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Jaron Lanier: We Blew It

The Silicon Valley pioneer regrets

In a provocative interview, virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier says he’s sick of what he helped to create in Silicon Valley. Excerpts:

To me, one of the patterns we see that makes the world go wrong is when somebody acts as if they aren’t powerful when they actually are powerful. So if you’re still reacting against whatever you used to struggle for, but actually you’re in control, then you end up creating great damage in the world. Like, oh, I don’t know, I could give you many examples. But let’s say like Russia’s still acting as if it’s being destroyed when it isn’t, and it’s creating great damage in the world. And Silicon Valley’s kind of like that.

We used to be kind of rebels, like, if you go back to the origins of Silicon Valley culture, there were these big traditional companies like IBM that seemed to be impenetrable fortresses. And we had to create our own world. To us, we were the underdogs and we had to struggle. And we’ve won. I mean, we have just totally won. We run everything. We are the conduit of everything else happening in the world. We’ve disrupted absolutely everything. Politics, finance, education, media, relationships — family relationships, romantic relationships — we’ve put ourselves in the middle of everything, we’ve absolutely won. But we don’t act like it.

We have no sense of balance or modesty or graciousness having won. We’re still acting as if we’re in trouble and we have to defend ourselves, which is preposterous. And so in doing that we really kind of turn into assholes, you know?

He talks about how everybody who lives in Silicon Valley is financially secure, but they’re totally cut off from the rest of America, where people are very much not. And this is in large part to the economy the Internet has created. Lanier says that economy is working very well for Silicon Valley, but not so great for everybody else. More:

I’m kind of curious what you think needs to happen to prevent future platforms, like VR, from going the way of social media and reaching this really profitable crisis state.

A lot of the rhetoric of Silicon Valley that has the utopian ring about creating meaningful communities where everybody’s creative and people collaborate and all this stuff — I don’t wanna make too much of my own contribution, but I was kind of the first author of some of that rhetoric a long time ago. So it kind of stings for me to see it misused. Like, I used to talk about how virtual reality could be a tool for empathy, and then I see Mark Zuckerberg talking about how VR could be a tool for empathy while being profoundly nonempathic, using VR to tour Puerto Rico after the storm, after Maria. One has this feeling of having contributed to something that’s gone very wrong.

So I guess the overall way I think of it is, first, we might remember ourselves as having been lucky that some of these problems started to come to a head during the social-media era, before tools like virtual reality become more prominent, because the technology is still not as intense as it probably will be in the future. So as bad as it’s been, as bad as the election interference and the fomenting of ethnic warfare, and the empowering of neo-Nazis, and the bullying — as bad as all of that has been, we might remember ourselves as having been fortunate that it happened when the technology was really just little slabs we carried around in our pockets that we could look at and that could talk to us, or little speakers we could talk to. It wasn’t yet a whole simulated reality that we could inhabit.

Because that will be so much more intense, and that has so much more potential for behavior modification, and fooling people, and controlling people. So things potentially could get a lot worse, and hopefully they’ll get better as a result of our experiences during this era.

Lanier has some unnerving remarks about what he calls “Digital Maoism,” which is the idea that everybody is going to be empowered by the Internet, but what ends up happening is that only a few people get power, and all the meanness of people is set loose on each other, on the Internet. He says that Internet utopians only thought about the good things that the Internet and social media could do, and didn’t think about the terrible things — like, for example, how there is an equal and opposite reaction to every positive social movement facilitated by the Internet. In fact, Lanier believes that the Internet ends up causing net damage.

Another interesting thing he brings up, in his reasons why people should get off of social media now:

But at the end, I have one that’s a spiritual one. The argument is that social media hates your soul. And it suggests that there’s a whole spiritual, religious belief system along with social media like Facebook that I think people don’t like. And it’s also fucking phony and false. It suggests that life is some kind of optimization, like you’re supposed to be struggling to get more followers and friends. Zuckerberg even talked about how the new goal of Facebook would be to give everybody a meaningful life, as if something about Facebook is where the meaning of life is.

