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I have more to report on Pacific Standard Time but a channel change seems like a good idea right about now. So here are a few highlights from The Visionary, a portrait of Jaron Lanier by Jennifer Kahn in the New Yorker, July 11 & 18, 2011. (I am particularly fond of Lanier and have written about him previously, here, here and here.)

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Unlike more Luddite critics, Lanier complains not that technology has taken over our lives but that it has not given us enough back in return. In place of a banquet, we’ve been given a vending machine.

“The thing about technology is that it’s made the world of information ever more dominant,” Lanier told me. “And there’s so much loss in that. It really does feel as if we’ve sworn allegiance to a dwarf world, rather than to a giant world.”

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About his childhood:
“The trifecta for me was eating chocolate, listening to Bach, and staring at Bosch.”

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Part of what Lanier finds most regrettable about Facebook—the way it mediates social contact—is precisely what makes it so appealing to most people. “We use technology this way all the time,” Andy van Damn, a professor of computer science at Brown University, notes. “To create a layer of insulation. We send an e-mail so we don’t have to call someone on the phone. Or we call someone so we don’t have to go over to their house.”

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“My dad was more into ‘Be the Buckminister Fuller or the Frank Lloyd Wright’–be the weird outsider who becomes influential. Which is kind of where I ended up.”

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Lanier is like “an innovative painter who alternately courts and scorns the establishment.”

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My three children—Clate, Kellin and Bryce—in the 80s

As a species, we’ve been about parenting for a long, long time. For all the effort we have put in to rearing and raising our young, we still don’t agree on how best to do that job. But then again, there is little agreement on how to pick a partner (and who should do it), how to choose where to live, what to do for a job and how to optimize our health. Let’s face it: There’s a lot of basic stuff we don’t understand.

Trends in parenting are particularly fascinating because more than the other great unanswered questions, these tend to change with every generation. And it is so bloody loaded. How you raise your children speaks to the moral and lifestyle issues that everyone in every generation has to navigate for themselves. Anyone who grew up during the Mad Men era of the 60s remembers the easy disregard that children garnered, so boomers tried to raise their children with lots of self esteem and personal expression (while searching for that for themselves at the same time—with predictably mixed results). “Baby on Board” Gen-Xers, referred to by some as the “mommy war soldiers” go postal with each other over formula and diapers. For many of the young mothers coming up behind them there is a return to older values. These younger women, many of them part of the Mommy blogger subcluture, value the “New Domesticity”, crafting Martha Stewart perfect worlds for themselves and their children with fierce drive and determination. And then there are the books that become lightning rods for a particular parenting point of view such as Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer; Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua; The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin; and Home Game: An Accidental Guide to Fatherhood by Michael Lewis.

At the same time these parenting issues are being vociferously discussed,* other books question the core values of our culture in general. Just a few recent titles addressing these larger issues include You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier; Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle; and The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr.

So David Brooks’ is right in line with the trend with his soon to be released book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement. In his recent piece in the New Yorker, Brooks questions the qualities that we value most in our culture by profiling those individuals who did it all right, “by the book,” and are now considered successful members of the “Composure Class.” Brooks isn’t so sure, nor am I, that these values produce the types of individuals our world desperately needs now. A sampling from that article:

The young achievers are tutored in every soccer technique and calculus problem, but when it comes to their most important decisions—whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise—they are on their own. Nor, for all their striving, do they understand the qualities that lead to the highest achievement. Intelligence, academic performance, and prestigious schools don’t correlate well with fulfillment, or even with outstanding accomplishment. The traits that do make a difference are poorly understood, and can’t be taught in a classroom, no matter what the tuition: the ability to understand and inspire people; to read situations and discern the underlying patterns; to build trusting relationships; to recognize and correct one’s shortcomings; to imagine alternate futures. In short, these achievers have a sense that they are shallower than they need to be…

Harold was gripped by the thought that, during his lifetime, the competition to succeed—to get into the right schools and land the right jobs—had grown stiffer. Society had responded by becoming more and more focussed. Yet somehow the things that didn’t lead to happiness and flourishing had been emphasized at the expense of the things that did. The gifts he was most grateful for had been passed along to him by teachers and parents inadvertently, whereas his official education was mostly forgotten or useless.

