American Computer Philosophy Writer, Computer Scientist and Composer of Classical Music
Jaron Lanier, fully Jaron Zepel Lanier
American Computer Philosophy Writer, Computer Scientist and Composer of Classical Music
There are at least two ways to believe in the idea of quality. You can believe there's something ineffable going on within the human mind or you can believe we just don't understand what quality in a mind is yet, even though we might someday. Either of those opinions allows one to distinguish quantity and quality. In order to confuse quantity and quality, you have to reject both possibilities. The mere possibility of there being something ineffable about personhood is what drives many technologists to reject the notion of quality. They want to live in an airtight reality that resembles an idealized computer program, in which everything is understood and there are no fundamental mysteries. They recoil from even the hint of a potential zone of mystery or an unresolved seam in one's worldview. This desire for absolute order usually leads to tears in human affairs, so there is a historical reason to distrust it. Materialist extremists have long seemed determined to win a race with religious fanatics: Who can do the most damage to the most people?
Unfortunately, by forcing more and more value off the books as the world economy turns into an information economy, the ideal of free information could erode economic interdependencies between nations.
What digital networks have been doing is walloping all those positions, crashing them down, and that?s been the primary mechanism by which the Internet has been harming the middle classes.
Wouldn?t it be easier just to treat the information space as a public resource and tax or charge companies somehow for the benefit of using it?
There are many, many questions that this opens up, and understandably, many people are skeptical that it would be worth it or even plausible to track all of these chains of value. But in terms of technology, it can absolutely be done. Some of the people who worry it would be too complicated have no idea how bizarrely ad hoc and complex what we already do today is. A complete information economy with honest accounting would actually be a simplification, and it would be more efficient than what we do today. The engineering doesn?t scare me, and the cost doesn?t scare me. What is very difficult to describe, and the puzzle I?m most challenged by is: what?s the scenario that would transition us from the system we already have, where there?s a huge imbalance, to a system along the lines I?ve just described?
Virtual Reality is a very different situation than movies or television. I'm going to say something roundabout but it comes back to exactly the point you're bringing up. Movies and television are, first of all, broadcast media, so one facility has to generate the material that you see. Furthermore, it's very expensive to generate this material so very few people are in a position to do it. Therefore, the material becomes supernaturally remote and universal. It has a numbing effect on people and it reduces empathy. Television ultimately reduces empathy because people live in a world in which they can't act or have responsibility or meet each other. The shocking statistics about the number of hours that people in the United States spend watching television explain, I think, all too much about our actions in the world and our lack of empathy. When a person chooses to spend that much time watching television, it's equivalent to death as far as society is concerned. They cease to function as a responsible or social persons during the time that they're simply perceiving media. Now Virtual Reality is just the opposite. First of all, it's a network like the telephone where there's no central point of origin of information. But, much more importantly, since nothing is made of physical matter, since it's all just made of computer information, no one has any advantage over anyone else in their ability to create any particular thing within it. So there's no need for a studio. There might be occasional needs for one, if somebody has a bigger computer to generate a certain kind of effect, or certainly if somebody's assembled people of a certain talent or reputation. But in general there's no built-in difference from one person to another in terms of ability to create. This means that there's going to be such a profusion of different forms. There will be movie studios that get involved in making Virtual Realities, but I think more there will be little entrepreneurs who will be like Reality Troubadours who will travel about spinning realities, if anything. What'll happen is that there will be such an enormous variety of form that "things" will become cheap. Basically, in a Virtual Reality everything is in infinite supply, except for one mysterious thing called creativity. And time, certainly, and health, and other things that are really still inside your body. But in terms of external things, they're infinite and wonderful and abundant and ever-varied and all equally valuable because they all can be made as easily. So what really is of value, what really will stand out as a foreground against a background in Virtual Reality is quite different than what stands out in the physical world. In the physical world mere excess or novelty will often make something stand out. A thousand dollar bill will stand out in the physical world. In the Virtual world there is absolutely no difference between a thousand dollar bill and a one dollar bill; they are simply two different graphic designs and they are both as plentiful as you can make them. Other people are the life of the party in Virtual Reality. Other people are the unique things that will animate Virtual Reality and make it astonishingly unpredictable and amazing. Personality will be accentuated since form will be so cheap; since form will be so non-precious, personality will be quite accentuated.
What does it mean to not be alone? I've approached that question through music, technology, writing and other means.
Wright offers the hive a way to play with what he has done, but he doesn?t create using a hive model. He relies on a large staff of full-time paid people to get his creations shipped. The business model that allows this to happen is the only one that has been proven to work so far: a closed model. You actually pay real money for Wright?s stuff.
