classic: He who controls the servers controls the universe.

But how to take control of the internet? How to convince someone to suddenly start paying for what they’re getting for free? Here Lanier rests his argument on some shaky sociological ground.

His secret weapon to make the shift to true internet capitalism is the Golden Rule: you won’t take things for free online because you, too, rely on the internet for your weekly nickels.

“There’s this kind of commonality between you and your potential victims that makes civilization possible, and without that the whole thing wouldn’t happen,” he says. “I’ll pay into this system because this thing is also paying my rent. I’m being part of the world that’s supporting me.”

There is something to this idea of provenance, though; that is, the ability to track a file back to its source, and therefore to see it in its original context (with, presumably, its one and only owner). Lanier thinks this arrangement keeps things simple, straightforward, and prevents what he calls “artificial mysteriousness” (this is the phenomenon of things being more obscure than they need to be, e.g. relying on recommendation engines such as Netflix’s to help you make choices, when, he argues, most of the time we don’t need the help). If one person controlled all the art they made (those “files” of the songs and paintings and poems they labored over), and it could be made impossible to replicate those files but also easy for an interested party to find those files and pay, say, a few pennies each time they want to listen to that song or read that poem, then you might be able to have a really robust economy online. But first you’d have to convince people that paying a few cents is somehow better than paying nothing at all.

The problem is that the Golden Rule was conceived when all behavior was in person — you had to be nice to someone’s face. Or throw a stone in it. But with file-sharing it’s basically victimless, at least as far as our immediate experience is concerned. It’s an abstraction that costs nothing to replicate and hurts no one (that we can see). Maybe if we knew that a puppy would be drowned every time we downloaded a new Coldplay album, it would change our behavior, but in the world of abstraction that is the internet, the Golden Rule is an unrealistic principle.

It’s not always realistic in the real world either: corruption exists at every level of interpersonal relationships and business and government. So how are we supposed to apply this humanistic principle to a medium that Lanier himself admits is dehumanized and dehumanizing?

His vision is appealing, especially to those of us in journalism and music who are what he calls the canaries in the coal mine — the first to feel the impoverishing effects of internet technology. (Coal miners, I would note, still have jobs these days. As do canaries.) But to build an internet culture upon a platform of basic decency and consideration forgets that that’s not how people are. Which is why: laws, government, locks on doors.

His fears about the easy replication and manipulation of files is on the one hand understandable and on the other sort of naive.

Yes, the ceaseless replication of files contributes to 1) a massive carbon footprint, since he estimates that half the internet is taken up with replicated movie files, and 2) the loss of provenance, of origin.

And yes, replication and loss of provenance not only devalues the original thing but also makes it hard to find. Things get so scrambled up in there that search engines can come in and regulate our access to the stuff that’s out there, while monitizing the reorganization of information.

But, interestingly, that abundance of information — whether for listening or reading or collecting — also sets up the conditions whereby creative phenomena like mash-ups are possible. Which many people love. Lanier not being one of them.

“Anonymous blog comments, vapid video pranks, and lightweight mashups may seem trivial and harmless,” he writes in his book, “but as a whole, this widespread practice of fragmentary, impersonal communication has demeaned interpersonal interaction.

Lanier feels the mash-up has cheapened art, the last decade’s stale content proving that the internet is bad for art, as there has been a near-total reduction, in his opinion, of true novelty and originality. There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of crap being produced; I’m one of its producers. But it’s perhaps a stretch to say that an internet or collective culture is killing expression.

Jonathan Lethem wrote an essay for Harper’s in 2007, “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism,” in which he argues that the obsession with originality and ownership of ideas ultimately hurts artistic expression overall.  He does this by constructing an essay entirely out of fragments of other people’s writings, changing and smashing and blending it where necessary (and crediting the authors at the end). One of his borrowed sources is USC’s own Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts — Henry Jenkins. Jenkins believes in the interactive potential of the internet to create new and neat stuff.

Jenkins tells me after Lanier’s visit that he feels the man has “an inflated notion of individual creativity that sort of equates creativity with originality rather than thinking of creativity as something that exists in dialogue with what’s come before.”

We can think about this idea of creativity-as-dialogue in the context of Lanier’s visit itself. He gave many talks over the course of his USC visits, repeating basically the same message, often with the exact same phrases, over and over again — with some variations depending on whether the audience was an arts journalism class or an assembly of neuroscience students. Think of that basic talk as a file. If his ideal of the one-file internet were applied to the real world, he wouldn’t have sat in those classes and meetings. He’d have just given one talk, one time, to everybody. (Probably this would seem appealing after three days of small group visits.) But there wouldn’t have been the same kinds of discussions generated. Though his message was always pretty much the same, the outcome was made different by the different people who heard it and took it and ran with it. Each copy of his file was reworked and made into many different ideas, some intersecting, some diverging, but all in all probably more valuable to all of us than one big hypothetical lecture.

