Jaron Lanier: How We Need to Remake the Internet (Full Transcript)

Jaron Lanier – Talk TRANSCRIPT

Back in the 1980s, actually, I gave my first talk at TED, and I brought some of the very, very first public demonstrations of virtual reality ever to the TED stage. And at that time, we knew that we were facing a knife-edge future where the technology we needed, the technology we loved, could also be our undoing.

We knew that if we thought of our technology as a means to ever more power, if it was just a power trip, we’d eventually destroy ourselves. That’s what happens when you’re on a power trip and nothing else.

So the idealism of digital culture back then was all about starting with that recognition of the possible darkness and trying to imagine a way to transcend it with beauty and creativity.

I always used to end my early TED Talks with a rather horrifying line, which is, “We have a challenge. We have to create a culture around technology that is so beautiful, so meaningful, so deep, so endlessly creative, so filled with infinite potential that it draws us away from committing mass suicide.”

So we talked about extinction as being one and the same as the need to create an alluring, infinitely creative future. And I still believe that that alternative of creativity as an alternative to death is very real and true, maybe the most true thing there is.

In the case of virtual reality — well, the way I used to talk about it is that it would be something like what happened when people discovered language. With language came new adventures, new depth, new meaning, new ways to connect, new ways to coordinate, new ways to imagine, new ways to raise children.

And I imagined, with virtual reality, we’d have this new thing that would be like a conversation but also like waking-state intentional dreaming. We called it post-symbolic communication, because it would be like just directly making the thing you experienced instead of indirectly making symbols to refer to things.

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It was a beautiful vision, and it’s one I still believe in, and yet, haunting that beautiful vision was the dark side of how it could also turn out. And I suppose I could mention from one of the very earliest computer scientists, whose name was Norbert Wiener, and he wrote a book back in the ’50s, from before I was even born, called “The Human Use of Human Beings.”

And in the book, he described the potential to create a computer system that would be gathering data from people and providing feedback to those people in real time in order to put them kind of partially, statistically, in a Skinner box, in a behaviorist system. And he has this amazing line where he says, one could imagine, as a thought experiment — and I’m paraphrasing, this isn’t a quote — one could imagine a global computer system where everybody has devices on them all the time, and the devices are giving them feedback based on what they did, and the whole population is subject to a degree of behavior modification. And such a society would be insane, could not survive, could not face its problems.

And then he says, but this is only a thought experiment, and such a future is technologically infeasible.

And yet, of course, it’s what we have created, and it’s what we must undo if we are to survive.

So — I believe that we made a very particular mistake, and it happened early on, and by understanding the mistake we made, we can undo it. It happened in the ’90s, and going into the turn of the century, and here’s what happened.

Early digital culture, and indeed, digital culture to this day, had a sense of, I would say, lefty, socialist mission about it, that unlike other things that have been done, like the invention of books, everything on the internet must be purely public, must be available for free, because if even one person cannot afford it, then that would create this terrible inequity.

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Now of course, there’s other ways to deal with that. If books cost money, you can have public libraries and so forth. But we were thinking, no, no, no, this is an exception. This must be pure public commons, that’s what we want. And so that spirit lives on.

You can experience it in designs like the Wikipedia, for instance, many others. But at the same time, we also believed, with equal fervor, in this other thing that was completely incompatible, which is we loved our tech entrepreneurs. We loved Steve Jobs; we loved this Nietzschean myth of the techie who could dent the universe. Right? And that mythical power still has a hold on us, as well.

So you have these two different passions, for making everything free and for the almost supernatural power of the tech entrepreneur.

How do you celebrate entrepreneurship when everything’s free?

Well, there was only one solution back then, which was the advertising model. And so therefore, Google was born free, with ads. Facebook was born free, with ads.

Now in the beginning, it was cute, like with the very earliest Google. The ads really were kind of ads. They would be, like, your local dentist or something.

But there’s thing called Moore’s law that makes the computers more and more efficient and cheaper. Their algorithms get better. We actually have universities where people study them, and they get better and better.

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