How the Internet is leading toward “digital Maoism” and the loss of individuality
By LARRY GETLEN
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
founderKevin 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.”