Jaron Lanier was no one I had heard of before. But the meeting we were supposed to have with him looked interesting right from the announcement; anyone writing a book “You are not a Gadget” had to be a beautiful mind.
The easiest way to get to know Lanier was to google him. Wikipedia had a long article on him and I’ve started to read. I needed an online dictionary and more Wikipedia to get a sense of what it was written there.
Computers were never my thing. I’ve passionately embraced the computer class in 1991, in high school, hoping that I would use my Mathematics skills, which back then were worth exploring. Instead I’ve found myself every Thursday condemned in a chair in front of little screen in black and white. Actually we were three students in front of every such machine. There were always the boys hitting the keys and actually doing the work on it. The girls were using pencils and paper trying to replicate the commands, in writing.
I’ve never got along with those machines, probably because they were too ugly. I was good with foreign languages, but not with those Basic and Pascal; too alien for me.
There was however a nice machine I was drawn to, a nice 286 IBM: tall, majestic, and white, with a screen in colors. I’ve never touched it! Back then such a thing was more expensive then my parent’s house and the perspective of becoming homeless because I had touched a wrong key seamed horrific. My way of understanding computers then was comparing them to pianos: fingers making bad “music” on their keyboards that would destroy the machine. I was taught to consider them frail things, easy to terminate by human touch. I’ve got it so wrong!
I’ve used the email services for the first time in 1998 and it was a hotmail account. I’ve switch afterwards to yahoo and sometime in 2004 I’ve got my gmail account. Back then a gmail account holder had to send you the invitation in order to be able to join the service. I’ve got my facebook account in January 2009.
I’ve never owned a computer, never spent money on one. I remember writing my law dissertation through a secretary: my father’s, in 2000. My first computer was the one at work. It’s when I’ve started to know about passwords, safe connections, viruses, online updates. It’s exactly then my eyes were affected by the screen radiation and slowly I’ve became a short-sighted person. My myopia is the gift of a computer!
I’ve moved in a house with a computer on 1st January 2001. My then boyfriend had a HP laptop, black and heavy, as a small suitcase. It was a mid 90’s model. I’ve started to use it daily, to connect to the world through a dial-up connection and saved all my data on disks. CDs and DVDs came a couple of years later.
In 2006 entered into my life my laptop, another HP (Compaq nx7000). It was a second hand one and became my best friend. After divorce, I kept the laptop. It was a great burgeon worth fighting for. Ever since then, it traveled with me all over the places: from Asia to Paris, from Munich to New York, from Washington to Cuba. As if it was on my passport, as a person!
The Monday I’ve met Lanier, I was after a sleepless night. A virus infected my computer, unableling all applications on my laptop. Isn’t it ironic, I was thinking?
He was dressed in comfortable black linen trousers and same color T-shirt. Few days later, I’ve told about him to a couple of friends. Hearing the name “Jaron Lanier” they’ve replied me: “the technology evangelist”. Yes, I think he looked exactly like one.
Jaron is a sort of Shakespeare of the technology. As a musician, he might want to be called the Mozart of the technology, but I still like paring him to the Bard, not because his CV is longer than a midsummer’s night dream, but because his work, writings and ideas are just as important for the humanity. Can anyone imagine humanism without Hamlet, without Romeo and Juliette, without King Lear? Now can anyone imagine technology without virtual reality and its laws of content and experimentation?
As the one who baptized and explained the virtual reality, Lanier started to evolve parallel to the businesses of Silicon Valley, trying to stay an objective observer of the internet and computers, predicting ways for both technologies to get better and people to cope with them and even develop more through them.
Time Magazine called him one of the 100 most influential people in the world this year. But he modestly refers to his involving into technology evolution simply as: “Very oddly, I’ve just happened to be around when a lot of particular computers and Internet were designed, were put together and contributed to the current system.”
Yes, computers are in the middle of our relationships, the way we educate and raze children. People are recreating their future using computers and technology is into the very center of how we are thinking about how things should be done.
Lanier is not a rebel when he says that “there isn’t any particular way Internet has to be”. He criticizes what exists right now, but it doesn’t at all mean he is “criticizing the very idea of Internet or technology”.
You are not a gadget, his latest book, is an essay of the same value as McLuchan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy. The first part is dedicated to digital mistakes. Technological designs came into existence in very particular ways: “Not exactly by accident, but not in any well picked for either”. And once integrated into the network, they became really hard to change. “It’s much harder to rethink than to think. That’s always true in life but it’s exceptionally true with digital staff. It takes longer to undo than to think. We’ve become lost in the illusion of what we’ve created before. This is the tyranny of digital legacy and it’s severe.”
Change is necessary. Not change for the sake of change, but change into improvement. The gain is civilization itself: “I think that some of the ways the Internet should change are necessary if civilization is to continue seriously. I think what we are dealing right now cannot continue however it can take a long time to change. It could be 1000 years. Quite seriously! It’s a very BIG thing to undo. It might be 100 years – I don’t know. But it’s not going to be 10 years!”
Lanier has a special way to explain things, touching all facets: the serious ones and the not so serious ones, the necessary and the essential, the facts and the fiction, the literature and the philosophy. No one is left out: not Marx, not A.J Wells and his Time Machine and not even Spielberg and his Minority Report film that made usage of a lot of Lanier’s gone wrong scientific projects.
He made everyone aware of the carbon footprint of the internet. The main reason is because Internet is filled with copies of all sorts of things. In order for these copies to exist, Internet has to expend and the giant machines that makes it all possible use carbon. It’s a very dramatic way to imagine Internet. Loading photos and keeping 5-6 years old emails on the yahoo account started to look criminal!
Internet is not a democratized space. The money and the power are in the hands of few servers and no one has access there. Private information is at the disposal of who pays more and the user is just a targeted audience that is expected to spend money on system picked items. “If anyone would have told me 30 years ago that a company of three people would decide on what’s private for a whole world, I would have been scandalized”, confessed Lanier and suddenly Facebook did not seam so cool anymore!
Internet is not an oracle that knows you – the user; though companies sell this idea of an Internet that knows your taste, knows you and loves you. Of course, it also costs you – but they just love to take your money!
The real issue about Internet is that nowadays, it does exactly the opposite of what it was created for: it does not broader the horizon; it shrinks it with research engines that are manipulated my companies’ money that want their products, their info to pop on your screen.
The more you pay, the higher you are on the search engine’s list.
According to Lanier, here still are about two dozens of ideas that will make billionaires out of those who will exploit them best, one being an online medicine site and one being the telepresence.
Also Arts will improve their dominium with a new kind of performance. Lanier calls it “high value improvise performance” and it takes place in the virtual reality. The performer, as a puppeteer, would make things happen spontaneously, live on Internet.
I am clearly not a gadget. Not anymore. And discovering Jaron Lanier was a nice plunge into another dimension of human spirituality of a technological dimension, but still flavored with the art of a great humanist.
Ioana Moldovan - Los Angeles, California