You Are Not the Internet

Jaron Lanier’s book “You Are Not a Gadget” is, on the face of it, a critical refutation of what the author sees as a vapid, superficial quality of pop culture on the Internet. It is unfortunate, then, that Lanier’s own work shares many of the superficial qualities he criticizes others for exhibiting, coming as it does from a series of online blog posts that have been stitched together into a less-than-cohesive long-form narrative. Many of his own passions, including the development of virtual reality environments, have yet to achieve mainstream popularity, and this seems to color his perceptions on what is popular in the electronic sphere (or noosphere, as he refers to it), casting much of what he observes there in a negative light. What is worse, though, is Lanier’s insistence on repeatedly criticizing the direction online culture has taken while offering no great viable alternatives himself.

Jaron Lanier

Principle among Lanier’s criticisms is a belief that amateur expression is inherently worthy of derision and not much else. From a thesis statement of “You have to be somebody before you can share yourself,” Lanier rejects the notion that an online culture of immediate sharing through sites like deviantART and Youtube is how a new generation of artists often do become somebody, one piece at a time. Instead, Lanier suggests an artist would be better served by spending 100 times as much time preparing an image or video before uploading and sharing the finished product. While this could be an interesting experiment, it is definitely not the only way to approach online expression, and does not even guarantee that the video that took 200 hours to produce is better or more meaningful to an audience than the video that took two. For some artists, sharing different stages of a work in progress can even be a valid way to inform others about process with fragmented elements, not a demeaned interaction.

However, in stark contrast to his assertion that art should be finalized or “locked-in” in a professional manner before being shared with a potential audience, Lanier is opposed to just such a locked-in protocol for software programming. This in and of itself is not a foolish belief to hold, but it is curious that Lanier is not able to appreciate the advantages that art culture has when no piece of music or movie is ever truly “locked-in,” and an audience bolstered by Creative Commons can endlessly find inspiration in the remixing of an existing piece. There is plenty of opportunity for both great and terrible results from the mashing up of popular culture, but to reject any effort in that domain outright as part of a “culture of reaction without action” is an unfair sweeping generalization.

You Are Not Your Mash-Ups

Lanier describes remixes and other examples of a reactive culture as second-order expression, or fragmentary reactions to whole, complete works (first-order expression). But dig deep enough, and any work of first-order expression can be broken down and understood as a fragmentary reaction to previous works. Consider Lanier’s given example for a work of first-order expression, Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, which, as an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep?, is by definition a reaction to a previous work. And while it is true that Blade Runner has a distinct aesthetic, that aesthetic was informed in part by a variety of sources, including design elements from film noir and Japanese anime. And it is impossible to consider this “whole” movie to be free of fragmentation when there are seven different official versions of the movie in existence.

None of this is mentioned to denigrate the film itself, but to show the folly of trying to stratify creative expression or remove the necessary component of influence from artistic creation. And it is strange that Lanier would even attempt to impose a stratification of creativity when he opposes such rigidity in other areas, specifically musical expression. Lanier expresses a vehement opposition to MIDI sequencing on the grounds that the process of expressing musical notes digitally robs them of the transient expressions between notes. This is a dubious assertion at best, as the best MIDI synthesizers today would likely pass a makeshift Turing Test where listeners would be unable to distinguish them from a real instrument.

But it is just that idea of any digital device passing a Turing Test that Lanier is most up in arms about, as he seems certain that artificial intelligence will never truly be able to express itself as genuine intelligence. In fact, if you allow any non-biological entity to hypothetically convince you that it is alive and sentient, Lanier believes that your humanity has degraded. As sane as that sentiment might sound now, denying even the possibility that androids and other machines might one day argue for their own civil liberties (and be right to do so) seems more indicative of a degraded humanity ruled by novel prejudices and bigotries.

You Are Not Your Post-Symbolic Communication

To Lanier, subscribing to any notion that artificial intelligence might someday be reclassified as another sentient intelligence is a symptom of cybernetic totalism. Cybernetic totalism is seen by Lanier as a way to reduce all subjective experience to patterns, an offensive notion to someone who has continually belittled those online who blatantly emulate popular patterns in artistic expression. But asserting that certain types of pattern recognition or rearrangement could be considered inferior forms of creative expression is, if not a totalistic sentiment itself, at least borderline fascist in that it seeks to establish an objective ranking to art. Lanier’s approach to an authoritarian definition of subjective value is in opposition to Ray Kurzweil’s belief that subjective experience could never be definitively detected, and is therefore a meaningless concept to try and define for other people.

Subjectivity not being able to be defined is not the same as it not existing, however. Refusing to define subjective value for other people just allows any member of a population to make a personal choice of engaging with any art or technology they find to be worthwhile. But while an individual can opt out of any personally undesirable technological advancement as a moral choice, a population as a whole will change behaviors en masse based on capability, not moral imperative. If an online avatar allows one to obscure or outright transform identity, a large percentage of people who have access to technology that allows such identity transformation will use it if the right motivation exists, just as a majority of people now use mobile phones instead of landlines. Lanier’s attempted contribution to this modality is post-symbolic communication, a type of virtual reality morphing that would, for example, allow a person to express a concept of hunger through projecting an image of an empty stomach. At this time, however, there appears to be no demand or mainstream interest in this technology.

Much of Lanier’s criticisms of current electronic culture, both popular and technological, come across as sour grapes that his pet project of morphing has not taken off in popularity. He notes several times in his manifesto the failure of virtual reality to as of yet reach a popular acceptance to be an issue of timing. In this way, Lanier’s failure to achieve mainstream economic success can be seen not just as him missing the boat, but then repeatedly asserting that the boat is not going anywhere important, and anyway that boat looks too much like a boat I’ve seen before, and we should really be making a brand new boat (morphing). But there is nothing about Lanier’s passion for post-symbolic communication now that would prevent him from decrying it later, especially when people start using it to communicate in ways he does not like.