Thursday, May 20, 2010

yes you are....,

Video - Century of the Self There's a Policeman Inside.

Guardian | "You Are Not A Gadget", the new book by Silicon Valley luminary Jaron Lanier is, he says, fundamentally a book about spirituality. He is at pains to stress that humans are not machines, though the digital revolution has developed the habit of assuming we are. So, he advises, "We should assume supernatural specialness to people."

Supernatural? Specialness? Spirituality? It seems misplaced language for the man who coined the term "virtual reality" and is routinely included on lists of leading public intellectuals. Is it anything more than West Coast hippie-speak?

Lanier's central complaint can be stated in more humdrum terms: software design is, for the most part, dehumanising. Think of websites like this one. They routinely play host to trolls, individuals who post abuse behind veils of anonymity. Lanier believes the problem is not anonymity per se, which is sometimes necessary to protect people, but transient anonymity, which removes the personal consequences of posting. He does not mean that people should be fined for, say, threatening an airport with destruction. He means that anonymous posters collude with a web 2.0 culture that doesn't treat people as people, but as the mindless generators of fragments of stuff.

"Don't post anonymously unless you really might be in danger," he advises, because you dehumanise yourself too. And it must be a principled stance you take. Everyone has an "inner troll". No-one, given the right circumstances, can otherwise resist the pleasures of "drive-by anonymity". It's a serious issue, he believes. Two factors came together to allow the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany: economic humiliation and adherence to a collectivist ideology. "We already have the ideology in its new digital packaging, and it's entirely possible we could face dangerously traumatic economic shocks in the coming decades."

Indeed, the new ideology is already entrenched. Web 2.0 culture is embedded in the most celebrated internet phenomena of our times: Open source, Wikipedia, Facebook. Wikipedia, for example, aims to be a single book containing all knowledge. It lacks the context that informs reader discernment, and the authorship that informs reader trust. Compare that with a lesson of history: societies that follow a single book are totalitarian. "Any singular, exclusive book, even the collective one accumulating in the cloud, will become a cruel book if it is the only one available." Our civilisation is built on libraries and authors, not portals and fragments. Web 2.0 puts both of the former under threat.

Or consider Facebook. It segments people: you're defined by your relationship status, gender, age, location and so on. More importantly still, you have no option other than to present yourself in ways the interface allows. Again, that's dehumanising. You are locked-in by the design – and this is a site used by 40% of all internet users, and counting.

At base, what Lanier believes technologists distrust are notions of quality, of meaning, of mystery. They believe the reductionist models of consciousness that sees the brain as a computer. This has two consequences. First, it interprets experience is the processing of bits, which means "you hope to become immortal by getting uploaded onto a computer." Second, it treats people as computers too, who will one day be ousted by superior computers. "The ideology has encouraged narrow philosophies that deny the mystery of the existence of experience."

Individuals like Larry Page, one of Google's founders, expect the internet to come alive quite soon, Lanier reports. (Google's website already says it was "brought … to life in September 1998.") Such personal details could be ignored as eccentricities, except that the people who hold them wield power. Their missionary preference for machinism over humanism is imposing limits on the world in which we live. "If a church or a government were doing these things, it would feel authoritarian, but when technologists are the culprits, we seem hip, fresh, and inventive."

He's no Luddite. Rather, "Enlightened designers leave open the possibility either of metaphysical specialness in humans or in the potential for unforeseen creative processes that aren't explained by ideas like evolution that we already believe we can capture in software systems." So, he prefers a mysterious view of life over a materialist one, not out of any prior metaphysical conviction, but simply because it works – works in terms of enlarging, not restricting, our humanity. It's a pragmatic advocacy of a religious attitude to life, and no doubt shaped by his Californian context. But it's a strikingly religious attitude, no less.