I had never heard of Jaron Lanier before I happened to, quite accidentally, surf my way to an interview of his. Lanier, I learnt, created (and coined the term) “virtual reality”, and developed many of the first implementations of VR, from multi-person virtual worlds (like Second Life), to surgical simulation, vehicle interior prototyping, and so on. In addition to being a computer scientist-cum-philosopher, he is a composer—with special interest in rare Asian wind and string instruments—and painter. He has worked as a goatherd and a midwife, and the nation of Palau (I looked it up, for reasons I will tell you later) has issued a postage stamp in his honour. In short, he is a rock star of the digital age.
He thinks the internet has been a total failure in what it set out to do.
This is his basic argument: Technological revolutions should create wealth, distribute it, and strengthen the middle class. But on the net (as personified by Google or Twitter or Facebook), the user is the product that is being sold to others, to be manipulated. While the user shares his heart and mind on the net, he has also been brainwashed to believe that he should not expect anything in return, other than abstract benefits of ego-boosting (you get 76 “likes’-s, you get retweeted, and you feel good). Whatever you search for on Google, whatever you tweet or comment on Facebook, is broken down into pure data about you, and that is sold to a third party (someone you are not necessarily aware of) who seeks to persuade you to part with some cash.
The obvious counter to Lanier’s grim view is that the net has empowered people in a way that has never happened before, allowing them to connect with human beings anywhere in the world, share views, buy cheaper, fight for causes. Lanier’s short answer to that is: Show me the money. You put your soul on the net, and it’s just data for Google or Facebook to make money on. And there’s no way you can even access the representation of you that the network is peddling; in fact “you” are not even a separate file, but a data phantom whose shape is constantly being changed by the correlative effects from all the other data that the network has on other users and their behaviour and choices.
We all remember the days when the net burst into our lives, and we all believed that common people having access to a gigantic global network would lead to tremendous benefits, from personal liberty to higher earnings. But a couple of decades—and net 2.0—later, those who control the networks have become wealthy beyond their own wildest dreams, while those who populate the networks have gained little in economic terms. And surely, the fact that for global finance, the entire world had become network data to be churned and manipulated, with no real connection to anything human, was one of the reasons of the sheer catastrophic scale of the 2008 collapse.
If you are just a data point on a bank of servers owned by smart people driven by the profit motive, are you more free than you were before? A century from now, could The Matrix become reality?
Lanier sees that as a distinct possibility—the alternative being a mass uprising of net users that’ll drive the servers crazy with unpredictable consequences. The only way to avoid these two disastrous scenarios, he believes, is to “monetize what people do with their hearts and brains. What we have to do to create liberty in the future is to monetize more and more…in particular…what ordinary people do.”
Well, that’ll take a long time to become reality. In the meantime, I looked up Palau on Google, and kept clicking on links that took me randomly away across the net. From the wiki on Palau, I clicked on ”Yughur captives in Guantanamo”, from there on “Munich”, to “Viktualienmarkt”, to ”Shrove Tuesday”, to “Methodist”, to “William Hogarth”, to “Freemason”, to “forget-me-not” to “God”. That should confuse the damn networks. Now if a million people did something like this for fifteen minutes a day for a year (and you can open multiple windows on your screen and institute separate random searches on them simultaneously), our data wouldn’t be so easy to manipulate, would it? Confound the datamasters. They can’t handle randomness.