Vaulting into a Rapturous techno-future with Jaron Lanier
VR inventor on memes, and the blandness of digital culture
Interview To Stanford, where the annual gathering of extropians, futurists and other techno optimists swarms each year - in a self-organizing, bottom-up style - to the annual Accelerating Change conference. Most of us look to the future with large doses of trepidation and grim resignation tempering the love - but not these people. They want to fling themselves into the future with the resounding smack of flies hitting a windshield.
Sponsors of Accelerating Change must get eyestrain from squinting at the horizon. Last year's underwriters included "The Association of Professional Futurists", "Better Humans" and "Nano Apex"; and among the keynote speakers were Ray Kurtzweil, the Artifical Intelligence evangelist turned pill-peddler; Eric "Engines of Creation" Drexler; and, tugging on their coat tails, techie publisher Tim O'Reilly.
By day attendees "blog" their "memes", but by night, they dream of a future where man and silicon are indistinguishable and where neither an aging human body, nor incredibly buggy software, can pose any limitations to man's upward ascent. In other words, they're the kind of people who make Captain Cyborg, Kevin Warwick, look like a cantankerous Luddite.
Accelerating Change has been a source of fascination for your reporter since coming across a T-shirt from last year's event in a charity shop at the rougher end of San Francisco's Polk Street. Here, amongst the trannies and junkies and one dollar thrift stores, this T-shirt shone like a beacon. An artful graphic pointed skywards. I was reminded of the incredibly popular literary series Left Behind, based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, which describes how at the moment of the Rapture, the righteous ascend to heaven leaving only their clothes behind. Evidently, someone had attended Accelerating Change 2003 and vaulted themselves into the future!
I knew I simply had to attend the event - if only to see who would be vaulting into the future in 2005. I wondered if the registration form had a discreet tick box somewhere near the bottom, indicating that if all experiments went successfully, the organizers should not expecte the attendee to return. Perhaps it took the form of a coy smiley? Something like -
"[ ] see you there! ;-)"
So what better place to meet one of the most articulate critics of what he calls "cybernetic totalism", the inventor and musician Jaron Lanier. Jaron's best known as the pioneer of Virtual Reality, and a regular TV star a decade ago, but he's had what you can call a pretty full life. He dropped out of University aged 15, and his website boasts that "Lanier has no academic degrees." As a musician he's worked with Ornette Coleman, George Clinton and Terry Riley, but it's his critique of technological fantasies that drew us to the man.
He's assured enough of his status to poke fun at his friends Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, and still get invited back for tea. In speeches questions, satirically, if these proselytizers for the mechanistic, gene-eyed view of evolution are really not robots themselves. This he articulated in his most cited essay, Half A Manifesto. After the 2004 Election, it reads better than ever - especially his observation that scientism and religion have been poking fights with each other than they can't win.
"Cybernetic totalist Darwinians are often brazenly incompetent at public discourse and may be in part responsible, however unintentionally, for inciting a resurgence of fundamentalist religious reaction against rational biology," he wrote. "They seem to come up with takes on Darwin that are calculated to not only antagonize, but alienate those who don't share their views."
With the atheist and evangelical corners of the United States now staring at each other in a mutual state of fearful incomprehension, this seems particularly prophetic. The post-Enlightenment social contract that Stephen Jay Gould called NOMA, or non-overlapping magisteria, whereby science and religion agree to leave each other alone, seems to have been broken.
Neo-Darwinists have declared that we're just machines, and so all metaphysics is junk, and all our beliefs are a simple illusory machine state. While the evangelicals, who also know how to kick where it hurts, are now going after the science funding. Much older cultures who've found that religion is wholly compatible with scientific enquiry, such as India and China, are looking on this collapse with some wry amusement, as well as confidence. For the 85 per cent of the public in the West who are neither atheist nor evangelical, it's a catastrophe. For the United States in particular, which has defined its national identity on this agreeable division between the secular and the religious, it's beyond expletives.
But Lanier is oddly optimistic about a future that loves us, if only technology can provide "adventures of sufficient seductive beauty to seduce humanity away from mass-suicide". More positivist nonsense that caused the trouble in the first place? Let's find out.
"Is this recording?" he asks, as your reporter pokes optimistically at a Symbian phone. "Oh, it'll fuck up! It's digital and digital things suck."
