Notes From “Who Owns the Future?” An Evening with Jaron Lanier

“To my mind an overleveraged unsecured mortgage is exactly the same thing as a pirated music file. It’s somebody’s value that’s been copied many times to give benefit to some distant party. In the case of the music files, it’s to the benefit of an advertising spy like Google [which monetizes your search history], and in the case of the mortgage, it’s to the benefit of a fund manager somewhere. But in both cases all the risk and the cost is radiated out toward ordinary people and the middle classes—and even worse, the overall economy has shrunk in order to make a few people more.”

LONOND, UK: The stage is set: two chairs, bottles of water, a flute, a guitar an an unnamable instrument yet to be unveiled. The gentleman behind me notices the instruments on stage and comments, “What are those doing up there?” He clearly hasn’t done his pre-reading on the main attraction: Jaron Lanier.

We are in central London at Conway Hall. The institutional structure reminds me of the public school I attended in Los Angeles. Built in the 1920s perhaps, functional, concrete, institutional color scheme of natural greens with a few art deco accents. The chairs on the stage date from a later era however, mix-matched 1960s inspired office furniture. It is the sort of thing we have come to accept in our institutional facilities – props on a stage poorly balanced in quantity, value and style. Would this have been the case before WWII?

Conway Hall opened in 1929. My uninformed and slightly romantic impression of it housing early political talks and speeches was not far off. The name “Conway” was chosen to pay respect to Moncure Daniel Conway (1832 – 1907). Mr. Conway was an American from the South. Born in Virginia, he arrived in England in 1863 with the purpose of furthering the cause of the abolitionists. He was a supporter of free thought and author whose works include many publishings in journals, although best known for his biography of Thomas Paine.

Like its namesake, the Hall has a connection with the free-thinkers of the past through its ties with the Ethical Society, which started in 1787. The rich intellectual history is as embedded in the Hall as the ammonia used over the decades of the 20th century to wash the mosaic tile floors. Even if it hasn’t been used as a cleaning agent in years, the aroma will last as long as the building survives, and this is true of past events and speakers who have left their aura for modern visitors to feel inspired by.

With its history, it is appropriate to have free-thinker, philosopher, computer scientist, artist and author Jaron Lanier in for this evening’s lecture. And if you are still unsure what the fuss is all about or think you have walked into a one-man-band acoustic gig, you have not. For context, the main attraction of tonight’s discussion is credited with coining the term “virtual reality.”

A classical melody is playing in the background. From the announcer we learn the tune is one of Lanier’s own compositions. The sound level seemingly growing with the crowd, it is a full house tonight.

Jaron-Lanier-007I first heard of Lanier in 2010 via a close friend attending SXSW in Austin, Texas that year. Lanier had just released his book, “You Are Not a Gadget” and was speaking on the concepts and theories he outlined in his book. Through his tour of talks and lectures following the book’s release he cast our attention to the downside of social media and web 2.0. One learns quickly he is a complex yet optimistic mix of pioneer, inventor, practitioner and skeptic of today’s technology.

Lanier’s physical presence precedes him. He is known to use his hands whilst speaking, ramble and veer into tangents of abstractness and intellectualism of the human relationship with computers. The title “You Are Not a Gadget” sums up the concept of his first book quite well. However, in that heady space of 200-some-odd pages Lanier can lose a reader from time to time.

Chapter two has a section with the heading “Empathy Inflation and Metaphyscial Ambiguity,” where he expands on his reasoning for something he calls the Circle of Empathy. Using bacteria as a metaphor, he asks readers to think about bacteria as a living entity and the moral dilemma of having to kill bacteria to survive. He admits bacteria is an extreme example of the Circle of Empathy, but a useful one. And even if a few readers are lost along the way, his inventive rambling makes sense somehow. You are drawn back with his everyday examples of how this concern of his, this particular thread of thought will impact you personally.

How does one decide what is included in their personal Circle of Empathy? That depends on the individual. One colleague of Lanier’s, Adrian Cheok, is mentioned of having chickens in his Circle of Empathy to the point that he “built teleimmersion suits for them so that he could telecuddle them from work.”

This sort of dialog is Lanier’s voice. You hear it in his writing even if you hadn’t ever heard him speak. Given his large frame and height, one expects Lanier to have a deep voice, but he doesn’t. He would make a terrific tenor in fact. His eyes darting back and forth might signal distraction, but Lanier is always engaged with his audience. He may drift but he never strays away from the topic. Explaining Lanier is difficult. To explain what he sees is probably difficult for him too. I’m trying to think of a way to explain virtual reality to someone who’s never heard of it before. I would probably have a hard time of it, get frustrated and give up.

