A Satisfactory World For Reasonable People

3:56:00 PM

A reaction to Jaron Lanier's book You Are Not a Gadget and the growing clamor for how the Web has gone "wrong."
It must have been lonely to be gifted with genius of the caliber of Socrates, Aristotle, Newton or Einstein. To be sure, Jaron Lanier's intellect ranks within that crowd. His contributions, particularly in the founding of computing and the Web-as-we-know-it, are unequivocally, as deeply profound and significant for changing the course of humanity as those philosophers of yore we've all learned about in our history class.

Sadly, while Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and the long lineage of Western great minds have at some level bequeathed an iron-clad philosophy of virtue that has been the bedrock of civilization for millennia, Lanier, while gifted creatively and intellectually, reveals within the opening chapter of his recent book, You Are Not A Gadget that he is, at best, a second-rate philosopher.

Lanier has joined with the growing chorus of intellectuals and pundits that are defining the digital counter-movement. Lanier, perhaps, is the most passionate among them, subtitling his book, "A Manifesto." But while others like, Nicholas Carr who is author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains, and who has made recent news in an article published in The Atlantic is making the claim that while the digital world is compromising human concentration that it doesn't represent, like with Lanier, the end of civilization as we know it. Carr states in an interview with NPR that, despite the loss of this critical aspect of the human mind, new opportunities in the human enterprise might open up as well.

Lanier doesn't bother with all of that. His adjectives and verbs are slanderous to the Social Web. His brush strokes and terminology include labels such as "cybernetic totalism" and pejorative observations such as the arising of "hive mentality."

Even where he credits the Web and computing as a whole for making "a step in the right direction," they are but a mere hedging of his argument and a brief pause before he resumes whacking the piñata he's put before us again.

So let's take a moment to address just one of Lanier's rhetorical observations:

Lock-in:

It might be observed that Lanier, at heart, is a musician. While his contribution in pioneering the World Wide Web has been where he has shined most, he did, after all, want the whole enterprise to benefit “the artist.”

In a video interview with Aleks Krotoski of The Guardian, Lanier states his motives clearly,

Long ago […] some friends and I had this thought that, perhaps, the Internet would be such a fountain of wealth and opportunity that it would be entirely open […] and the opportunities they would get in return would be huge […] Unfortunately, I’ve come to believe that was a huge mistake as I look at the real world of musicians and writers, I see that it isn’t working. I see that we’re not finding these legions of new middle class musicians who are making it without the studio system.
To that You Are Not a Gadget begins by making observations that computing as a whole suffers from a notion he calls “lock-in.” In short, it is his pejorative way of stating that standards have arisen in how computing takes place.

One example he uses for his argument is that file systems (or more precisely, that computers organize artifacts into files and folders) have “locked in” and removed the possibility for the exploration of new ways of organizing one’s stuff. As a musician, he addresses the fact that MIDI, a standard widely used for representing music for computers, have narrowed or clipped the breadth of sound – locked out innovations in engineering sound on computers.

In his appraisal, he worries that design and interface influences usage, and that usage, in turn influences people and their decision. It’s certainly true that this occurs, but, taking a step back for a moment to see a broader picture, it is known that one’s language, like English, influences how people think and what choices they might make. A person is, inherently, “locked in” to a systematic way of engaging their culture, and it certainly excludes the freedom to construct one’s sentences using Verb-Object-Subject when relating to one’s peers.

Human beings inherit mores and values of the culture they are brought into and this is a form of “lock-in.” We also are locked in by biological constraints such as the likely fact that a flat-footed person will likely not pursue a career in athletics. What makes Lanier’s position towards the Internet so vital or disheartening is that not only does he recall a time when it was a nascent aspect of civilization, but he also made direct contributions into how it was shaped at various stages till the present. That is, he recalls a time when it was an undiscovered country, where the doors were wide open; he recalls a time where it did not exist. Now that the Internet is a facet of the modern world bestowed with cultural norms in design, interface, and interdigitated with commerce and art he seems to be stricken with a deep nostalgia for a world he left behind.

Michael Agger comments in his article “The Geek Freaks: Why Jaron Lanier rants against what the Web has become,”
As near as I can make it out, Lanier's view is that the Web began as a digital Eden. We built homepages by hand, played around in virtual worlds, wrote beautiful little programs for the fun of it, and generally made our humanity present online. The standards had not been set.
Agger closes his argument against Lanier by sweeping under the rug what Lanier had focused most on, Virtual Reality. His article takes a jab, stating, “It was a lot of fun at the beginning, but virtual reality has moved on. It's time to take off the goggles and gloves, and join us here on Earth.”

But Agger misses a point in saying that Lanier is lost to the human enterprise – out of touch. His voice does have some merit, and he is, perhaps, taking the banner on a human need that has and will be endemic to the human discourse – the yearning for a millenary kingdom.

Julio Coráztar sums up this very human yearning in his book, Hopscotch.
Basically, what is this story about finding a millenary kingdom, an Eden, another world? […] These types believe along with other madmen that we are not in the world, that our venerable parents have set us on a course in the wrong direction and we have to get off it if we do not want to end up as an equestrian statue or transformed into an exemplary grandparent, and that nothing is lost if one maintains as his end the value of proclaiming that everything is lost and that we have to start all over again […] Until now this century has been running away from all sorts of things, it has been looking for doorways and sometimes it gets to the bottom of them. What happens afterwards no one knows; some may have managed to see and have perished, instantly erased by great black forgetfulness, others will have conformed to the small escape, the little house in the suburbs, literary or scientific specialization, travel.
Lanier qualms revolve around the loss of personal individuality. His eponymous book asserts that human beings are not their gadgets. He laments the loss of a millenary kingdom, an Eden when individuals were not required to assert themselves on social networks. To be sure, if Lanier is to be the voice of something worth listening to is that, perhaps, the scope of the word “individual” has to be expanded to include one’s social sphere. But, here again, Coráztar picks up that thread and contextualizes it without the artifice of cataclysm. He states:

The kingdom will be made out of plastic material, that is a fact. And the world will not have to be converted into an Orwellian or Huxleyan nightmare; it will be much worse, it will be a delightful world, to the measure of its inhabitants, no mosquitoes, no illiterates, with enormous eighteen-footed hens most likely, each foot a thing of beauty, with tele-operated bathrooms, a different-colored water according to the days of the week, a nicety of the national hygiene service […] That is to say a satisfactory world for reasonable people.
And what of the likes of Lanier in this “satisfactory world for reasonable people”? Coráztar answer:
And will any single person remain in it who is not reasonable? […] Everything can be killed except nostalgia for the kingdom, we carry it in the color of our eyes, in every love affair, in everything that deeply torments and unties and tricks. Wishful thinking (sic), perhaps; but that is just another possible definition of the featherless biped.
The digital age came about with remarkable swiftness. Those that created its charter, like Lanier, will have a potent connection to the nostalgia of the millenary kingdom; they will carry the nostalgia for a time when communications as a whole was slow going. Their clamor will swell for a return to an Eden while Digital Natives, as the generation following those born after the early 90s are now being called, will sweep them and their qualms away without hesitation.

Will it be an Orwellian nightmare? Probably for the likes of Lanier, but it will also likely be a satisfactory world for reasonable people.

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