Tech guru Jaron Lanier prophesies a chilling virtual reality

In this doomsday interview, the maverick innovator warns that when a society values technology above humanity, it is quickly leaving the path of democracy

Jaron Lanier (photo credit: Jonathan Sprague)
Jaron Lanier (photo credit: Jonathan Sprague)

LONDON — In 1965 Gordon E. Moore, who later became one of the co-founders of Intel, wrote a paper describing the breakthrough mankind had reached in the area of Information Technology.

According to Moore, the number of microcomponents that could be placed in a microchip doubled every two years, and that trend was likely to continue for the next decade.

This theory — which became known in the tech world as Moore’s Law — turned out to be so accurate, that today it is still a guiding principle in Silicon Valley. The general consensus is that advanced technology equates to human progress, enlightenment, and wealth.

Moore was spot on with his theory, except that he made one error of judgment: He predicted the growth of technology would slow down after ten years. But nearly half a century later, this deceleration process doesn’t seem to be happening.

I’ve spent about twenty minutes pondering the pros and cons of Moore’s Law when Jaron Lanier finally arrives. Lanier bypasses the usual stereotypes one might fit for a top ranked computer nerd: Dressed in black and with a wave of dreadlocks, he looks like he could easily front a groovy reggae band if given the chance —  which, for such an accomplished and versatile amateur musician, wouldn’t be much of a stretch.

We sit in a private lounge in a hotel on the Strand in central London and I begin by asking him if there is any scientific basis behind this extraordinary achievement of advancing computers?

“I think there is some ambiguity with regards to Moore’s Law,” Lanier tells The Times of Israel.

“It’s highly fashionable to think of this improvement as being intrinsic to the technology itself. But ultimately, Moore’s Law is really just a set of achievements that [human beings] set for themselves. It’s like we have declared it a law of nature — even though it isn’t — and we have somehow just risen to the occasion.”

‘The only one left standing at some future date is the owner of the largest computer on the network’

“It’s really just about how extraordinary human achievement can be if we simply insist: this is what we will do. That makes it seem like an awful shame because there are so many things that we probably could achieve [in this world] but we don’t, because we fail to take a similar approach [to human affairs] as we do with technology.”

This human tragedy that Lanier speaks about is the topic up for discussion in his new book, “Who Owns The Future?” — a sort of doomsday prophecy for a world that values technology above humanity.

However, as a computer scientist, Lanier has spent his entire career pushing the transformative power of modern technology to its limits. He even coined the phrase “Virtual Reality.” His technological research has been linked with UC Berkeley, Microsoft, and Google.

The maverick innovator/musician/author was born in New York City in 1960, and raised in Mesilla, New Mexico. His mother was a Holocaust survivor who originally came from Vienna. She died in a car accident in 1969.

Lanier was brought up as a secular Jew and describes his parents as “liberal-crazy-bohemians.” Even in such an environment, however, Lanier maintains that he received a very nurtured education.

‘A key concept for any functioning society is that people are real, and they do exist’

He suggests that this attention to detail could be a characteristic Jewish parents inherit from their own cultural history. It might also help to explain, he says, why Jews have featured so prominently in intellectual, economic, and creative public life, in American society over the last century.

“Because so many Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and in pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia — there weren’t that many children who survived,” says Lanier.

“[In the Jewish context] when only a few people from a family survive, parents have this special feeling whenever new children come along. I think that created — especially in mid-century-America — a generation of very nurtured Jews who were really orientated towards success. That’s my best explanation for it. I mean we can’t start believing a doctrine that says Jews are cleverer than other people.”

Lanier may appear to have a personal disdain toward Silicon Valley corporations. But the reality is that he is part of the very system he criticizes — a point he reiterates several times throughout our interview.

If Lanier is one of the few intellectuals from within Silicon Valley who is willing to discuss the power structures of the world’s biggest tech companies, it’s because, he believes, there is too much for them to lose if they even begin this conversation.

To do so would mean giving back the civil liberties they have slowly taken away from the two billion existing Internet users on this planet.

‘In this high-tech world, we don’t really acknowledge the reality of people’

The best way we can, as a global community, reclaim our data  — and make sure we don’t slide into drastic poverty as class divides worsen, and technological capabilities increase — is to at least begin a discourse around this subject, he claims.

It’s only then can we begin to aim for a society that values human beings, as well as machines, says Lanier.

“A key concept for any functioning society is that people are real, and they do exist. If you don’t start from that point of view, it’s hard to imagine creating a world that serves people at all, because you are not even acknowledging them to begin with.

“In this high-tech world, we don’t really acknowledge the reality of people. Society then becomes run on the principle that people are not important, but rather part of this huge meta-organism. “

In short, his argument is that as technology has become more advanced, so too has our dependency on information tools. As our economy is becoming increasingly reliant on accumulating wealth through knowledge, rather than making physical things, Lanier says those with the biggest networks are becoming extremely wealthy — mainly by selling our personal information to advertisers — while the rest of the population is being left behind.

‘Nearly every existing job will be weakened because of cloud software’

This hegemony is being maintained by creating an illusion that websites such as Facebook, Google and Twitter are free.

Lanier claims that a very small elite profits enormously from our usage of these sites, as we use them to forge our identities in the virtual world.

A failure to recognize this will result in a demise of democratic societies, massive unemployment levels, the complete destruction of the middle class, and unprecedented social chaos, Lanier suggests.

“[Very soon] nearly every existing job will be weakened because of cloud software. The only one left standing at some future date is the owner of the largest computer on the network,” he says.

Lanier has come up with a simple formula to prevent such a catastrophe from happening: monetize information, and put a legal protection on people’s data, and intellectual property rights. Such a move, he claims, would create a more egalitarian society, which would still adhere to the principals of a free market economy.

Has this power grab for data made its way into governmental departments around the globe? And should we be worried that it could threaten democratic principles as we currently recognize them?

“If you have the biggest computer and the biggest data, you can calculate how to target people with a political message, and have almost a guaranteed deterministic level of success,” says Lanier. “Politics then becomes about who has the biggest computer. The way Obama won the last US election was by having the best computer strategy.

“If that is to be the future of politics, it will no longer have meaning. The path we are currently on now is not compatible with democracy.”

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