From the New York Post (via Joe Carducci), a piece on Jaron Lanier’s new book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto:

How the Internet is leading toward “digital Maoism” and the loss of individuality

Last Updated: 6:07 AM, January 10, 2010

The most popular aspects of Internet life — including Wikipedia, Facebook and digital music — are so detrimental to humanity that they give young people “a reduced expectation of what a person can be.”

That’s the disturbing conclusion of Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist famous for coining the term “virtual reality.” Lanier, a visiting scholar with the Department of Computer Science at Columbia University, among other positions, says that the Web has reduced communication to the point where we’re molding ourselves to serve it in harmful ways.

Social networking, for example, reduces people from complexities to categories, and subjects them to the will of what he calls the “hive mind.”

“The most effective young Facebook users are the ones who create successful online fictions about themselves,” he says. “They must manage off-hand remarks and track candid snapshots at parties as carefully as a politician . . . avoiding the ever-roaming evil eye of the hive mind, which can turn on an individual at any moment. A Facebook Generation young person who suddenly becomes humiliated online has no way out, for there is only one hive.”

The Internet favors the mob over the individual, and group efforts like Wikipedia are prized, even as they peel away personality and perspective. Uncredited bits of information — article excerpts, photos, video, etc. — are stripped of their humanity by being stripped of their context.

“Something like missionary reductionism has happened to the Internet with the rise of Web 2.0,” Lanier says. “The strangeness is being leached away in the mush-making process.”

Lanier regards this as an “anti-human” approach.

“Emphasizing the crowd means de-emphasizing individual humans in the design of society,” he says. In one notable instance, Wired Magazine founder Kevin Kelly posited that society no longer needs authors, and wound up in a feud with John Updike after declaring it a “moral imperative” that all the world’s books become “one book,” available for editing and mashing up by anyone who sees fit.

The result of all this, says Lanier, is that “when you ask people not to be people, they revert to bad, mob-like behaviors,” noting how vicious anonymous commenters even have driven some to suicide.

In explaining how we got here, Lanier discusses how computer science tried to replicate complex human activities with inferior results. One example is MIDI, which was developed in the early 1980s for the sole purpose of imitating the sound of a keyboard. Yet MIDI was limited, inherently unable to digitally represent “the curvy, transient expressions” of a singer or sax player.

Nonetheless, MIDI became “the standard scheme to represent music in software,” and is now the basis for all digitized music — including songs on our iPods — despite sounding far inferior to analog recordings.

Rather than search for a better solution, Lanier says that our response has been to lower our expectations of music quality. In the same way, we settle for what the Internet can give us in terms of information, entertainment and personality. The medium limits the message.

The consequences of letting things persist could be dire, he says, comparing those who believe in the anti-human path to “digital Maoists.”

“History tells us that collectivist ideals can mushroom into large-scale social disasters,” he writes. “The fascias and communes of the past started out with small numbers of idealistic revolutionaries . . . I am afraid we might be setting ourselves up for a reprise.” …

“We have “entered a persistent somnolence,” he says. “We will only escape it when we kill the hive.”

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About Jay Babcock

I am the co-founder and editor of Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curator of the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was one of five Angelenos listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. Today, I live a peaceful life in Tucson, Arizona with Stephanie Smith. https://linktr.ee/jaywbabcock

9 thoughts on “WE MUST KILL THE HIVE

  1. “Nonetheless, MIDI became “the standard scheme to represent music in software,” and is now the basis for all digitized music — including songs on our iPods — despite sounding far inferior to analog recordings.”

    hmm, this seems hard to believe. doesn’t this guy have a fact checker? oh wait, new york post. why bother…

  2. Mr. Lanier is out of his element.

    First, MIDI can handle more than enough data to adequately express whatever needs expressing. (1000 notes per second, 3000 ‘nuances’.) While it has allowed unschooled amateurs to create music, that’s not inherently a bad thing; MIDI experts are not so limited.

    Second, if Facebook has revealed a ‘hive mind’, that hive mind (film and literature censorship, formal expectations for behavior for which we’re punished when we don’t acquiesce – including electroshock therapy, etc.) has been with us for a long, long time. Facebook was created and fed by human beings … not the internet, not machines. Can’t blame people who enslave or subjugate themselves on a communications medium.

    Television was a one-way, non-interactive conformity and sales-pitch machine. The internet difference is that we can actively interact rather than just passively consume.

    In short, Mr. Luddite 2.0 is blaming a neutral, superior technology (a wrench can be used to repair or murder) for a pre-existing condition. If we don’t like what we see in the mirror, the solution isn’t to break the mirror.

  3. TJ, i disagree that MIDI is a good medium to record actual human performance.

    however, it is clearly not ‘the standard for all digitized music’. that statement is clearly bullshit, and not in a ‘anal-retentive audiophile’ way. lanier needs to do more research!

  4. gregor, you misrepresent lanier by characterizing his argument as simply anti-‘gadget’. he’s an interesting guy with a lot of history and i think the point he’s trying to make it a little more complicated than that.

    he’s worried about the impact of the super-networked world on communication and people’s perception of themselves. i think the tangents about the music industry (good riddance amirite) and “the medium” (too vague to be meaningful, quote was probably taken out of context) are just that, tangents.

    he’s right to pay attention to this stuff, but as a child of the 80s/90s i have to say that the future seems a lot brighter than the media culture of my childhood. so what if “rock stars” or “rappers” don’t get paid as much, or if there are a few less michael jackson-level supercelebs?

  5. another good response from weidenbaum at disquiet:


    “To read You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier is to be faced with the sort of conundrum that is more familiar in the political arena. You agree with someone’s big-picture view [..] but are uncomfortable with so much of how that view is expressed. When it comes to Lanier, that has to do with a certain pugilistic dismissiveness, and with some key examples he employs in the support of his thesis.”

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