There are other mechanisms we can imagine. One of the things I?ve been talking to colleagues like Noam Nisan about lately is trying to figure out what very efficient, constant, incremental, large-scale collective bargaining on a digital network would be like. If there are a bunch of people contributing to a corpus, they would set their price to some sort of median rather than a race to the bottom. I believe mechanisms like that can be brought into existence.
Virtual Reality is conceived of as an expansion of reality, the provision of alternate realities for people in mass in which to share experiences, and so the types of metaphors that come up are things like cars, travel, different countries, different cultures. For instance, you might very well have a virtual car that you ride around even though physically you're in one place. It would go through different territories in Virtual Reality so that you could get around them - or transporter booths, perhaps. So you could have geographical metaphors. There might very well evolve a new geography, let's say - a fictitious planet with new continents that you can dive into to find new realities.
What I propose in the book is a brutally mathematical system that I?m sure would under-represent reality, as such systems always do, but nonetheless would be pretty straightforward. It?s based on ?what-if? calculations. The question is, if my bits had never existed, what would be the value differential for a particular cloud scheme? If I hadn?t provided a translated book from which a lot of examples were taken, what difference would it make to the market value of new cloud-based translations?
Writing and thinking is not economically sustainable.
There are various reasons that software tends to be unwieldy, but a primary one is what I like to call "brittleness". Software breaks before it bends, so it demands perfection in a universe that prefers statistics.
Virtual Reality only gives us a temporary limitlessness. We still live in our physical bodies and we're still mortal. It might highlight our mortality to a degree that will make it harder to ignore than it is currently. People imagine Virtual Reality as being an escapist thing where people will be ever more removed from the real world and ever more insensitive. I think it's exactly the opposite; it will make us intensely aware of what it is to be human in the physical world, which we take for granted now because we're so immersed in it.
What I want to point out is that every single way of thinking about a good society or a better society that I?m aware of depends similarly on a strong middle hump in a bell curve, whether we want to call that a middle class or not. If you are an Ayn Rand fan, you have to admit that you can?t have markets without customers. And the customers have to come from the middle or the market won?t sustain itself. Equally, if you?re a government person, you should also want a strong middle. Otherwise, income concentration will corrupt your democratic process, which I think is an issue in the U.S. right now. If you?re a society person, you have to have that strong middle or the society will break into castes, which has happened repeatedly in societies all over the world.
You have to be somebody before you can share yourself.
There has been over a decade of work worldwide in Darwinian approaches to generating software, and... nothing has arisen from the work that would make software in general any better.
Virtual Reality represents a new mystery on the order of the mystery that nature presents us. It's a mystery that's entirely human-made in that it's the intersection of people in Virtual Reality that creates the mystery, that creates the chaos that will make it into a full-scale reality that's worthy of being experienced. I don't view machines as becoming conscious myself. It's not that I'm opposed to the notion; it's simply that I think that it's the wrong question to ask. But I do think that there will be a new emergent social consciousness that can only exist through the medium of Virtual Reality. Virtual Reality is the first medium that's large enough not to limit human nature. It's the first medium that's broad enough to express us as natural beings. It's the first medium within which we can express our nature and the whole of nature to each other. Actually, that's all rather vague, so let me just say that when we can make nature ourselves, we can empathize with the nature that there is and appreciate it fully.
What if only humans are real, and information is not?
You have to remember that virtual reality won't be mature for everyday use for decades perhaps, and we don't know what the real situation will be like then. It will undoubtedly be different, so to talk about how it can help, we have to talk about the present and talk about computers. I'll tell you how I think about the economic role of computers, and this might be a little cynical, but I think it's actually pretty accurate. In the industrial revolution, which is still continuing in less developed parts of the world, machines were created that replaced human labor and created free time for people. But our economic system is based on earned capital, so that if you have this free time, you also don't earn any money to buy food. And this creates a crisis. The question is, if you're going to create all this leisure time with all these industrial machines, how do you justify paying people within a capitalist system so that they can survive? I think computers are the answer. I think computers are this sort of massive work program that keeps everybody busy manipulating information, and thus able to earn their bread.
There is no difference between machine autonomy and the abdication of human responsibility.
Wal-Mart impoverished its own customer base. Google is facing exactly the same issue long-term, although not yet.
What these critics forget is that printing presses in themselves provide no guarantee of an enlightened outcome. People, not machines, made the Renaissance. The printing that takes place in North Korea today, for instance, is nothing more than propaganda for a personality cult. What is important about printing presses is not the mechanism, but the authors.
Zombies are familiar characters in philosophical thought experiments. They are like people in every way except they have no internal experience....
There is nothing more gray, stultifying, or dreary than life lived inside the confines of a theory.