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Joined on stage by James Bridle, another technologist, writer and artist who acts as interviewer for the session, Lanier opens by playing the audience a quick tune from one of the three instruments he brought with him. With demonstrated skill, the audience is impressed. But, unlike the gentleman sitting behind me, most of us knew to expect a tune or two from Lanier.

Who Owns the Future?” is the purpose for this gathering. Lanier spends a few minutes discussing the core concept of his latest book before taking us through a few of the finer points. The main notion centers around the idea that while computers replace people’s roles in various industries, data is the currency. This may be fine Lanier argues, except that this is happening at a loss to the individual and a gain for the corporations. He uses Facebook and Google as primary examples, but notes that they are not the only benefactors – banks, government agencies, and corporations are. This information is gathered every second of the day, on everybody, and for which the individual has no control over, no input, no benefit.

One of the most tweeted soundbites from the evening was a quote of Lanier saying, “each time you use Facebook, you decrease you employment opportunities for the future.” But to read that quote out of context would imply the simplest concern of a photo found by a prospective employer of an intoxicated applicant taken 10 years earlier. No, Lanier was not speaking about photo mishaps; he was discussing the data mining of personal information being used to automate your job. If you are forfeiting your personal information so a large company can profit from it, shouldn’t you be compensated?

For a solid hour Lanier speaks with cerebral eloquence, explaining concepts such as Maxwell’s Demon to a somewhat novice audience and tying that into his thesis. One feels as though you actually understand completely the theories he puts forward, theories explained by way of the second law of thermodynamics. As tangled as they become in the web of description, to hear Lanier peel back the layers of his arguments using everyday examples, you start to see more vividly the future he is hoping we avoid. A “democracy destroyer.” How is he not more evangelistic in his messaging? A visionary we should all be paying close attention to, he talks with a sense of calm wisdom, not quite resigned but also aware there is only so much one person can do at times.

One everyday example he used to demonstrate his concepts was his past support for free music sharing. Over time he realized live performances are not a viable long term strategy for earning a living as an artist. Royalties are the steady paycheck for artists and sites like YouTube for example, were prime examples of artists not being paid for their creative work. The real world examples starts to bring the image into focus, even for the non-artistic, this example can be true of any one of us who give up our information for free.

“To my mind an overleveraged unsecured mortgage is exactly the same thing as a pirated music file. It’s somebody’s value that’s been copied many times to give benefit to some distant party. In the case of the music files, it’s to the benefit of an advertising spy like Google [which monetizes your search history], and in the case of the mortgage, it’s to the benefit of a fund manager somewhere. But in both cases all the risk and the cost is radiated out toward ordinary people and the middle classes—and even worse, the overall economy has shrunk in order to make a few people more.”

He continues, “(I) think it’s a way of interpreting technology in which people forgo taking responsibility. ‘Oh, the computer did it not me.’ ‘There’s no more middle class? Oh, it’s not me. The computer did it’” (Rosenbaum, 2013).

futureukcoverHearing Lanier delve into this murky topic one starts to take his words a bit more serious than the cliched wake up call to reality. Although he speaks out against the very technology you would expect him to support (and sometimes the web pioneers he counts as personal friends), he is indeed taken very seriously in the technology industry. He is not a conspiracy theorist, he is not a doomsday preacher either. He is not a lobbyist, nor does the throw stones necessarily at the mega-giant corporations like Facebook and Google. He doesn’t believe there is one person behind the evil curtain controlling it all. Instead he is a cautionary wise man with a valid point that if we don’t start to think through our actions with intent, we might be allowing the machine (metaphorically) to swallow us all. Governments are too slow to react, too cumbersome and unwieldily to predict policies that will protect much less enable the masses. When it comes to automation of our jobs, our livelihoods, our data, governments will not understand, respond and agree on the remedy for the consequences until the damage has been done. We saw this with the financial crisis of 2008.

As the talk draws to a close Lanier has left his audience with more than enough to chew on. As he signs my copy of his book I ask Lanier if the artwork on the book sleeve bears any symbolism to what I will find in between the covers. (My awkward way of asking if there was any meaning in the chosen artwork.) He says simply, the image of the pink flowers illustrated at different angles was the decision of the UK publisher, Penguin. He liked it because it gave a feminine touch to the book.

In Conversation: Jaron Lanier and James Bridle On Who Owns the Future? from The School of Life on Vimeo.

Rosenbaum, R. (2013, January). What turned jaron lanier against the web?. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/What-Turned-Jaron-Lanier-Against-the-Web-183832741.html

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