April 26, 2018

WE’VE WON, AND NOW WE’RE ASSHOLES: Jaron Lanier On The State Of The Tech Industry.

We used to be kind of rebels, like, if you go back to the origins of Silicon Valley culture, there were these big traditional companies like IBM that seemed to be impenetrable fortresses. And we had to create our own world. To us, we were the underdogs and we had to struggle. And we’ve won. I mean, we have just totally won. We run everything. We are the conduit of everything else happening in the world. We’ve disrupted absolutely everything. Politics, finance, education, media, relationships — family relationships, romantic relationships — we’ve put ourselves in the middle of everything, we’ve absolutely won. But we don’t act like it.

We have no sense of balance or modesty or graciousness having won. We’re still acting as if we’re in trouble and we have to defend ourselves, which is preposterous. And so in doing that we really kind of turn into assholes, you know?


One of the problems is that we’ve isolated ourselves through extreme wealth and success. Before, we might’ve been isolated because we were nerdy insurgents. But now we’ve found a new method to isolate ourselves, where we’re just so successful and so different from so many other people that our circumstances are different. And we have less in common with all the people whose lives we’ve disrupted. I’m just really struck by that. I’m struck with just how much better off we are financially, and I don’t like the feeling of it.

Personally, I would give up a lot of the wealth and elite status that we have in order to just live in a friendly, more connected world where it would be easier to move about and not feel like everything else is insecure and falling apart. People in the tech world, they’re all doing great, they all feel secure. I mean they might worry about a nuclear attack or something, but their personal lives are really secure.

And then when you move out of the tech world, everybody’s struggling. It’s a very strange thing.

Related: Was Social Media A Mistake?

Plus: Social Media As Social Disease.

Also: Data Misuse and the Weaponization of Emotion.

And: Silicon Valley has gone from liberating to creepy. Next stop, government regulation. “Silicon Valley seemed to have gone from the hammer-wielding woman in that famous ‘1984’ Apple commercial, to the Big Brother figure up on the screen in that famous ‘1984’ Apple commercial.”

I think Jaron Lanier is right that what we’re facing today is “Digital Maoism.”

UPDATE: I went back and read this piece on Lanier that I did for the WSJ in 2010, and in retrospect I think I may not have given him enough credit:

Predictably, Mr. Lanier’s Web 2.0 critique has stirred a furious online backlash—which has only helped to buttress his argument. When Slate.com ran an unsympathetic pre-publication review of “You Are Not a Gadget,” the geek discussion site Slashdot.com ran a brief summary of the review with a link. Hundreds of comments soon adhered to the Slashdot summary, most of them negative. Finally, one frustrated commenter wrote: “The irony here is that this thread is a perfect example of what Lanier’s been talking about. A group of people with self-reinforcing attitudes making pronouncements based not on the actual book, but on a review of the book. Actually, I bet most of these ‘opinions’—since who can be bothered to read an entire review, let alone the book—aren’t even informed by reading the review. I’m sure there are lots of valid criticisms to the book, but Lanier has you all dead to rights as far as the intellectual seriousness of this ‘debate’ goes.” Score one for Mr. Lanier’s warning about the demise of considered thought and the rising tyranny of first-impression reactions to complex ideas.

But what Mr. Lanier is missing is the sheer fun of a lot of social-media interaction and the way it has brought non-geeks into the computer world. As I look at the social Web that he finds sterile and overly corporatized, I see Tea Party activists, “caveman diet” enthusiasts and model-rocketry devotees—among countless others—coming together and finding ways to collaborate, organize and socialize as never before. I see individuals and small groups acquiring creative power and the sort of organizational reach that only large companies or governments once had. Ordinary Americans are experiencing the same kind of buzz and excitement that used to be known only to the “digerati” elite in the halcyon days of the early 1990s.

Mr. Lanier is nostalgic for that era and its homemade Web pages, the personalized outposts that have largely been replaced by the more standardized formats of Facebook and MySpace. The aesthetics of these newer options might be less than refined, but tens of millions of people are able to express themselves in ways that were unimaginable even a decade ago. And let’s face it: Those personal Web pages of the 1990s are hardly worth reviving. It’ll be fine with me if I never see another blinking banner towed across the screen by a clip-art biplane.

Like a remote beach that has been discovered by the masses, the Internet is no longer the pristine preserve of the well-off few. But what it now lacks in exclusivity it has more than made up for in ease of access. And for all the problems that Mr. Lanier rightly worries about, the trend seems to be toward a Web of ever more striving human activity. Indeed, we are not gadgets. I’m scoring that a win.

I mean, you can still make that argument, but not as convincingly. And maybe he was ahead of me because he had a better idea of what Facebook, et al., had in mind.

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