Maybe that’s just way too simple. But anyway it’s an example of how it is dialogue, rather than impermeable lecture that allows ideas to change and interact and become something different, rather than just these islands of ideas, never touching. All of which makes me think of Montessori schools, which themselves creep me out a bit. But anyway Jenkins is big on the dialogue model of culture:

“A good model of collective intelligence is one where everyone has their own unique form of expertise,” says Jenkins, “but it doesn’t mean that they hold on to everything and claim exclusive ownership to it. It means they’re willing to share their expertise in the hopes of building something stronger and richer than they could build by themselves.”

It’s pretty hard to say where exactly the reworking of ideas stops being a natural evolutionary force for creativity and becomes mindless, uninspired plagiarism. All new music, for example, is based on some style or technique or philosophy that came before. It takes that inspired moment to build something new on top of something old — rock evolving from blues, for example. And that feels different from someone taking some bits of Beethoven and putting them together in some loose new arrangement and calling it creation. Maybe true creativity can only be determined by some measure of inspiration, for which there is no proper scale at this time.

Lanier is himself a musician, fascinated especially with really old instruments. He plays a lot of instruments, and composes as well. He played this Laotian mouth organ called a khaen during a demonstration on his second day, and he didn’t seem to acknowledge that making new music from an old instrument is perhaps no different than making a dance song out of reworked world music. It’s always about one person deriving something new from a previously existing collective, and maybe it’s up to the collective to determine the value of the thing created.

And that collective has become richer and stranger and more diverse because of the internet’s ability to bring people together who might not ever have found one another otherwise. USC Assistant Professor Dmitri Williams studies social interactions in video games and other online communities. He’s found all kinds of groups that assemble online, from people with obscure medical conditions to collections of gay vacuum enthusiasts. At the Dean’s Forum, Williams laid out his impression of the difference between Lanier’s internet worldview and his own:

“You were concerned that where the old structures are being swept aside and being replaced by these new ones, with centralized servers, that there is less good quality stuff happening than there could be or should be. Whereas I felt much more optimistic that more people are empowered to be authors in more ways than ever had been before and that, although the art might not fit into some of the same categories we’ve always had, there’s more stuff out there — more good stuff, more bad stuff, just more stuff. Stuff still, nonetheless, at risk of being captured and concentrated by industry and forces. But a tidal wave of so much stuff that it dwarfs what we’ve had before.”

Now whether this abundance of stuff blooping and bleeping around the internet will get smart on its own is another question. There are techno-theoristswho believe the internet will someday generate a critical mass and become not only organized but also super-intelligent, a phenomenon author Ray Kurzweil has called the Singularity. That many people have adopted this  as a nearly spiritual belief drives Lanier batty. He thinks it represents a cheapening of those values that  make humans special. That in breaking ourselves down into categories that Facebook algorithms can easily digest, we are also lowering our standards for being human.

This is a pretty good place to leave off, I think — with some big metaphysical thoughts to kick around. Will machines someday regulate the ebb and flow of crap for me? It seems pretty likely that the internet will outsmart the SEOs and that a dog-walking robot will on a future afternoon post clever geo-tracked messages at every fireplug. Which pretty much leaves me to chew on all this other stuff, and decide, along with the rest of us, collectively you might say, what kind of technological world we’re giving ourselves.

Lanier reminds us that it doesn’t have to be as it is. Whatever we come up with, we better ensure a lot of good participation from as many people as possible. It’s like the man said: If calculus had more perversions, there’d be a lot more people taking math.

1. The length of time an artist can hold a copyright, as just one example, maintains a different kind of “walled garden” around a work, preventing other artists from building on those ideas. It ensures that the artist makes money off that IP, but, Lethem suggests, stagnates the flow of a kind of creative economy. There’s maybe something to this, and it’s easy enough to prove: Look at how works that fall into the public domain are treated. Jane Austen’s canon alone maintains steady sales even 200 years later (there are something like more than 100 versions of Pride and Prejudice in print now), while inspiring other work. Bridget Jones’ Diary owes its existence to Austen, as does, much more literally, the mash-up novels Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Not only were these monster parody books hugely successful, but (to offer some comfort to Lanier’s fear of a loss of provenance), there’s evidence that the zombie book, at least, bumped sales for Austen books in general — proving people will follow a mash-up to its source.

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