By Jaron Lanier
Knopf (January 12, 2010)
Jaron Lanier is an interdisciplinary computer scientist who doesn't shy away from also crossing borders also to the arts. He could probably be described as a creative intellectual, is known for his work on virtual reality, less known for his music, and now he has written a book. More details on Lanier's bio are on his website.
Lanier is a man with opinions, and that's basically what his book is about: Despite it being called "A Manifesto" what it really is is a collection of opinion pieces. Lanier is a skeptic, and concerned about many developments in software and information technology and their impact on human societies. I am very sympathetic to the points he is trying to make. Unfortunately, he doesn't make them well.
Lanier for example bemoans the "locked in" effect in which a piece of software, despite far from being optimal or even being plain annoying, becomes so wide spread that at some point it is more or less impossible to replace or change it; it simply would be too much effort. That is of course true, but it is hardly a new problem of software in particular. The same problem has hindered and does hinder progress in many other aspects of our life. Take tax laws for example. A mess. You want to throw them out and start all over again from scratch. Yet, too much effort and resistance. In practice, you fiddle something here or something there. Or, even worse, take norms and standards. Surely it would be less annoying if the world could agree on one paper format or one standard for power outlets. But the effort for such a change would be enormous. That is not to say that Lanier isn't making a correct point. It is a good point and one that we should pay more attention to. It's just to say, he misses the larger societal context and complains about an ancient problem without offering any new insight about it.
"If you love a medium made of software, there's a danger that you will become entrapped in someone else's recent careless thoughts. Struggle against that."
Another large concern of his is that the present organization of the internet, the spread of easy-to-use templates as well as making money per advertisement hampers creativity.
About the former point: it is of course true that the availability of default websites has decreased expressions of individual design. On the other hand, it's what allowed the vast majority of people to set up a website in the first place, and let me add that I know plenty of people with a PhD who insist they aren't able to understand html or css-style sheets. It's a matter of convenience. And in addition, it is actually a great relieve that one can generally at least open and read these unindividual websites. Lanier is concerned that making use of imperfect software will change your humanity to adapt to the software instead the other way round. I can't but have the impression that this concern is borne out of observing a specific community of people rather than the average person. In any case, the scientist in me hears the rethoric and waits for the evidence. Yet, there's no evidence to come in Lanier's book.
"Am I accusing all those hundreds of millions of users of social networking sites of reducing themselves in order to be able to use the services? Well, yes, I am."
Don't people also "reduce themselves" by buying a mass-produced car that comes in one of 5 colors and the only option to customize it is put a sticker on the bumper? The vast majority of people on the planet neither has the interest not the skills nor the money to individualize every detail of their average life. The artist might find that sad, but that's reality.
In any case, the latter point is a crucial one of course. You know that I too have frequently warned about the side-effects that the now common way of financing online presentations via adverts has. People often claim the internet is democratic, then they claim this sort of financing per adverts is just capitalism in action. As a matter of fact the internet is neither democratic, nor is what you're seeing a sensible capitalistic system, simply because people are not payed for their work. They are instead being paid by accidental clicks on banners that pop up on the screens of visitors who might have been looking for something entirely different to begin with. It's a feedback mechanism that one has no reason to expect to lead to any outcome that's beneficial for our societies.
Again however, Lanier misses the larger context. He puts forward a concrete proposal for how to allow artists to earn from their work better than is the case today, basically some system of micro-payments. That is all well and nice, but only addresses part of the problem. The problem that frankly concerns me much more than whether Lanier's musical friends can make a living is that the present organization erodes one of the most essential foundations of democratic societies: journalism. This issue is only mentioned in Lanier's book in the passing at some point. More generally, it is well-known that some services, especially those that are essential to the foundations of our societies, are better offered as public services than as private services. For what I am concerned, the best solution is probably a mixture. I find it particularly disingenuous that Lanier then claims "the only alternative [to some version of the proposal he is advocating] would be to establish some form of socialism."
Lanier also has a proposal for how to improve our financial systems that I don't feel competent to judge on. I can't but think that again he has missed the relevant point. The problem is not to come up with some proposal for improvement. Everybody I know seems to have some idea for how to improve our financial system. Just that most of them don't get their ideas printed in books. The problem is not coming up with an idea for improvement. No, the problem is that the present political and economic system has no instance for such proposals to be considered and be tested viable for reality and promising for improvement. The problem lies on a much deeper level.
It goes on like this. Lanier is a computer scientist, all right, and he clearly knows his field, but again and again he fails to put his proposals or arguments into the larger context and contrast them with the realities of politics and social dynamics. For example, he bemoans that the programming language LISP has fallen out of favor, though in his opinion it is essential to realize some of the proposals he is making. It strikes me similar to the complaint that we're not all speaking Esperanto.
"Wikipedia, for instance, works on what I call the Oracle illusion, in which knowledge of human authorship of a text is suppressed in order to give the text superhuman validity. Traditional holy books work in precisely the same way and present many of the same problems."
His criticism of the benefits of using the knowledge of large groups, though strongly expressed, remain superficial. In my opinion, he is throwing out the baby with the bathwater by not clearly explaining exactly what he is critical of and why, where the benefits are and what the drawbacks are. It is not very insightful.
To make matters worse, the book is very incoherently written. It is subdivided in 12 Chapters, that contain vaguely related short subsections to various topics. Ironically, since Lanier is outspoken critical of the blogosphere, the whole thing reads more like a collection of blogposts than a book. I am sure that all these little pieces he is offering fit perfectly together in Lanier's intellectually creative mind, but I had a hard time seeing a line of thought. Somewhere he elaborates on a research project he is working on with a friend on the relation between olfactation and language. That's certainly interesting, but I can't avoid having the impression Lanier just wrote down whatever crossed his mind. The book finally ends unexpectedly, without even so much as an attempt at drawing a conclusion or summarizing the argument. There are pretty much no references in the book to back up his claims or to at least justify his concerns.
That is not to say though that the book is uninteresting. See, having spent the money to buy and the time to read it, I am inclined to find something of value in it now. Lanier touches on many important points, and I hope that the book makes people think. However, exactly because I think that the theme of Lanier's book is important, it is even more disappointing it is so badly argued.