Virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier started his Summit at Stanford keynote with something you never hear at a conference here in the Valley. “Don’t tweet this, don’t blog,” Lanier said to lead off his keynote. “Just
listen to what I say and think about what you hear; don’t just be a relay node. “
Lanier is one of the pioneers of virtual reality – in fact, it was he who coined the term. He was the main face of the cyberpunk era. As this was the time before the majority of people owned personal computers, Lanier’s televised demos of 3D environments controlled by a glove was the convergence of technology and the unknown that Arthur C. Clark labeled “indistinguishable from magic.”
3D environments are now common, and haptic devices are hitting the mainstream, so much of what Lanier was describing 20 years ago – things that seemed perhaps possible, but improbable -- is still just coming into fruition. The Peregrine glove is a direct descendent of the glove Lanier famously used in the 80’s to manipulate objects in his virtual environments.
But he’s not particularly impressed with where technology has gone, as the title of his keynote – like the title of his manifesto – You Are Not a Gadget, might lead you to guess.
“If someone had said to me 30 years ago that one day everything we were working for would lead to a new encyclopedia and a UNIX update . . . it’s like Groundhog’s Day,” Lanier said, arguing that contemporary internet culture is not leading to freedom, but its opposite.
“We think that we’re more decentralized, but we’re not," Lanier said. "This is an age of increased centralization. The ethic of this openness thing is that the internet is just a giant copying machine. If content is more free between people who are getting poorer and poorer while advertising is profiting off it, it’s really not free.”
During the last year, during which Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people, Lanier has become known for critiquing a priori Web 2.0 ideas like the wisdom of the crowd.
”The wisdom of the crowd works for setting markets and elections. It’s good for setting prices, but if you ask a crowd to invent something, to do something creative, you’re going to come up with mediocrity,” Lanier said. “John Lennon or Bob Dylan wouldn’t succeed on American Idol.” A statement a Frank Zappa fan might not agree with, but at least be sympathetic to.
Yes, Lanier tends to side with older (re: classical 1960's counterculture) ideas, for example the need of authority to dictate taste. If the wisdom of the crowd promotes mediocrity, it also pushes back the gatekeepers who have always defined culture, making innovative art and thought much easier to create and distribute, even if it never goes viral.
And he forgets that Lennon and Dylan were also mediocre.
But no matter what, Lanier's suggestion that the audience understand information before retransmitting it, and his argument that transparency must be free of ideology, are examples of the heady discussion Lanier prompted -- the commonsensical become heady in these days when marketing determines the Good and individuals internalize advertising concepts into psyche, transmuting themselves into brands.
"People wonder what Steve Jobs did when he was in India," Lanier said. "I don't think he went to study with a guru -- I think he studied how to become one, to learn how to get people to pay you a lot of money to tell them what to believe."