Jaron Lanier discusses role of technology, Internet during LSU visit
In the view of noted scientist, musician and author Jaron Lanier, the digital network technology that promised to bring great wealth and efficiency to the economy instead has whittled away at the middle class over the past decade. Rather than experiencing stronger financial health brought on by digital technology efficiencies, those efficiencies are concentrating wealth in a smaller group of individuals while reducing overall growth.
A pioneer in the realm of virtual reality, a term which he coined, Lanier discussed his views on what went wrong when he addressed these and other related topics during a visit to LSU on Aug. 26. His appearance was sponsored by the LSU College of Music & Dramatic Arts and the LSU Center for Computation & Technology, or CCT.
Lanier, who currently works as a computer scientist at Microsoft Research, served as the guest speaker as part of the College of Music & Dramatic Arts' Guest Artist Lecture Series, held at the Claude L. Shaver Theatre. In his lecture, Lanier discussed his theories about deep links between democracy and capitalism that are presented in his recent book, "Who Owns the Future?"
Earlier in the day, LSU students, faculty and staff, had the chance to quiz Lanier during a question-and-answer session at the Louisiana Digital Media Center, the brand-new facility at LSU which houses CCT and video game maker Electronic Arts' North American Testing Center.
Lanier's writings explore topics ranging from high-tech business and the social impact of technology, to the philosophy of consciousness and information, Internet politics and the future of humanism. He has been dubbed "a Renaissance man for the 21st century," and was named one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2010. Lanier also was named one of the top 100 public intellectuals in the world by Prospect and Foreign Policy magazines, and one of history's 300 greatest inventors in the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Music in the digital age
To bookend his lecture to a majority crowd of music students and faculty, Lanier played a trio of non-traditional musical instruments. A musician who has been active in the new "classical" music world since the late 1970s, Lanier also writes chamber and orchestral works. He is a pianist and specialist in unusual and historical musical instruments, and maintains one of the largest and most varied collections of actively played instruments in the world. He has performed with musicians such as Philip Glass, Yoko Ono, Ornette Coleman, George Clinton and Steve Reich, while also composing and performing frequently on film soundtracks.
He began with a khaen, an ancient wind instrument from Laos. He said that that he can trace the instrument back thousands of years as the origin of digital media.
"You have a parallel set of objects – the pipes – that are either on or off, arranged in order that can be used in different combinations," he said to an awed audience. "So, this is like a 16-bit number. You can trace the direct line of descendants from this down to the modern computer."
Lanier also performed on a Hungarian instrument, which he said has never been documented, as well as an on an oud, which is a stringed instrument similar to a lute.
Another connection between music and computers comes from manufacturer Hewlett-Packard, which began as a musical instrument technology company, Lanier said.
"[Hewlett-Packard's] very first product was a synthesizer for Walt Disney to make sounds for the ‘Fantasia' animated film," he said.
In discussing the birth of the Internet in the 1980s, Lanier said that its inception as a network to exchange information between individuals presented a chance to bypass possible tyrannical government control over information flow. He said it also presented an opportunity for musicians to have their music reach a larger audience without relying on record labels for distribution.
However, Lanier said, things took an unexpected turn around the year 2000, when the music industry took a major financial hit from unrestricted online music sharing.
"I noticed that just about every week or so, I was taking part in a benefit event at a jazz club for these celebrated figures who needed money for an operation," he said. "They were doing so well. Then, suddenly, they have no record sales, and they're stuck."
While some musicians are succeeding in the digital age in financial terms, Lanier said, his research shows there are still many more that are not.
"My measurement is the question, ‘Are you doing well enough to start a family?' If you're not, then you can't keep it up," he said. "It's not a livelihood."
Lanier also said that he believes an income disparity was created through the ideals of Internet entrepreneurship.
"The Internet was supposed to offer opportunity for people to become micro-entrepreneurs and form new businesses quickly," he said. "What's happened instead is a huge recession, an incredible widening of the income gap and economic befuddlement. Meanwhile, the financial sector keeps getting bigger and bigger without doing anything because what it's supposed to do is manage risk, and I'm saying this as a pro-financier."