"The blandness of digital culture is a problem. It's believed that experience isn't anything really special. And it undervalues things that are subjective. So the world of aesthetics starts to become ignored, or rebelled against, or rationalized, or just handled very poorly so you get this feeling to digital culture of hyperblandness. Everything has a blurring into everything else, and nothing has an identity or flavor."
He'd made the joke in the past, one with a serious purpose, that perhaps Daniel Dennett is just a robot.
"That's a puzzle I've made up: that some of the folks around actually don't have any internal experience, and there's no way of telling whether they do or they don't!"
"Experience is the only metaphysical data point that we have. It's there for me and it can't be reduced to an illusion - some epistemological channel. It doesn't imply religious beings or survival after death are true; but there's something going on there: it's a very legitimate thing. So it surprises me when people totally dismiss experience with logical explanations because they don't happen to have that internal experience themselves. Are they actually lifeless automatons? Dan Dennett, could be … Richard Dawkins, who knows?"
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.
"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).
So why the objection to the C- word, then, Jaron? Is it simply forgetfulness?
"There's a strong libertarian feeling to the cybernetic culture. But only up to a point: I don't see them turning down government research grants, particularly."
At this point we turned into a discussion of the dangers of gloop-headed internet thinking: the Madrid bombing which perhaps could have been averted if the FBI didn't a) have such faith in their digital fingerprint technology (which turned out to give a false positive) and their six-degrees, Friendster-style social software. The combination of the two arrested the wrong man.
But back to the collective: aren't there so many things we need to act collectively to fix, so that talking about augmentation and living forever, as people are at this conference, sounds extremely selfish.
"I think there's another way to frame this. To do it as a competition between selfishness and service orientation among people with religious or transcendent feelings, either cybernetic or Christian.
"We're living in very selfish times, where Islamists ask people what their religion is before shooting them. But at the same time, if what we have is a Christian government, how can we have malnourished children in the richest country in history? How can it call itself Christian at the same time? So there's a shifting sense of what religion is.
"I'm concerned profoundly that part of the problem is actually the rhetoric of the technical world - scientists proclaiming they’ve captured or refined or controlled some aspect of what life is.. These Frankenstein claims are always being made by people in AI or genetics research, or people working on medical technology. They're not necessarily maliciously made, they're designed to draw attention to improve their chances of claims for funding. But it's created a panic for many people."
"I don't think people worry about 'the singularity', but a changing world view in which there isn't a soul anymore, and where technologists seem to have the only legitimacy. I often ask 'Why are we picking this fight?'"
"Our survival really depends on making metaphysical belief in a technological age: the future has to be kind to everybody."
And with the clock ticking down to Jaron's speech we ended there, and decided to check out the self-selecting Tomorrow's People. "Check that out!" exclaimed Jaron, on the way up to the main conference hall. "The Extropians have forced out the Catholics. There'll be hell to pay!"
Indeed so. On a Sunday, too.
Inside, upright men in grey polo necks who could probably crack walnuts with their sphincters mingled impatiently with scruffy bloggers. To ward off evil demons, your reporter had chosen to wear the most entropic image he could find - an Idler badge, featuring that king of the garden: the heroic snail. It was safe to mingle. What was the vibe of Accelerating Change 2004, we wondered?
"To be honest, it's not as good as last year," one attendee told me. The big sponsors from 2003 didn't seem to be there. The Association of Professional Futurists had gone, perhaps catapulting themselves into the future, and Better Human had, alas, found Better Things For A Humans To Do.
It was all rather a waste for Christine Paterson of the Future Institute, who had come all the way from Palo Alto to deliver a talk entitled "Leaping the Abyss: Putting Group Genius to Work". The geniuses had better things to do than listen to Christine.
The marquee sponsors had gone, but the site did sport a couple of new wikis. Causing more excitement than any speaker was a head to head between a Roomba robot vacuum cleaner and a Segway scooter. The news had even made it on to Slashdot, and was in the words of one attendee, "Spectacular. Best fight of the year."
Several attendees regretted how, in the words of one, "last year there was much more emphasis on life extension".
So you see, the future is never what it used to be. Who wants to live forever, when the future means sitting through an endless succession of futurist conferences? Death beckons for even the boldest Extropian. There's nothing to be afraid of. ®