THE CONSTRAINED GENIUS OF JARON LANIER

The emergence of every human being is constrained, including geniuses.  The unfolding of genome in settings/situations is strongly influenced by inherent creativity and chance encounters.

I first encountered the writings of Jaron Lanier during his virtual reality phase and was highly impressed by his unique and insightful perspectives. I read all his articles I encountered, but I didn’t search for them. I read YOU ARE NOT A GADGET, and just finished WHO OWNS THE FUTURE?  This latter book reinforces both my positions on Lanier, both genius and constrained. However, I don’t feel I adequately “know” Jaron or his whole worldview.

In that I don’t view myself as a genius of Lanier’s level, how can I claim to see him as he doesn’t see himself. It maybe partly due to the mix of disabilities and talents that make me an unrecognized savant.  It is not in his domains of genius that I critique Lanier. It is from my talents that I am sensitive to a distribution of “qualities” in everyone – where they are weak and where they are strong – of course, relative to my own (limited) perspective. It is quite possible that I am mistaken in some of my assessments of Jaron Lanier.

My reading of WOTF occurred in two reads, as I had to return the book to the library only partly read. Months intervened between readings. Also, my book reading is now limited to a few minutes each night prior to sleep. I will make no attempt here to summarize Lanier’s insights as his concrete examples and related stories are critical to his perspectives.

Jaron has a clear sense of change and the “future”. He is not prone to “presentism” (which abandons clear sense of futures) as described by Doug Rushkoff in his book, Present Shock.  I started reading Rushkoff and Lanier at the same time; chosing to finish Rushkoff first and later return to Lanier. Their contrasting takes of “future” was enlightening.

I was impressed by Lanier being consulted by many significant persons and organization in the history of computing. His genius was recognized, even if not agreed with. He has always been a “conscience” of the computer network and was willing to speak his mind, although always polite and non aggressive (my interpretation).

Jaron, the very competent computer geek was always embedded in his other interests, primarily music – which led him into economics as related to marketing creative products. This is the underlying theme of WOTF, first with a sharp critique of the dangers of “Siren Servers” and his proposed alternative: humanist economics or (Ted)Nelsonomics.

Ted Nelson was seminal in my early introduction to computers in the early 1980s and I was familiar with Nelson’s Xanadu projects – which I saw as bringing an unrecognized “efficiency” to digital composing and less a marketing alternative.

Lanier’s analysis of “Siren Servers” presented a totally new perspective to me which enlarged my views on economics and marketing. Lanier remains embedded in “capitalism”, whereas I view his critique as another argument against “econo-centrism”.  Lanier is rather traditional in his critique of “education”, partly due to the blinders set by his econo-centrism.

I was very excited to see Lanier almost proposing a SEAF system that I generalized from Zuboff’s The Support Economy. In the section, “When Will Decisions Be Made?” (pages 269-271 in WOTF).  Lanier proposes, as part of his humanist economy, a DECSION REDUCTION SERVICE – that persons can use to varying degrees.  It appears Lanier has not yet recognized Zuboff. Some selected quotes:

  •     It would be humanly impossible for a person to constantly make all the decisions needed in an advanced information economy.
  •     Any desirable alternative economic future must include an idea about a user interface that brings at least as much simplicity to people as acquiescing to a Siren Server does today. This means reducing the density of decisions people are expected to make to a level that leaves cognitive room to live life in free and creative ways.
  •     Imagine a future industry of “decision reduction” what would be (Gasp!) regulated so as to remain unaligned with other services. You’d chose a decision reduction service the way you choose a broker now. The decision reduction service would use its particular style and competence to create bundles of decisions you could accept or reject en masse. You could switch to other services without penalty at any time. Such services would be prohibited from having conflicts of interest. That is the proper place for regulation.
  •     This idea is a generalization of many familiar ideas from antitrust to network neutrality.
  •     Just like a personal assistant, a certain sort of person might be effective and happy reducing the choice space for others. In other cases, delegation to a huge decision reduction cloud service worth hundreds of billions of dollars might be the best choice for a particular customer. …  In a world of thorough and honest accounting, whole new large classes of service professions should naturally pop up. …  Once a humanist economy gets going, I imagine that accounting will suddenly become an interesting job.
  •     New careers as fresh as these, or beyond my imagination, should be appearing already, but the Sirenic pattern shuts down that kind of progress.
  •     in a humanistic economy, I suppose that a big life choice would be how much attention to devote to one’s information transactions.
  •     This argument is neither anticorporate nor redistributionist. The test of success ought to be that both the big players and individuals do better in a growing economy .. there ought to be big corporations doing big jobs without necessarily having to become Siren Servers.

As the above implies, Lanier hasn’t applied his insights to “corporations in general” and IMO is naive to the realities of effectively countering “psychopaths on top”.  His analysis of economics appears locked into the focus of how individuals can thrive in a economy and seems to avoid the “power” issues of “bigness”.  However, I agree with Lanier that a pure bottom-up process is also naive. I believe that Big Issues can be managed reesee without Big Organizations. “Top-down” activity need not be limited to a few elites; we need governance systems not governments.

Lanier’s core analysis of economic change (greatly enhanced by digital technologies) is that creators/producers no longer can live off their work. Those organizations that distribute their work get the money. He calls these “Siren Servers” because they attract both creators and consumers to them and they become dependent/addicted on them. The demand for FREE ACCESS by consumers is the siren call. Nelsonomics is an alternative where there is no copying (everyone can buy access to the “original”) and micro-purchases are managed in the cloud.

Lanier’s comments on the strong interest in “Singularity” and variations of “Longevity” by many computer people made me see them not a fads. That these talented persons live in worlds where these “fantasies” (to me) are not only very real, but eminent, leads me to a reality check. In another time and setting they may be as dangerous as “fundamentalists” are today – demanding that their reality be accepted by all.

Conceptualizing the future, Lanier speculates on how his proposed humanist economy may come to be. Here I find him rather traditional in his suggestions for transformation – although he, at least, is thinking at this level. He lists and then comments on six “actors who might show up for an audition” (page 341) :

  •     A thousand geeks
  •     Startups
  •     Traditional governments, central banks, etc.
  •     Multiplicities of Siren Servers
  •     Facebook or similar
  •     Confederacies or Just a few Giant Siren Servers

In his discussion of these actors Jaron concludes that for each to succeed would require running “The Miracle’s Gauntlet” (page 336). I sense that Lanier’s family of alternative futures doesn’t include the critical negative scenarios that worry so many of us. He appears to have faith in the cycles of human history continuing for centuries. In his humanist economy proposal (which may be quite feasible for Humanity after UPLIFT) he really stretches his imagination. But, typical to so many visionaries, he fails to apply his imagination to other relevant domains.

I have very high respect for Jaron Lanier. I speculate on what it would be like to dialog with Jaron on these issues.

Author: nuet

01/24/1935. BS-physics RPI 1956; MS-physics UofChicago 1958; PhD-physics Yale 1965; PhD-Edu Psy Uof MInnesota 1970. Auroral Research Byrd Station, Antarctica 11/1960-02/1962. MINNEMAST curriculum dev 1964-68. Woodstock. faculty Pima Community College, Tucson 1974-1997. Transdisciplinary scientist, philosopher, educator, futurist, activist. PC user since 1982. "Wife". daughter, 2 grandsons. 5 dogs & 7 cats. Lacks mental imagery in all sensory domains.