It suggests that you’re just a cog in a giant global brain or something like that. The rhetoric from the companies is often about AI, that what they’re really doing — like YouTube’s parent company, Google, says what they really are is building the giant global brain that’ll inherit the earth and they’ll upload you to that brain and then you won’t have to die. It’s very, very religious in the rhetoric. And so it’s turning into this new religion, and it’s a religion that doesn’t care about you. It’s a religion that’s completely lacking in empathy or any kind of personal acknowledgment. And it’s a bad religion. It’s a nerdy, empty, sterile, ugly, useless religion that’s based on false ideas. And I think that of all of the things, that’s the worst thing about it.

I mean, it’s sort of like a cult of personality. It’s like in North Korea or some regime where the religion is your purpose to serve this one guy. And your purpose is to serve this one system, which happens to be controlled by one guy, in the case of Facebook.

It’s not as blunt and out there, but that is the underlying message of it and it’s ugly and bad. I loathe it, and I think a lot of people have that feeling, but they might not have articulated it or gotten it to the surface because it’s just such a weird and new situation.

Read every last bit of it. It’s very good.

Lanier concludes by saying that he’s in his late 50s now, and has an 11-year-old daughter, and believes that he and his generation of Internet builders have left the world a worse place for her generation. I am reminded of Sen. Ben Sasse’s remarks last fall about the world that is here and that is coming at us fast and hard.  He urged philanthropists to spend their time and treasure building things that will help local communities withstand the disruption.

I wish people who have this idea that the Benedict Option is about running for the hills and recreating Fortress Mayberry would read the book. They would see that it is, in fact, about constructing institutions and ways of life that will enable Christians individuals, families, and communities to be resilient and faithful amid this catastrophe that Lanier discusses. (Somebody ought to write the Ben Op for Jews and Muslims, by the way.)

Lanier talks about how in China, technology allows the government to regulate who can travel, buy, and sell, based on the social credit score they have (that is, how well they behave, and how loyal they are to the system). CBS News reports that it’s already being rolled out, and is going to be fully in place by 2020. Excerpts:

Nearly 11 million Chinese are not allowed to fly and 4 million are barred from trains. Next week, the program will start expanding nationwide.

The government says it is trying to “purify” society by rewarding people who are trustworthy and punishing those who are not, reports CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy. So like the credit scores most Americans have based on how they handle their finances, Chinese citizens are getting a social credit score based on everything from whether they pay their taxes on time to how they cross the street to what they post online.

When Liu Hu recently tried to book a flight, he was told he was banned from flying because he was on the list of untrustworthy people. Liu is a journalist who was ordered by a court to apologize for a series of tweets he wrote and was then told his apology was insincere.

“I can’t buy property. My child can’t go to a private school,” Liu said. “You feel you’re being controlled by the list all the time.”

The list is now getting longer as every Chinese citizen is being assigned a social credit score, a fluctuating rating based on a range of behaviors. It’s believed that community service and buying Chinese-made products can raise your score. Fraud, tax evasion and smoking in non-smoking areas can drop it. If a score gets too low, a person can be banned from buying plane and train tickets, real estate, cars and even high-speed internet.

“It’s a good thing,” one Chinese woman said. “There should be punishment for people who can’t behave.”

China’s growing network of surveillance cameras makes all of this possible. The country already has an estimated 176 million cameras. It plans to have more than 600 million installed by 2020.

You don’t think that’s going to come here one day? The rudiments for it are already here in America. You don’t think people will welcome it? Really? After generations have been acculturated to expect a “safe space”? After the Patriot Act mentality has caused people to think that only guilty people have anything to worry about?

So, Christian, ask yourself: how are you going to keep the faith and pass it on to your kids in a world in which going to church stands to cost them in their social credit rating? In a world in which it is hard to buy and sell unless they are conformed to the system, subservient to this beast? That is what we’re talking about here. That is part of what the Benedict Option concerns. It’s not about creating a utopia; it’s about learning how to survive, even thrive, in the present and coming dystopia.



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