Jaron Lanier helped design “Together” mode for Microsoft Teams, “where he has a post as an in-house seer of sorts,” according to a recent profile in GQ. (“Initially he’d conceived of Together mode as a way to help Stephen Colbert — in whose house band Lanier sometimes performs when he’s in New York — figure out how to host his show in front of a remote audience…”)
But Lanier also “might be the last moral man in Silicon Valley,” they write, delving into both his support for universal basic income and his harsh view of social media, which they summarize succinctly: “in exchange for likes and retweets and public photos of your kids, you are basically signing up to be a data serf for companies that can make money only by addicting and then manipulating you.”
But GQ also writes that Lanier now sees some signs of hope, describing his current work as “to not fuck the future over, you know?”
He said he noticed a change in how Facebook was both thought of and written about. Take the congressional hearings that were held in July with Mark Zuckerberg and other big tech leaders. “What struck me,” Lanier later told me, “was how alone the four CEOs were — no friends or allies anywhere in politics or society. They’ve creeped everyone out with their opaque form of influence. Even Big Tobacco had friends….”
I asked him: Had he noticed a change in his own relationship to technology since the pandemic started? He said that he had. “I think people are spending more time in a self-directed way by connecting with others on video chat or things like that than they are passively receiving a feed,” he said. “And so I actually think things have gotten a little better.” The fact that people were using computers not to pass time in algorithm-driven loops but to talk to one another, and then perhaps go outside, was a source of optimism for him.
Lanier says he also feels that by provoking real and meaningful questions, some social movements are “reintroducing us to reality…”
Technology was doing, as it did every once in a while, what Lanier wanted it to do: giving people a chance to be better, to know more, to lead more informed and compassionate lives… So what about the future? I asked. The thing I’d come to talk about. Was the future going to be okay?
Lanier, in effect, said: Maybe…
Every day Google and Facebook and other tech companies become more powerful and sophisticated by analyzing you and your choices… They don’t even really acknowledge that you are contributing, as if artificial intelligence came from nowhere, instead of from data derived from you and me. “In the information age,” Lanier said, “we’re all workers and consumers and entrepreneurs at the same time.” What if, Lanier suggested, we got paid for our labor in this system? By recognizing the roles we play in building the future, Lanier said, we might give ourselves a chance to be meaningful participants in it. “When a person is empowered to make a difference, they become more of a full person,” he said. “They awaken spiritually.”
That would be the best case. All of us building the robot future together, and being compensated for our time and our work while doing it.
And…the worst case? I asked.
“Facebook might have won already, which would mean the end of democracy in this century,” Lanier said. “It’s possible that we can’t quite get out of this system of paranoia and tribalism for profit — it’s just too powerful and it’ll tear everything apart, leaving us with a world of oligarchs and autocrats who aren’t able to deal with real problems like pandemics and climate change and whatnot and that we fall apart, you know, we lose it. That is a real possibility for this century. I’m not saying I think it’s what’ll happen, but I wouldn’t count it out. There’s evidence every single day that it’s what’s happening….” [D]isinformation goes from Twitter to Fox to the social media feeds of the president, and the cycle begins anew. Look at how powerful these platforms could be, to the point where “the sway of media is more powerful than the experience of reality — that people can be watching hundreds of thousands die from this virus and yet believe it’s a hoax at the same time, and integrate those two things. That’s the food for evil,” Lanier said…
But then, here the two of us were. Him in Berkeley, me in Los Angeles, but still somehow together. A modern miracle most modern people have learned to sneer at. Not Lanier, who still sees the wonder, and the potential, of these stupid fucking screens, no matter what.