To Jaron Lanier, Re Dodging the Clichés
I am writing to thank you for the ideas that you share with us and the example that you set for people who care about our humanity as it relates to technology. You show people that they don’t have to succumb to or be crushed by false dichotomies and clichés in tech.
Here are two examples:
Technology and Humanity
First is our relationship to technology, or what we usually call technology. Here is the common dichotomy: either you are “pro” or otherwise enthusiastic about technology and tend to be at risk of papering over the cracks or being insensitive to the risks and distortions that come with new tools, or you’re “against” and prone to shunning.
These are of course two naive choices. You show us how to mount a critique of technology at the same time as loving its potential to enrich our lives and communities. You show us how to avoid forgetting our humanity, and forgetting how to frame these questions in human terms.
Tech people often miss or forget the differences between tech and people: I slip into this myself, analogizing the human being as a computer, with a hardware body and software mind. We hear this in the news, when companies report “user” behavior, clicks, scroll, etc. when in fact this “user” is a mere construct, an aggregation of actions within their platform and a mere ripple sent out by an actual human.
When one thinks like this, its easy to forget about the real, internal conscious experience, which is about as far from what these companies can measure as it is possible to be. This error leads also to bizarre decisions: one of the main reasons that computers are useful to us is that they are mostly reliable and deterministic (in the sense of not being distracted or erring for no apparent reason, as people do), these are, however, totally inappropriate characteristics to seek in recommendation and curation, though computers now perform a significant proportion of both. We should seek in these fields empathy, sensitivity and surprise, all of which are natural to people and errant in computers.
You are one of the few people who aren’t simply blown away by the pace of scientific and technological change; that, for example the fact that there are more than a billion sites on the Web and Facebook users does not indicate that either of these are particularly good or impressive. You help put fuel on the fire for better hypertext (Ted Nelson’s ideas).
Someone needs to make these points, but its hard for an insider to make them, because doing so would appear to go against the party line and the norm of hype and enthusiasm, while outsiders are easy to dismiss with the claim that they just don’t know what they’re talking about. You’re one of the few people that is constantly reminding us to keep hold of our humanity and the things that make humanity interesting, while holding higher expectations and ambitions for technology than most.
The other field of debate in which you find a more interesting place to stand is inequality.
You appear to be one of the few people who cares about the issue a great deal but who also doesn’t let this dampen either their creative faculties or their feeling of empathy and human solidarity. This is to say that its not uncommon with people for a strong feeling for inequality to reach for proposals that involve, essentially, punishing the successful. (This is not universal of course.)
Then of course we have those who avoid this course of action also, but still advocate for policies that aren’t up to the challenge, e.g. the rising wealth gap comes from exponential returns from technology, and mitigation strategies based on linear tools like taxation and benefits aren’t really fit for purpose.
You show us how to care about inequality in a way that derives from human solidarity and empathy, and that is based not just on a the common (almost mathematical) conviction that differences are undesirable, but from the idea that we should care about the welfare of all and the participation by all people in the whole community. A good policy here requires thinking with sensitivity and sophistication, the same soft of thinking that is required of us to address our other (numerous) exponential problems.
Thank you again for your generosity in sharing your thoughts with us; you are setting and example of how people can think better and build more human relationships with each other.
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