Vaulting into a Rapturous techno-future with Jaron Lanier
VR inventor on memes, and the blandness of digital culture
Interview To Stanford, where the annual gathering of extropians, futurists and other techno optimists swarms each year - in a self-organizing, bottom-up style - to the annual Accelerating Change conference. Most of us look to the future with large doses of trepidation and grim resignation tempering the love - but not these people. They want to fling themselves into the future with the resounding smack of flies hitting a windshield.
Sponsors of Accelerating Change must get eyestrain from squinting at the horizon. Last year's underwriters included "The Association of Professional Futurists", "Better Humans" and "Nano Apex"; and among the keynote speakers were Ray Kurtzweil, the Artifical Intelligence evangelist turned pill-peddler; Eric "Engines of Creation" Drexler; and, tugging on their coat tails, techie publisher Tim O'Reilly.
By day attendees "blog" their "memes", but by night, they dream of a future where man and silicon are indistinguishable and where neither an aging human body, nor incredibly buggy software, can pose any limitations to man's upward ascent. In other words, they're the kind of people who make Captain Cyborg, Kevin Warwick, look like a cantankerous Luddite.
Accelerating Change has been a source of fascination for your reporter since coming across a T-shirt from last year's event in a charity shop at the rougher end of San Francisco's Polk Street. Here, amongst the trannies and junkies and one dollar thrift stores, this T-shirt shone like a beacon. An artful graphic pointed skywards. I was reminded of the incredibly popular literary series Left Behind, based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, which describes how at the moment of the Rapture, the righteous ascend to heaven leaving only their clothes behind. Evidently, someone had attended Accelerating Change 2003 and vaulted themselves into the future!
I knew I simply had to attend the event - if only to see who would be vaulting into the future in 2005. I wondered if the registration form had a discreet tick box somewhere near the bottom, indicating that if all experiments went successfully, the organizers should not expecte the attendee to return. Perhaps it took the form of a coy smiley? Something like -
"[ ] see you there! ;-)"
So what better place to meet one of the most articulate critics of what he calls "cybernetic totalism", the inventor and musician Jaron Lanier. Jaron's best known as the pioneer of Virtual Reality, and a regular TV star a decade ago, but he's had what you can call a pretty full life. He dropped out of University aged 15, and his website boasts that "Lanier has no academic degrees." As a musician he's worked with Ornette Coleman, George Clinton and Terry Riley, but it's his critique of technological fantasies that drew us to the man.
He's assured enough of his status to poke fun at his friends Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, and still get invited back for tea. In speeches questions, satirically, if these proselytizers for the mechanistic, gene-eyed view of evolution are really not robots themselves. This he articulated in his most cited essay, Half A Manifesto. After the 2004 Election, it reads better than ever - especially his observation that scientism and religion have been poking fights with each other than they can't win.
"Cybernetic totalist Darwinians are often brazenly incompetent at public discourse and may be in part responsible, however unintentionally, for inciting a resurgence of fundamentalist religious reaction against rational biology," he wrote. "They seem to come up with takes on Darwin that are calculated to not only antagonize, but alienate those who don't share their views."
With the atheist and evangelical corners of the United States now staring at each other in a mutual state of fearful incomprehension, this seems particularly prophetic. The post-Enlightenment social contract that Stephen Jay Gould called NOMA, or non-overlapping magisteria, whereby science and religion agree to leave each other alone, seems to have been broken.
Neo-Darwinists have declared that we're just machines, and so all metaphysics is junk, and all our beliefs are a simple illusory machine state. While the evangelicals, who also know how to kick where it hurts, are now going after the science funding. Much older cultures who've found that religion is wholly compatible with scientific enquiry, such as India and China, are looking on this collapse with some wry amusement, as well as confidence. For the 85 per cent of the public in the West who are neither atheist nor evangelical, it's a catastrophe. For the United States in particular, which has defined its national identity on this agreeable division between the secular and the religious, it's beyond expletives.
But Lanier is oddly optimistic about a future that loves us, if only technology can provide "adventures of sufficient seductive beauty to seduce humanity away from mass-suicide". More positivist nonsense that caused the trouble in the first place? Let's find out.
"Is this recording?" he asks, as your reporter pokes optimistically at a Symbian phone. "Oh, it'll fuck up! It's digital and digital things suck."
"The blandness of digital culture is a problem. It's believed that experience isn't anything really special. And it undervalues things that are subjective. So the world of aesthetics starts to become ignored, or rebelled against, or rationalized, or just handled very poorly so you get this feeling to digital culture of hyperblandness. Everything has a blurring into everything else, and nothing has an identity or flavor."
He'd made the joke in the past, one with a serious purpose, that perhaps Daniel Dennett is just a robot.
"That's a puzzle I've made up: that some of the folks around actually don't have any internal experience, and there's no way of telling whether they do or they don't!"
"Experience is the only metaphysical data point that we have. It's there for me and it can't be reduced to an illusion - some epistemological channel. It doesn't imply religious beings or survival after death are true; but there's something going on there: it's a very legitimate thing. So it surprises me when people totally dismiss experience with logical explanations because they don't happen to have that internal experience themselves. Are they actually lifeless automatons? Dan Dennett, could be … Richard Dawkins, who knows?"