Saw Jaron Lanier on Newsnight last night, adding some sensible wider persepectives to a debate on ways of filtering internet porn, and was reminded of how interesting his ideas have been over the last twenty years or so.
Lanier is a virtual reality programmer and internet activist from way back. He looks like a dreadlocked Buddha (on Newsnight like a dreadlocked Buddha who has let himself go a bit), but that shouldn’t undermine his authority (actually, for me, it probably enhances it).
His recent (2010, 2011) book You Are Not a Gadget (here’s the book on Amazon.uk*)is a fascinating discussion of the social and philosophical implications of the particular ways we have chosen to structure computer systems. The basic idea is that particularly successful systems, like the World Wide Web, the mouse and windows interface, MIDI, and the UNIX operating system, both structure our reality and lock us in to those systems, pre-empting other ways of doing things (and therefore pre-empting other ways of thinking about things – and maybe pre-empting other ways of being) . The installed base/lock-in problem isn’t a new phenomenon which appeared with computing. Other examples are the qwerty typewriter/keyboard layout (did you know it was originally designed to slow down typing, but repeated attempts to introduce faster, easier-to-use systems have been complete failures – because too many people know how to do it the qwerty way?), and the steering wheel/two or three pedals way of controlling motor vehicles (actually, probably quite a good system, from what we know about multi-tasking, but probably the result of a few technological accidents 100+ years ago). These things aren’t just technology and design issues, though: they can have psychological and social implications, which is why I’m discussing his book here. One section is headed “Digital Reification: Lock-in Turns Philosophy into Reality”, which sums up the starting idea of the book well, I think.
Here’s Lanier’s opening statement about the book:
You Are Not a Gadget argues that certain specific, popular Internet designs of the moment – not the Internet as a whole – tend to pull us into life patterns that gradually degrade the ways in which each of us exists as an individual. These unfortunate designs are more orientated towards treating people as relays in a global brain. De-emphasising personhood, and the intrinsic value of an individual’s unique internal experience and creativity, leads to all sorts of maladies, many of which are explored in these pages. While the core argument might be described as “spiritual,” there are also profound political and economic implications.
And here’s something about the mechanisms of how it affects us:
The most important thing about a technology is how it changes people
When I work with experimental digital gadgets, like new variations on virtual reality, in a lab environment, I’m always reminded of how small changes in the details of the digital design can profound unforeseen effects on the experiences of the humans who are playing with it. The slightest change in something as seemingly trivial as the ease of use the button can sometimes completely altered behaviour patterns.
For instance, Stanford University researcher Jeremy Bailenson has demonstrated that changing the height of one’s avatar in immersive virtual reality transforms self-esteem and social self-perception. [Here’s the publications page at Bailenson’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford: interesting stuff. Specific refs at ** below] Technologies are extensions of ourselves, and, like the avatars in Jeremy’s lab, our identities can be shifted by the quirks of gadgets. It is impossible to work with information technology without also engaging in social engineering.
One might ask, “If I am blogging, twittering, and wikiing a lot, how does that change who I am?” or “if the ‘hive mind’ is my audience, who am I?” Inventors of digital technologies are like stand-up comedians or neurosurgeons, in that our work resonates with the philosophical questions; unfortunately, we’ve proven to be poor philosophers lately.
When developers of digital technologies design a program that requires you to interact with a computer as if it were a person, they ask you to accept in some corner of your brain that you might also be conceived of as a program. When they design an Internet service that is edited by vast anonymous crowd, they are suggesting that a random crowd of humans is an organism with a legitimate point of view.
Different media designs stimulate different potentials in human nature. We shouldn’t seek to make the pack mentality as efficient as possible. We should instead seek to inspire the phenomenon of individual intelligence.
“What is a person?” If I knew the answer to that, I might be able to program an artificial person in a computer. But I can’t. Being a person is not a passive formula, but the quest, a mystery, a leap of faith.
Now, I guess I might disagree with Lanier in believing that a random crowd of humans does have a legitimate point of view, at least a legitimate artistic/aesthetic point of view, as I argued in talking about the evolutionary view of traditional music, and so I’d go for more of a dialectic between the social/individual, because “inspiring individual intelligence” also seems a good idea. Lanier isn’t a swivel-eyed individualist, though:
A happy surprise
The rise of the web was a rare instance when we learned new, positive information about human potential. Who would have guessed (at least at first) that millions of people would put so much effort into a project without the presence of advertising, commercial motive, threat of punishment, charismatic figures, identity politics, exploitation of the fear of death, or any of the other classic motivators of mankind. In vast numbers, people did something cooperatively solely because it was a good idea, and it was beautiful.
Some of the more wild-eyed eccentrics in the digital world and guessed it would happen – but even so it was a shock when it actually did come to pass. It turns out that even an optimistic, idealistic philosophy is realisable. Put a happy philosophy of life in software, and it might very well come true!
It’s an interesting book. You might want to read it.
Lanier, Jaron (2010, 2011) You Are Not a Gadget: a manifesto Alfred Knopf, 2010; Penguin Books, 2011 (‘with updated material’)
*Remember that you shouldn’t really be buying stuff from Amazon UK unless you’re a citizen of Luxembourg, where they pay their taxes.
**Yee, N. & Bailenson, J. (2007). The Proteus Effect: The effect of transformed self-representation on behavior. Human Communication Research, 33(3), 271-290.
Yee, N. Bailenson, J.N. & Ducheneaut, N. (2009). The Proteus effect: Implications of transformed digital self-representation on online and offline behavior. Communication Research, 36(2), 285-312. http://www.stanford.edu/~bailenso/papers/Proteus%20Implications.pdf
Here’s Nick Yee’s 2007 Doctoral Dissertation The Proteus Effect, which describes a range of similar effects: http://www.visuality.org/genderandtechnoculture/wmst320_readings/proteuseffect_Dissertation_Nick_Yee.pdf