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Vaulting into a Rapturous techno-future with Jaron Lanier

VR inventor on memes, and the blandness of digital culture

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So why are people at this conference so obsessed with the 'meme', we wondered. When he coined the term, Dawkins was groping for a cultural analogy for his gene-eyed view of evolution, where ideas or theories are replicated and survive according to some measure of cultural 'fitness'.

In Darwin Wars Andrew Brown described how the idea owes more to syllogism than observation: it's a delightful pub game for five minutes that disintegrates when serious thought is applied. To believe in the 'meme', you must simply follow the patterns and reject notions of how and why ideas are accepted by real people, let alone how and why people transform them. Or as philosopher Mary Midgley put it in one of her epic clashes with Dawkins:

"So, apparently, if we want to study (say) dances, we should stop asking what dances do for people and should ask only what they (dances) do for themselves. We shall no longer ask to what particular human tastes and needs they appeal, how people use them, how they are related to the other satisfactions of life, what feelings they express or what needs cause people to change them, Instead, presumably, we shall ask why dances, if they wanted a host, decided to parasitize people rather than elephants or octopuses. This is not an easy question to answer…"

Lanier's summary of this robotic view of culture is even more succinct:

"The 'meme' is what's left of ideas when you remove the sense of experience, and so the 'meme' is a way of saying ideas are nothing more than relativistic game theory moves," he says.

"That's absolutely, demonstrably, not so in some specific areas like mathematics where things are true and false. But I don't think it's so where life has experience and experience gives us an alternate anchor point. An inexperienced life can only be made a 'meme'.

Perhaps charitably, we can conclude that a lot of people say meme when they really mean to say 'idea' or 'theme' and are simply looking for a voguish, or fashionable way of saying it, and are quite unaware of the discredited philosophical baggage that comes with it. Many memesters who use Macintosh computers would surely reject the notion that say Mac OS X chose them.

Hive Mind the gap

So what of the 'hive mind', this other great hallucination du jour, much beloved by internet evangelists from John Perry Barlow on?

Although collective action has been an accepted form of legitimacy for hundreds of years, it's striking how absent the word 'collective' is from technological narratives. In fact the only place you'll see the word is when it's adjacent to the word 'mind'. Telepathic bloggers are full of it. Er, mad, or what?

Lanier allows himself an extended chuckle.

Sims creator Will Wright and Jaron Lanier at Accelerating Change 2004"The Collective Mind is an interesting one with ancient roots, less so in the west. Confucius talks about it, clearly, and Adam Smith inaugurated it in the west.

"My feeling is that there are a lot of crummy minds around. The Collective Mind has to be evaluated like any other mind: it will be good at some things and poor at other things. The way it's talked about as a given, that it's always right, is very questionable. That it deserves respect is very, very questionable. And that it deserves some metaphysical status is just ridiculous (chuckles)"

Not to mention the idea that some people are uniquely qualified to tell us what it's saying…

"Heh, absolutely! Some people are collective soothsayers of the collective mind!"

And then again - why should there only be one? Surely there's space for a Red Mind and a Blue Mind? As I'm from the North of England, I confidently assert the value of a Northern Mind over the Southern Mind. All of which leaves us exactly, where? There's no doubting the sincerity behind a lot of techno utopian waffle, but as both Will Davies and Ted Byfield pointed out at my recent Harvard panel, much of the motivation is to skate around the causes of the real problems rather tackle the causes.

The problem with techno utopians, said Byfield "isn't so much a naïve question of people waiting on mountain tops for Christ to descend from heaven; rather, it's a more micro form of utopianism that operates through a tendency to think in terms of blank slates. When Americans 'try again,' they forget that the initial or existing conditions that led to, or derive from, failure are scratched. But that's not true." It's always a new frontier out here.

So maybe we can see the internet fanatics' Hive Mind as a desire for religion without all the messy baggage that religion comes associated with. Online has always been a promiscuous communications medium: it's easy to step on and step off, so you can vomit over someone and leave without facing the consequences. It's why the internet has great flame wars and lousy discussions. Perhaps online is doomed to attract fluffy thinking, too, although that can't explain why it attracts such Panglossian fantasies as the 'blogosphere' and Wikipedia. (The Wikipedia is the open-to-all reference source that's as good as its last entry. It was started and is sustained by Ayn Rand nuts, and frankly it reads like it; but it has yet to feature on the evangelicals' radar: which is when the fun will really start).

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