Luminary Jaron Lanier Unites Digital Media, Music, Democracy

Abby Hawkins, Arts Editor

Few public figures nowadays could be called a Renaissance Man, but computer scientist, writer, philosopher and musician Jaron Lanier exemplifies the true sense of the phrase. Lanier’s legacy is vast and multifaceted: He is both a musician who has played alongside Yoko Ono, Philip Glass and George Clinton, and the creator of some of the first virtual-reality technology in the ’80s (he is, in fact, credited for coining the term “virtual technology”). As part of the 2011-2012 convocation series, Lanier spoke in Finney Chapel on Nov. 9 about a multitude of social and technological transformations of the past two millennia, all of which are inextricably bound to each other.

Lanier, who was named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2010, took great pleasure in diving into the melée of Oberlin students, but not before serenading his captivated audience with the Laotian khaen — both a flute and, with its 16-bit input-output valve mechanism, one of the oldest computing devices in human history.

Lanier began his talk by paraphrasing Aristotle: “If only the looms could operate themselves, and if only the lutes could pluck themselves, we wouldn’t have to force the slaves to make our clothing and our music, and everyone could be free,” he said. Even in an age when slavery was de rigeur, the idea existed that if technology were better, life could be better. This is intuitive to Lanier: His work on virtual–reality technology has practical applications in the fields of physical therapy, post-traumatic stress disorder treatment and surgical procedures, among countless others. Technological progress, for Lanier, must improve quality of life and expand human consciousness.

Lanier argued that today, however, media giants like Google and Facebook do nothing to improve their users’ quality of life — a critical flaw in how these companies function, and how we as users conceive of them. “You can use the Internet to complain, perhaps,” he said, “but not to make a living.”

Although Lanier discusses an abundance of social conundrums that have arisen around technology in his written work, including his highly influential 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget, his talk in Finney focused on the opportunity for digital-media corporations to revitalize a dwindling American middle class. Lanier imagines the Internet’s economic and democratic potential much as Ted Nelson did in the 1960s: Before the advent of the computer, Nelson envisioned a network of information to which everyone had uniform access.

In Nelson’s model, however, the original poster of information or media earned a royalty if his information was used, and could in this way support himself. Replications did not exist. Facebook and Google, Lanier believes, co-opt users’ personal information for advertising revenues, while giving nothing monetary in return. “If you’re a person who wants to be able to freelance on [Facebook or Twitter] to make a living, there’s no option,” said Lanier. “That’s the fundamental flaw of it.”

While Lanier’s dissatisfaction is rooted in a deep understanding of Silicon Valley business strategy, he also charted the anxieties people have historically had over technology surpassing human capabilities. He mentioned the Luddites, a group of textile workers infamous for destroying the mechanical looms that would replace them. Science-fiction literature encapsulates this fear perfectly for him. “Science fiction, from its early day,” he said, “was always about the question of what becomes of people when machines get good.” H. G. Wells’s Time Machine conjures a world divided into those who have benefited from technology and become wealthy, and those who were left behind, while the more recent Matrix movies present the possibility of humans being left behind altogether.