Lanier fears societal implications of technology

BY RYAN THOMAS ’14
Contributing Writer

Jaron Lanier visited campus for three different events Thursday: a Common Hour lecture, a Q&A with students, and a panel discussion. These talks provided a forum for Lanier to express his views on computers and how society uses them.

Lanier has been working on computers since the ’80s and is often credited with inventing the term “virtual reality” during his pioneering work in the field. His claims to fame are multiple and varied, as his multiple careers include computer science, music, writing, video games; the list goes on.

Lanier’s influence was vital in the creation of early virtual reality systems: the helmet-and-glove systems that were popular in the late ’80s and early ’90s. More recently, he helped to develop the Xbox Kinect system.

In 2010 he wrote a book entitled You Are Not a Gadget. Subtitled A Manifesto by one of Lanier’s editors, it jumps from topic to topic with ease — a shift in subject from octopi to philosophical zombies happens in about two pages — as the book communicates a wide array of insights, intuitions, and opinions concerning computer culture. Lanier’s talks were similarly broad in scope, but the general theme was the ways in which technology is changing people and the very real potential for deeply negative changes.

“When you apply computation to yourself you kind of lose your moorings,” Lanier said.

Lanier says there is a widespread notion that computers can someday be people —  that at some point of complexity, artifice will give way to intelligence, and a new species will be born. From his point of view, this idea is patently ridiculous. Consciousness, a term which he says has been “colonized” by such thinkers as Daniel Dennett to mean something other than what Lanier intends, in his own tongue-in cheek words, “some dualistic weird mystic spooky thing,” cannot be had by machines. The very fact that the word must be redefined in order to apply it to machines, Lanier notes, proves his point.

But this notion has proved popular and persistent, and the effects, Lanier speculates, could be dire.

In his book, he brings up the idea of “philosophical zombies,” creatures that are inseparable in appearance from normal humans but have no internal experience. He is only very slightly joking — or perhaps, entirely serious — when he then worries that we might indeed become such zombies over time.

“There is one measurable difference between a zombie and a person: a zombie has a different philosophy,” Lanier said.

If, he cautions, in our more and more computer-driven lives, people continue to believe that fundamental human characteristics are illusory, they may someday make them so — perhaps through sheer thought or through some mass-suicide-via-brain-uploading.

“We might be able to collectively achieve anti-magic,” Lanier worries.

This disturbing prophecy forms the basis of Gadget and, in turn, Lanier’s Common Hour lecture. Later that evening, professors from four departments, Sylvia Alajaji, assistant professor of music, John Lardas Modern, associate professor of religious studies, Janardhan Iyengar, assistant professor of computer science, and Antonio Callari, Sigmund M. and Mary B. Hyman professor of economics, gave their opinions on Lanier’s lecture, and Lanier briefly commented on the four diverse responses to his thoughts.

Alajaji focused on the effect of recording technology upon both the consumption and creation of music, and expressed worries that, despite the immense benefits of recorded, portable music, important elements are being lost. The transformative effects of performed music, she fears, are lost when people trade live musicians for iPods; the pervasion of people’s lives with music can shield them from connecting to the world around them, and even from fully experiencing that very music, which is incomplete without the contrasting effects of silence.

Iyengar lamented the rarity of analysis like Lanier’s; too often, he thinks, the technical community fails to ask the important questions concerning their products’ implications. And further, he frets, society is overeager to accept whatever technology offers, allowing such vital questions to go overlooked and consequences to often be ignored entirely.

Modern expressed more general worries, almost in sequel to Lanier’s own approach. His comments ranged from agreement that computer models of people paint a disturbing picture, both of the modeler’s philosophy and of reality; to disappointment that analysis like Lanier’s, while perhaps rare in computer science, is absent entirely in economic circles; to asking where Lanier fits into the company of American Romanticists (to which Lanier’s boisterous reply was, “Between Emerson and Zappa!”); to remarking that the broader discussion of technology’s effect on people, while present for decades and even centuries, has yet to be satisfactorily resolved.

Finally, Callari offered a Marxist critique of the financial rat race and the danger it presents for consumers whose best interests, he posits, are often seen as irrelevant.

Overall, the faculty seemed to rally behind Lanier’s cautioning sentiments, and Lanier welcomed their responses. Students, as well, were greatly affected by Lanier’s incredibly relevant and hard-hitting message regarding computers, technology, and society.

Questions? Email Ryan at rthomas2@fandm.edu.

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