Moreover, Harold had the sense that he had been trained to react in all sorts of stupid ways. He had been trained, as a guy, to be self-contained and smart and rational, and to avoid sentimentality. Yet maybe sentiments were at the core of everything. He’d been taught to think vertically, moving ever upward, whereas maybe the most productive connections were horizontal, with peers. He’d been taught that intelligence was the most important trait. There weren’t even words for the traits that matter most—having a sense of the contours of reality, being aware of how things flow, having the ability to read situations the way a master seaman reads the rhythm of the ocean. Harold concluded that it might be time for a revolution in his own consciousness—time to take the proto-conversations that had been shoved to the periphery of life and put them back in the center. Maybe it was time to use this science to cultivate an entirely different viewpoint.

And this memorable passage:

During the question-and-answer period, though, a woman asked the neuroscientist how his studies had changed the way he lived… “I guess I used to think of myself as a lone agent, who made certain choices and established certain alliances with colleagues and friends,” he said. “Now, though, I see things differently. I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. But it is all information that flows through us. The brain is adapted to the river of knowledge and exists only as a creature in that river. Our thoughts are profoundly molded by this long historic flow, and none of us exists, self-made, in isolation from it.

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* For a glimpse into the level of passion with which these issues are being discussed, you might want to read Why I can’t stop reading Mormon housewife blogs by Emily Matchar (on Slate) and then scroll through the comments (over 300 as of this posting). Whoa. Hit a nerve or what?


Jaron Lanier

Most of us can recognize people who think like us. It’s the ease we have in following arguments, the familiarity in the way someone moves from one idea to the next. Sometimes it is subtle, but when you share your thinking mother tongue with someone, there is comfort in that shared vernacular.

Most of us can also recognize when we run up against someone who has a completely different way of thinking about the world. I’ve had that sensation of dis-familiarity when I’ve sat with someone suffering from schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s. But I’ve also been exhilarated when I encounter an extremely different way of seeing the world. That’s what I have been feeling from the very beginning of the brilliant and provocative book, You Are Not A Gadget, by Jaron Lanier. A technologist who has been at a the forefront of software design and the Web, Lanier lays open many of the missteps made a long time ago that we have had to adjust to and accommodate. But things didn’t have to be the way they are, and paying attention to those errors is of importance in our decisions going forward.

Lanier describes his book as a manifesto, and in many ways it has the rhetorical power of a political declaration. Chunked into manageable, bite sized passages, You are Not a Gadget is a fistful of extraordinary insights and wisdom that come from a mind that can stand still and drill down 50 feet. He’s got extreme verticality, that’s for sure. And since I’m more horizontally inclined—more adept at covering lots of territory rather than staying in one spot and digging deep—the perspicacity of Lanier’s thinking just keeps coming with every page.

The thing about Lanier is he doesn’t take anything for granted. Everything is scrutinized. One of his key concepts that explains where things have gone wrong is what he calls “lock-in.” Once a software design is formalized and ubiquitous, everything must conform to that structure. Good ideas that don’t fit that particular approach cannot be considered. Lanier offers a number of great examples of this, but the one I particularly like is his discussion of the ubiquitous software concept of the file.

An even deeper locked-in idea is the notion of the file. Once upon a time, not too long ago, plenty of computer scientists thought the idea of the file was not so great.

The first design for something like the World Wide Web, Ted Nelson’s Xanadu, conceived of one giant, global file, for instance. The first iteration of the Macintosh, which never shipped, didn’t have files. instead, the whole of a user’s productivity accumulated in one big structure, sort of like a singular personal web page. Steve Jobs took the Mac project over…and soon files appeared.

