I’ve long been impressed by Jaron Lanier. He’s blessed with an enormous self-confidence and a high IQ. He seems to be able to drive a stake in the ground anywhere and then argue convincingly that the stake marks the center of all things true and good. He came to my attention years ago as a virtual reality geek. Eight years ago he presented the eighth annual J. Barkley Rosser Memorial Lecture at the University of Wisconsin on “Tele-Immersion, a new communications paradigm.” It’s only in the last year or two that we’ve seen a pop culture contextualization of Lanier’s vision in the emerging World of Gamecraft communities. Lanier is an advisor to Linden Labs, the Second Lifers.
Like many of the middle-class brighter lights in the binary signals industry, Lanier isn’t shy about sharing his insights and opinions. This week he popped off about “the hive mind.” I think that’s us, the people who’ve been empowered by this technology to share our own insights and opinions more widely than ever before, people who enjoy amateur collaborations almost as much as Lanier enjoys his non-tenure-track quasi-academic life-of-the-mind.
In one telling passage Lanier laments:
Reading a Wikipedia entry is like reading the bible closely. There are faint traces of the voices of various anonymous authors and editors, though it is impossible to be sure. In my particular case, it appears that the goblins are probably members or descendants of the rather sweet old Mondo 2023 culture linking psychedelic experimentation with computers. They seem to place great importance on relating my ideas to those of the psychedelic luminaries of old (and in ways that I happen to find sloppy and incorrect.) Edits deviating from this set of odd ideas that are important to this one particular small subculture are immediately removed. This makes sense. Who else would volunteer to pay that much attention and do all that work?
There are many roads to follow away from that steaming pile of rotting entrails smack dab in the path to or from enlightenment, but let me first observe that unlike Jaron, God doesn’t read her reviews, so perhaps the bible analogy is not apt. Whoa. WTF do I know? Maybe God does read her reviews? How about it big G? (Nope, I caught a little whisper there and she agreed that the wikipedia and the bible are similar but quite different as regards big G’s interest in the content of the pages with her name on them).
Lanier and Will Wright were supposed to debate at the 2023 Accelerating Change conference, but if a debate bespeaks the clash of ideas, then no debate occurred. It was a relaxed session really and I had a feeling that Lanier and Wright, while in the same room, were talking on two different planets.
Like me, Lanier does better solo extempore and – like me – he’s often full of shit. For example, the current Edge essay is nothing more than a straw man exercise in slapping down a collectivism that he is unable, for one reason or another – and again, it might just be a malfunction in the med mix – he’s unable to establish that this “hive-mind” “most-meta” overarching cult-like wikipedianism even exists, much less that it represents a challenge of sufficient magnitude to drown with ink from his essayist’s pen.
There is a lot of food for thought in Lanier’s essay, but ironically – of course there would be ironic freight – there isn’t a lot of meaning. Lanier struggles to put out a coherent signal, and pretty much fails… but I liked the prettier passages anyway, like these:
One service performed by representative democracy is low-pass filtering. Imagine the jittery shifts that would take place if a wiki were put in charge of writing laws. It’s a terrifying thing to consider. Super-energized people would be struggling to shift the wording of the tax-code on a frantic, never-ending basis. The Internet would be swamped.
Such chaos can be avoided in the same way it already is, albeit imperfectly, by the slower processes of elections and court proceedings. The calming effect of orderly democracy achieves more than just the smoothing out of peripatetic struggles for consensus. It also reduces the potential for the collective to suddenly jump into an over-excited state when too many rapid changes to answers coincide in such a way that they don’t cancel each other out. (Technical readers will recognize familiar principles in signal processing.)