One of the original computer scientists, Jaron Lanier (who coined the phrase “virtual reality”) began his talk at City Lights by playing a mouth organ made of bamboo. It is from Laos and is called a khaen. 7,000 years old, it is the first prototype of the computer, according to Lanier. He referred to it as a 16-bit digital (on/off) instrument and gave its history, going back to when it was traded on the Silk Route. The Romans made a larger steam-driven version with planks for the holes. The planks evolved into a keyboard, and centuries later into the player piano, out of which evolved the programmable loom. From that came the calculator for general computation.
Jaron Lanier got into computers on or near the ground floor. He was born in 1960, and he is such an expert on the subject that he gets invited as a consultant to private islands, where he shows up with dreadlocks to his waist. A large man with a jovial attitude, he is like a friendly hippie.
Lanier spoke for an hour and a half without stopping, and he could have gone longer, with one thing reminding him of something else, going off on tangents. He started off by noting a contradiction in modern times: wealth and power are gravitating to the one percent and yet the new technology is de-centralizing power. He referred to WikiLeaks and various forms of social media. “Computers changed the nature of power.”
Composer Charles Ives was mentioned, an insurance man with innovative ideas concerning actuaries who gather data to assess risk and set rates. The original server farm: hundreds of women doing calculations. He said that programming was invented by women. This led to insurance company algorithms with a big computer operating on the principle of “others take the risk, you take the profit.” That sounds familiar, with banks and corporations making sure that profits are privatized and risk is socialized. The public pays with bailouts.
Lanier grew up in a geodesic dome in New Mexico with Jewish immigrant parents. He liked open shared information systems, Buckminster Fuller, and composing music. (It turns out he has recorded with someone I used to know, Mark Deutsch, who plays the bazantar — a stand-up bass with extra resonating strings like a sitar. I saw him perform at house concerts in Berkeley about five years ago. We were going to accompany him to Lanier’s house one night, but it never happened.)
He does not think things were better in the old days. Having water and electricity in the wall has improved the standard of living for most of us. So have vaccines. He noted there is “nothing special about this time or moment or any other.” Mankind will always have problems to solve. I thought that was an astute assessment, particularly when it comes to end-of-the-world predictions and manufactured crises which have been with us for centuries. It is refreshing to read old newspapers about how society is in the throes of decadent decline and the country is on the verge of falling apart.
He admits, however, that computers have introduced a diabolic dimension into world affairs. For example, “long-term capital,” where financial speculators use big computers for automatic high-volume trading where they assume all profits and no losses. It leads to crashes and meltdowns which affect the entire country — like the savings and loan scandal in the 1980’s (featuring Neil Bush, one of George Bush’s brothers). Deregulation has been causing problems for a long time. Later there was the phony energy crisis with California being soaked for ten billion dollars or more. When Enron fell apart from its internal contradictions and it looked like California might have a case when it came to being remunerated for its losses, “The Terminator” appeared from out of nowhere (politically speaking) to become governor and the issue went away.
Computers are used to calculate schemes where others take the risk, from bundled mortgages to high-frequency trading and student loans. I read that in Denmark, the college students have free tuition and are paid $900 a month to go to school, as if becoming educated is a benefit to society rather than something for which the young should be punished with crippling debts. Not surprisingly, those are tied to Wall Street.
Lanier noted that very few are making it on the internet. More and more musicians and journalists are out of work. He referred to “siren servers” which lure you in with free music files or cheap easy mortgages.
Some history: In the early 1800’s the Luddites rioted in England when they were worried that new and improved looms would take their jobs. Anyone who broke into a factory and trashed a machine was executed. Lanier thought Marx was wrong on his solutions (with communist dictators even more wrong), but very good as an analyst. People work in “a machine-defined environment,” and walk on machine-defined streets, with “human obsolescence anxiety.” An example of this is found in The Ballad of John Henry, a man competing against a machine.
The labor movement said that even if a job becomes easier (through automation) the workers should still get paid. This was a radical concept at the time.
In science-fiction a common theme is people becoming obsolete because of machines or aliens. Examples include The Time Machine by H.G. Wells and Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut. Lanier doesn’t like Henry Ford as a person, but Ford understood that his workers needed to afford his cars. You can’t have markets without customers; you need a strong middle class — which the internet is gradually eroding. He said the old covenant of being paid for easier work was ruined around 2000.
Also: the cost of choice. The information overload. Borges’ infinite library. Is information free? It draws you in so you can be spied on as the corporation forms a profile on you. He said there is no such thing as artificial intelligence, it is a misnomer. You have to pretend that people don’t exist behind the scenes in order for big brain computers to seem all-powerful. The big data comes from people.
Craigslist meant well, but it undermined many newspapers, taking away the ads. There is more social engineering in virtual reality than actual science. We have twenty or thirty years to fix the situation. He admitted he was wrong about his original concept of free information and free data for everyone. The concept has backfired. It lets the government spy on us, and fewer people are able to make a living in an information economy. More and more we have a culture of “informal benefits” (like barter) as compared to a formal economy (with steady jobs and financial security).
One possible solution would be universal micro-payments for whatever you provide on the internet (including when companies use your personal information for their own commercial purposes). The concept comes from Ted Nelson, a “pioneer of information technology” who coined the term “hyper-text” in html (with the “ml” signifying money loss?).
There wasn’t much time left for questions, but I asked him what the possibilities were for the government to shut down the internet — using any pretext, like a phony terrorist attack that threatened national security. This has been done in other countries to a limited extent. His response was curious, as if I had fed the wrong data into a computer that can only respond with “does not compute.” He struggled with the question for a few minutes, going on longer than he wanted. He finally said, “That’s the wrong question,” and that we have more to worry about from big computers than from the government. Perhaps we were operating with two different paradigms, with him assuming the government is on the side of the people and me not believing it anymore.
He ended the evening (before signing his new book, Who Owns the Future?) by playing the oud with his eyes closed and a dreamy expression on his face.
Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).