At SXSWi: Jaron Lanier goes against the flow
There was no missing Jaron Lanier at SXSWi in Austin. He's one of the most revered legends in the tech and computer science community, a pioneer of the digital age who played a central role in developing virtual reality as a term, a concept and, well, a reality. And he's a physically imposing figure, a large man with long dreads playing on the Laotian instrument called a kaen.
But one on one, he's disarming. Lanier is all about shrinking the distance between people and challenging expectations. As an early adopter and booster of the Internet, it's easy to assume that SXSWi is his natural environment. Yet he looks and feels slightly out of place in its triumphant, depersonalized atmosphere. His new book, "You Are Not a Gadget," is a stern critique of the world he and his colleagues helped bring into existence. He offers up something not typically discussed at the Austin festival -- the darker side of Web 2.0.
He pulls few punches, going after Google, Facebook, Twitter, the noosphere, Wikipedia, Creative Commons, Silicon Valley. But these are mere symptoms of our true modern ailment: the hive mind. What pains Lanier more than anything else is that we squander the promise of the original World Wide Web. Instead we relinquish control and imagination to a few "monster sites" in the cloud.
It's that mindset that Lanier is trying to shake people out of with his book. To remind them that there is a choice between the Maoist freedom of open culture (give the music away so you can market the T-shirt) and Rupert Murdoch's imperial consumerism (pay you must, create you must not). Both options, Lanier argues, insult human potential and leave us all in the same position, impoverished "lumpen" -- marginal and disenfranchized.
The Internet was supposed to bring much more; Lanier says it's not too late to revive its creative potential, before social networks make us addicted to "followers" and Google gets rich off of our data. In his talk, he joked that today the National Security Agency could privatize and set up business as an ad agency. Lanier argues for a third way, inspired by the Internet's first visionary, Ted Nelson. Nelson created a proto-Web in 1960 called Xanadu that simplified the user's experience. One password and fee to enter the world, and one logical copy of each file, instead of the endless file sharing that clogs our bandwidth and cheapens the discourse.
I asked him if he was worried about the discourse at the festival and the reaction to his ideas. "Maybe two months ago before the book was officially out," he said, going on to say that he has been surprised by the "astonishingly warm reception" from the very community he criticizes.
I asked him about some of the publishing panel's predictions for the future, that authors will have to become better self-promoters and publishers Hollywood-style development offices. That unrelenting advertisement and pursuit of followers saddened Lanier a little bit. "Writing and thinking is not economically sustainable," he said. Authors may survive only through "long tail distribution," he mused. "But if it requires you to be a master politician, then your writing becomes political." He worries about the loss of individual voice with a crowd-sourced book, just another mash-up in a Wikipedia world where "everything loses meaning."
He found hope, though, in the panel's suggestion that publishers may finally make an end run around the traditional intermediaries of the business and reach out more directly to readers. For Lanier, everything comes down to human contact. His answer to my question about what role a publisher plays today shocked me enormously. "Even if no distribution function existed in publishing," he said, "there is value in their particulars as people."
When it was time for him to leave for his talk, a SXSWi escort gave him two placards for the podium, one with his name, the other with the Twitter hashtag. Lanier took the second one and put it to the side and ever so quietly (and politely) said: "I think I will ask the audience to shut down the tweeting during the discussion. I'd like them to try it as an experiment in alternate consciousness."
The escort said that was the first such request she was aware of at the festival. Then she smiled and looked relieved. "Good for you."
After three days and more than 24 hours of jargon, PowerPoint, and panel discussions, Jaron Lanier had suggested something no one else dared say in Austin: that this whole endeavor is nothing more than the people who create it. And then he asked all those people to quiet their offline conversations and engage with the people in the room.
-- Peter Miller
Photo: Jaron Lanier at SXSWi in Austin, Texas. Credit: Peter Miller