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Jaron Lanier & Digital Maoism

Here’s a really interesting piece from Smithsonian Magazine about the early web culture guru Jaron Lanier, who has turned against a thing he did as much as just about anybody else to create. He now says the Internet is a bad thing. This part of the piece especially good: At last we come to politics, […]

Here’s a really interesting piece from Smithsonian Magazine about the early web culture guru Jaron Lanier, who has turned against a thing he did as much as just about anybody else to create. He now says the Internet is a bad thing. This part of the piece especially good:

At last we come to politics, where I believe Lanier has been most farsighted—and which may be the deep source of his turning into a digital Le Carré figure. As far back as the turn of the century, he singled out one standout aspect of the new web culture—the acceptance, the welcoming of anonymous commenters on websites—as a danger to political discourse and the polity itself. At the time, this objection seemed a bit extreme. But he saw anonymity as a poison seed. The way it didn’t hide, but, in fact, brandished the ugliness of human nature beneath the anonymous screen-name masks. An enabling and foreshadowing of mob rule, not a growth of democracy, but an accretion of tribalism.

It’s taken a while for this prophecy to come true, a while for this mode of communication to replace and degrade political conversation, to drive out any ambiguity. Or departure from the binary. But it slowly is turning us into a nation of hate-filled trolls.

Surprisingly, Lanier tells me it first came to him when he recognized his own inner troll—for instance, when he’d find himself shamefully taking pleasure when someone he knew got attacked online. “I definitely noticed it happening to me,” he recalled.


“This is the thing that continues to scare me. You see in history the capacity of people to congeal—like social lasers of cruelty. That capacity is constant.”

“Social lasers of cruelty?” I repeat.

“I just made that up,” Lanier says. “Where everybody coheres into this cruelty beam….Look what we’re setting up here in the world today. We have economic fear combined with everybody joined together on these instant twitchy social networks which are designed to create mass action. What does it sound like to you? It sounds to me like the prequel to potential social catastrophe. I’d rather take the risk of being wrong than not be talking about that.”

Here he sounds less like a Le Carré mole than the American intellectual pessimist who surfaced back in the ’30s and criticized the Communist Party he left behind: someone like Whittaker Chambers.

But something he mentioned next really astonished me: “I’m sensitive to it because it murdered most of my parents’ families in two different occasions and this idea that we’re getting unified by people in these digital networks—”

“Murdered most of my parents’ families.” You heard that right. Lanier’s mother survived an Austrian concentration camp but many of her family died during the war—and many of his father’s family were slaughtered in prewar Russian pogroms, which led the survivors to flee to the United States.

It explains, I think, why his father, a delightfully eccentric student of human nature, brought up his son in the New Mexico desert—far from civilization and its lynch mob potential. We read of online bullying leading to teen suicides in the United States and, in China, there are reports of well-organized online virtual lynch mobs forming…digital Maoism.

Read the whole thing. One thing that frightens me about the way the Internet and the culture it’s creating is the way it destroys privacy. I talked about this in an earlier post deploring the New York newspaper for publicizing the names and addresses of handgun licensees — this, in a fairly transparent effort to shame them, post-Newtown. As Lanier avers, this privacy-destroying aspect of Internet culture exists alongside the extraordinary degree of anonymity the Internet offers. That is a fascinating paradox.

Lanier’s piece brings to mind my own experiences with bullying, and the shame with which I recall having been party to bullying others. It’s a shame, I guess, but I find that my basic stance towards the Crowd is not one of love and trust, but of fear. Longtime readers may recall my writing about how watching the first few episodes NBC miniseries “Holocaust” as a child — I was 11 — was one of the most intense and unsettling emotional experiences of my life. I really had no idea what the Holocaust was prior to that. I mean, I knew that the Nazis had killed Jews, but I didn’t really know what that meant. I was really interested in World War II at that stage of my life, and I aggravated my parents mercilessly to let me watch the show. I lasted for what I guess was two nights, which covered the rise of the Nazis, and the effect on the Jewish family at the center of the drama. Then there was a scene showing German troops mowing down Jews they’d forced to stand next to a ditch. I was lying on the shag carpet in our living room, with my left cheek against the rug. I started to cry at that, and I cried so hard my father picked me up and carried me to bed, no doubt deeply regretting that he’d given in to my demand that I be allowed to watch the show.

Since then, I have never trusted the Crowd — and my instincts were confirmed when I went through a couple of years of (relatively minor) bullying early in high school. I’m thinking right now of this mousy girl in our school who had it much worse than I did, and how the people in power in our teenage crowd took such delight in tormenting her. That, and how cowardly I was in not standing up for her on this one occasion when I could have helped her.

Anyway, regarding that TV show, I was emotionally overwhelmed by that experience, and terrified — literally — by how the German people allowed themselves to be overcome by such barbarism. I thought about it a lot then, and have returned to that over and over throughout my life. I recognize that I have that capacity inside of me to do exactly as the “good Germans” did, given the right context. We all do. I am not the pessimist about the Internet that Jaron Lanier is (then again, I have not thought about the Internet remotely as seriously as Lanier has), but I think that in the end, it will allow for a far more precise, thorough, and savage mob rule, should the mob decide it wants to rule. As it will.





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