Jaron Lanier on the dangers of social media and the future of our digital lives

Jaron Lanier is one of the foremost digital visionaries of our times, rather than a business man. A key pioneer of virtual reality (a term he coined back in the 70’s) and one of Silicon Valley’s earliest innovators, this dreadlocked digital prophet has been dubbed the ‘father of VR’ and was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world.

We were treated to a fascinating insight into the extraordinary man at a recent Intelligence Squared event and you come away with the overall impression of a hugely brilliant man with a very big heart and dreadlocks down to his waist.  Not the archetypal tech innovator by any stretch of the imagination.  His history is fascinating – he is a former goatherd, , an assistant midwife and a virtuoso player of around a 1,000 rare instruments, one of which; an ancient instrument from Laos, he played for us.

Sorry, this isn’t a great photo, but you get the general idea:-

Kamal Ahmed, Economics editor at the BBC (who had to confess to having never tried out a VR head-set and wasn’t allowed to live that down) invited him to talk about his upbringing. It was sad. His parents were both immigrants whose family members died in various concentration camps and then after setting up camp in Texas, near the border of Mexico,  his mother died in a car crash when he was very young. The misery he experienced as a result of her death was tangible. He described being in a deep, black, isolated hole of misery and therefore spent a lot of time wishing that he could share the dreams in his head with others.

This is where it all started…and right now he is managing to balance his role as a scientist for Microsoft with his vocal criticism of the tech industry in general, regarding himself as a “loyal opposition” in the tech world.

What an extraordinary renaissance man who has lived at the heart of Silicon Valley since the beginning – describing how he built his first computer as a young man, hung out with the great and the good of the first tranche of tech experts, carrying hugely unwieldly computers into fast-food joints to stay up all night writing code. “We were just all a bunch of hippies with an extreme dislike of any whiff of making any money”. “So when did this change?” Kamal asked him. “When Google came along” he replied, reflectively. He is a deep, critical, radical thinker who puts humanity at the centre of his vision for our technological future. Within the realm of VR he has proposed another, more imaginative way to use technology. A ‘human-centred approach’, he argues, ‘leads to more interesting, more exotic, more wild, and more heroic adventures than the machine-supremacy approach, where information is the highest goal”. Although additionally he has said in one of his books “never has a medium been so potent for beauty and so vulnerable to creepiness”.

He went on to warn us all of the Big Brother-esque, addictive aspect of social media and the internet and that we should all “DELETE our social media footprints IMMEDIATELY”, in particular Facebook – because we are all being horribly manipulated. He isn’t on any social media apparently, but wouldn’t stop his daughter if she wanted to trial it out. The tech giants are “behaviour modification agents” he argues, designed to keep us on their sites for as long as possible.

He also discussed how easy it is now for bots and hackers to create huge divides between niche groups of people that turn people against each other and that is how he sees the apparent tampering by Russia in the US presidential election as well as the EU referendum. It is possible for algorithms to rile people – to show them tweets that someone with a different opinion has sent and to create shit storms as a result. “This technique tears society apart.” His description of how these companies are holding our attention by making us angry, insecure or scared – or all three and of what was happening behind closed doors was frankly terrifying. Whilst he admitted that they weren’t going to go away any time soon, he did acknowledge that addictive algorithms should be outlawed because they are immoral and unethical and should not exist. He said ad revenue was driving this and that there was a better business model to make them moral and to be able to create specific prohibitions and intermediaries to avoid the trolls and get the security paid for. He regards it as a fundamental flaw that users were allowed to remain anonymous online. His very simple suggestion was to get people to pay for accessing social media. Not much, say £5.00 a year and if we all did that so that we were paying for our searches, we could get rid of all the commercial nonsense, adverts and spam that are influencing what we see. With so much information available free of charge it is often hard to know the source or the agenda of those supplying the information. “The problem right now is this moment to make everything free leaves a company like Facebook with no alternative…They have to spy on us”. It would generate a whole new industry, whereby a few are rewarded and make lots of money, but it would be a far fairer way of managing the platforms, rather than allowing them to remain simply tech companies that are manipulated by bots and fake news (or “shit posts” as he likes to call them). “We will all become drones if we don’t sort this out very soon,” he warned.  Wikipedia also came up as a bland option for information that we all now use.  Encyclopaedia Brittanica used to offer lots of different opinions on subjects, now we get one big global summary.

He even disagrees with the fact that we expect Facebook to delete offensive content and protect us from evil, because he points out that the more we keep asking them to protect us, the more powerful over our culture they become.

He is sometimes called the ‘alternative Steve Jobs’. Neither a tech optimist nor a doom-monger, he is unique for always seeing the opportunities offered by technology as well as the dangers. In his bestsellers such as “You Are Not A Gadget” and “Who Owns the Future?” he sounded an early warning about the perils of the internet – describing the tech giants as ‘spy agencies’ and ‘lords of the clouds’ for the way they reduce the value of humans to that of the data they provide. He pointed out that Sean Parker, an early Facebook president, only just a few days ago finally admitted that the sharing and the liking were used like a drug to get people hooked on checking Facebook non-stop – turning us all into lab rats and giving us a “dopamine hit”. He thinks it’s just lucky that we are currently dealing with a very clunky, crude service and that we must do something about it before it’s too late, because “that’s really nothing compared to what is coming. It could be so destructive in a sense of truth, a sense of free will, the sense of the civil project. It could really be the destruction of us all”. If we are not prepared, that is.

Our children are the digital nomads – it’s surely going to take us, the older generation who remember what it was like before to put a stop to the addictions before it’s too late?

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