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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.”


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.”


Kevin Kelly and Steve Johnson (Illustration: Jason Holley, Wired)

This is a follow on to my earlier post about Steve Johnson’s new book, Where Ideas Come From.

These excerpts are from a conversation between Kevin Kelly, author of What Technology Wants, and Steve Johnson published in Wired:

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Kelly: Really, we should think of ideas as connections, in our brains and among people. Ideas aren’t self-contained things; they’re more like ecologies and networks. They travel in clusters.

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Johnson: I was particularly taken with your idea that technology wants increasing diversity—which is what I think also happens in biological systems, as the adjacent possible becomes larger with each innovation. As tech critics, I think we have to keep this in mind, because when you expand the diversity of a system, that leads to an increase in great things and an increase in crap.

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Kelly: Ten years ago, I was arguing that the problem with TV was that there wasn’t enough bad TV. Making TV was so expensive that accountants prevented it from becoming really crappy—or really great. It was all mediocre. But that was before YouTube. Now there is great TV!

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Kelly: To create something great, you need the means to make a lot of really bad crap. Another example is spectrum. One reason we have this great explosion of innovation in wireless right now is that the US deregulated spectrum. Before that, spectrum was something too precious to be wasted on silliness. But when you deregulate—and say, OK, now waste it—then you get Wi-Fi.

Johnson: This is another idea with a clear evolutionary parallel, right? If we didn’t have genetic mutations, we wouldn’t have us. You need error to open the door to the adjacent possible.

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Kelly: In my book, I quote the astrophysicist Paul Davies, who asks whether the laws of nature are “rigged in favor of life.” For my part, I think the laws of nature are rigged in favor of innovation.

Johnson: Life seems to gravitate toward these complex states where there’s just enough disorder to create new things. There’s a rate of mutation just high enough to let interesting new innovations happen, but not so many mutations that every new generation dies off immediately.

Kelly: Right. This is a big theme in your book, too—the idea that the most creative environments allow for repeated failure.


(Image: Doug Johnson at The Blue Skunk Blog)

In Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, William Powers quotes Henry David Thoreau who wrote that the man who constantly and desperately keeps going to the post office to check for correspondence from others “has not heard from himself in a long while.”

Sounds like a contemporary proclivity with so many who interrupt their lives to constantly check email, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. “Of the two mental worlds everyone inhabits, the inner and the outer, the latter increasingly rules,” says William Powers. “We’re like so many pinballs bouncing around a world of blinking lights and buzzers. There’s lots of movement and noise, but it doesn’t add up to much.”

“Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.'”

In her review of the book, Rasha Madkour points to Powers’ economic impact statement:

While recognizing that technology has made tasks like paying bills much easier and faster, Powers disputes the notion that it has made us more efficient. By interrupting our work to check our inboxes throughout the day, we’re actually becoming less productive because of the time it takes to refocus on the task at hand. Powers cites a study that found workers spending more than a quarter of their day managing distractions, adding up to $900 billion in economic loss in 2009.

High cost proclivities indeed.

Powers, interviewed by Bella English in the Boston Globe, tells the story behind the title of his book:

The more I connect digitally, the more I’m drawn to hard copy, so I decided to look at the history of paper and all related technologies. In reading Shakespeare, I stumbled on this moment where Hamlet pulls this thing out of his pocket that he called his tables. It was this fascinating example of a new technology where you wrote on pages (made of specially coated paper) with a stylus and you erased it at night. It was very much a 400-year-old version of what we’re doing today. It came to me that this thing was like his BlackBerry.

Focusing on seven individuals from previous eras, Powers explores how each of them used new inventions to make connecting with others easier. His point is clear: This is not a new problem. A more appropriate question to ask is how does a person live a life and use these tools while maintaining some balance.

Powers points to Benjamin Franklin who had a bit of social networking addiction. “He was constantly out and about, forming these new clubs and groups and associations, and he reached a point early in his life where he was just extended in too many directions, ” says Powers. “So he set up 13 goals he wanted to achieve. For example, he loved conversation, but he said he was going to aim for a little silence, too. It was not a case of withdrawing, but a case of looking for balance.”

Powers’ personal solution for seeking balance? Internet Sabbath. He and his family turn off the modem on Friday night and keep it off until Monday morning. Sounds a bit too fundamentalist for me, but I like the concept. Ten days spent hiking in Canada outside the range of cell or cyber felt pretty damn good.

John Markoff, technology journalist at the New York Times, invited Gary Snyder to write about technology, in this case his Macintosh computer.

Says Markoff, “Mr. Snyder might not seem the best person to ask to reflect on the milestones of the digital age. He is 79 and lives in the Sierra foothills in Northern California…Word of an Apple book replacement had not yet reached him in the California backcountry where he lives without electricity. He almost never uses a cellphone and has no use for BlackBerrys. He considers texting ‘abhorrent.’ But Mr. Snyder said he liked his laptop.”

So here’s Snyder’s homage. Those of you who, like me, consider their computer to be an intimate friend, will find communality here.

Why I Take Good Care of My Macintosh

Because it broods under its hood like a perched falcon,

Because it jumps like a skittish horse and sometimes throws me,

Because it is poky when cold,

Because plastic is a sad, strong material that is charming to rodents,

Because it is flighty,

Because my mind flies into it through my fingers,

Because it leaps forward and backward, is an endless sniffer and searcher,

Because its keys click like hail on a boulder,

And it winks when it goes out,

And puts word-heaps in hoards for me, dozens of pockets of gold under boulders in streambeds, identical seedpods strong on a vine, or it stores bins of bolts;

And I lose them and find them,

Because whole worlds of writing can be boldly laid out and then highlighted and vanish in a flash at “delete,” so it teaches of impermanence and pain;

And because my computer and me are both brief in this world, both foolish, and we have earthly fates,

Because I have let it move in with me right inside the tent,

And it goes with me out every morning;

We fill up our baskets, get back home,

Feel rich, relax, I throw it a scrap and it hums.

–Gary Snyder

Published in the New York Times by permission from the author.

For the must be shared file:

My SO David ran across a blog a few days ago that has kept both of us pretty fascinated. Yes, there are a lot of great blogs but this one is a stand out. If you are interested in the phenomenon of digital social networks, Greg Satell is worth your time. He’s our new favorite smart person.

And he’s even found a catchy name—Digital Tonto. (You can read here how Satell came up with that moniker.)

Here are two postings that I found particularly compelling:

The Primal Forces that Drive Social Networks

Top Posts of 2009

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Greg Satell (Photo: Greg Satell)