The advancement of technology in the Internet age is bringing with it a "creep of human obsolescence," Lanier said, which has already began to eliminate jobs in return for more convenient services through technology. He contends the principal can be applied to both the music and journalism industries, among many others.
"Right now, the odds are way worse against you to make it as a musician than they used to be," he said. "We've definitely been reducing the options. It's much, much harder."
Near the close of his presentation, Lanier stressed that people should never fully accept what is presented to the public in terms of information through technology without asking questions.
"Do not accept the world as given to you in terms of technology," he said. "Don't accept what you're told at face value because it's more often than not wrong. We make this stuff up. We have a huge degree of latitude to do it better than we're doing it. You must not be complacent. Please be super skeptical of things that are on your smartphone or tablet or computers. It's very, very crude."
Developing the future
At the start of Lanier's question-and-answer session in the Louisiana Digital Media Center, Stephen David Beck – director of the LSU School of Music, area head for CCT's Cultural Computing focus area and director of the university's Arts, Visualization, Advanced Technologies and Research, or AVATAR, Initiative – introduced Lanier as "a very well-known figure to all of us in the computer music world and the virtual reality world."
"His work stems from when he was at Atari to developing VPL Research with hand controllers and interactive systems for virtual reality, as well as his recent writings that really talk about the Internet in ways that don't necessarily take a positive or contrarian view, but a critical eye," Beck said of Lanier.
During the session, Lanier discussed the growth of computer science research and how he feels the field is more pragmatically affected by a person's philosophy than others, calling it the "most religious technical field."
"If you're a lawyer, a doctor, a mechanical engineer, musician or artist, you can get by all day long with your feelings whether or not souls are real or whether the brain is just a machine or something different," he said. "You don't have to pay attention to those types of things. But, in computer science, these ideas have a direct pragmatic effect on your work. If you believe the brain is a machine, you tend to build your machines like a brain, like they're one in the same. However, if you hold more of a mystical view of people, your systems could be overly manual and allow more choice."
Most software developers tend to lean to one extreme or the other, Lanier said.
"We tend to design either as if people are machines or ultra-mystical," he said. "It's very hard to find that human balance."
Lanier argued that the information economy, which he deems is falsely construed, ruins markets. He said that he feels markets should reward more people, reflecting new wealth and capabilities, which occurred in previous technological revolutions. Without such reward, the middle class and the basis of democracy are threatened and, with it, the future of human dignity lies in the balance.
Lanier also touched on the ways network technologies are concentrating wealth while reducing overall growth, threatening the middle class and, therefore, democracy. As more industries are transformed by digital technologies, he said, huge waves of fresh yet permanent unemployment are likely to result, a trend already seen in many creative industries.
In order to avoid the collapse of the middle class, Lanier said that he supports revolutionary concepts such as monetizing data that is currently shared cost-free by users, an idea he argues just might save the economy.
"If information costs money, government would be scaled by the amount of tax given," he said. "If we say that information is free, that gives government infinite power."
Lanier also fielded questions from the audience regarding how to handle the scientific method in regards to free will and if online communication can help to curb bullying.
Concerning the latter, Lanier said data on bullying is difficult to obtain, and that the practice appeared even in the earliest forms of online communication. He added that he worries that online bullying today is damaging many children, especially teens.
"I've noticed that it's making small-town America become ugly," he said. "If you're in a small town and someone says something derogatory online about someone else, it has more of an effect on that person's life than it does if they're in a larger city."
Additional sponsors for Lanier's appearance at LSU included the Janice H. Pellar Creative Arts Entrepreneurship Project at the College of Music & Dramatic Arts, an innovative approach to teaching skills performing arts students how to transfer their creative skills such as multi-tasking, attention to detail and collaboration into the workforce; and the LSU Performing Arts Series, funded by a special student fee to help underwrite the costs of bringing world-class performances to the LSU campus and community.
To learn more about Jaron Lanier, visit www.jaronlanier.com.