UNIX had files; the Mac as it shipped had files; Windows had files. files are not part of life; we teach the idea of a file to computer science students as if it were part of nature. In fact, our conception of files may be more persistent than our ideas about nature. I can imagine that someday physicists might tell us that it is time to stop believing in photons, because they have discovered a better way to think about light—but the file will likely live on.

The file is a set of philosophical ideas made into eternal flesh. The ideas expressed by the file include the notion that human expression comes in severable chunks that can be organized as leaves on an abstract tree—and that the chunks have versions and need to be matched to compatible applications.

That’s from page 13, and so much more follows. The book’s five parts each deal with topics of profound importance:

What is a person?
What will money be?
The unbearable thinness of flatness
Making the best of bits
Future humors

I’m still swimming in this sea of extraordinary ideas and will be for a while. I am sure I will have more comments to make about the book as I continue reading it Until then, here’s a Lanierism to keep a spirit hopeful: “If it’s important to find the edge of mystery, to ponder the things that can’t quite be defined—or rendered into a digital standard—then we will have to perpetually seek out entirely new ideas and objects, abandoning old ones like musical notes.”


Margaret Kilgallen at work

A provocative article on Slate reviews Jaron Lanier’s latest book, You are Not a Gadget. Written by Slate senior editor Michael Agger, the essay digs into many of Lanier’s ideas and just says No. Lanier, one of the leaders in the early days of virtual reality and an respected Wired alum, is not a fan of Web 2.0, the hive mind, or where things are going in that online space. “He was the guy with the dreadlocks and the giant V.R. goggles perched on his forehead, the epitome of the hippie-shaman-guru strain in tech culture,” says Agger.

One of Lanier’s contentions is that creativity in music has suffered in the era of web access. It is all retro, says Lanier, and he challenges listeners to distinguish between music being made now and what was showing up 10 years ago. Although a somewhat distanced observer of that particular world, I feel he may have a point.

But this passage really caught me:

Lanier is a survivor and has good instincts: We need to be wary of joining in the wisdom of the crowds, of trusting that open collaboration always produces the best results…But his critique is ultimately just a particular brand of snobbery. Lanier is a Romantic snob. He believes in individual genius and creativity, whether it’s Steve Jobs driving a company to create the iPhone or a girl in a basement composing a song on an unusual musical instrument.

The problem is that the Web is much bigger now, and both Jobs and the bedroom oud player must, in their own ways, strive for attention from the hive mind.

Individual creativity vs the collective hive. The 19th century (and therefore outdated) “Romantic” notion of the artist as soloist, loner, isolate. The collaborative-heavy hegemony of the Web. These are just a few of the questions that are forming a new topology of creativity.

Pluralist to the core, I have always opted for “e) all of the above.” There are so many ways to make, create, invent, engender—who can say what’s sanctioned, what’s appropriate? But is that very idea an outdated notion as well?

I recently viewed the documentary, Beautiful Losers, by Aaron Rose. The film is a subtle and understated portrait of a group of (mostly) disaffected skateboarders, graffiti artists and musicians in the early 90’s who eventually turned to visual art. Brought together by a shared lack of pretension and the desire to just have fun, eventually they became their own art movement. Mostly self-taught and suspicious of the superficiality of the mainstream art world, they were committed to an extraordinarily fierce brand of self-expression. And while many went on to be very successful, that was not the driving intention.

There is a sweetness and uncomplicated quality about the film as well as many of the artists it features. It is an art underworld version of “build it and they will come”: The teeming audiences of kids that filled the ad hoc gallery shows in the early days found their way there without the aid of Facebook, Twitter or Gawk. Could it happen like that now? Probably not. The accelerated pace of the hive mind would make the slow, organic incubation that these folks enjoyed (and I would say, needed) less likely.

But then again, maybe these pervasive cybertechnologies will constellate a new kind of creative outpouring. We’re in the middle of watching this unfold, so it is hard to know for sure. But like I said, my tendency is always to go with e).

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