Truth-Sayer Jaron Lanier Receives Peace Prize

Few people have inspired Netopia as Jaron Lanier. At the Frankfurt Book Fair, Lanier received the Peace Prize of German Book Trade. A peace prize to a Silicon Valley-pioneer? While that may sound odd, Netopia applauds the jury’s choice. Jaron Lanier is no typical digital evangelist, quite the opposite. His criticism against the walled gardens of cloud services, the lack of inspired thinking in software development and the religious impulses of Silicon Valley-billionaires makes him one of today’s most urgent thinkers and a truth-sayer with no match.

Lanier’s opposition to techno-centrism is fierce, “cybernetic totalism” is his phrase: there is nothing inevitable about technology, he says. It is designed and developed by humans, with conscious decisions and responsibility along the way. However, as one software is added to another, the design decisions add up, limiting the scope and potential, building on the restrictions of earlier programming. Therefore, writes Lanier in You Are Not a Gadget – A Manifesto(Knopf 2010), he and his early day Silicon Valley peers would have laughed had someone told them that the greatest achievements of the digital revolution would be an encyclopaedia and a new version of Unix. Jaron Lanier holds the digital promise to a higher standard. In his Peace Prize-acceptance speech, Lanier stresses that new technologies that rely on “dignity destruction” for efficiency are cheating, “really efficient technology designs should improve both service and dignity”. So speaks a humanist.

Another recurring topic of Lanier’s is the obsession with mortality among Silicon Valley billionaires. The parallels to salvation (embrace digital faith), wishes for eternal life (trans-humanism) and the reliance on a greater power (techno-determinism) that are so prominent in the digital ethos, to Lanier are mere reiterations of familiar religious themes. However, in his speech, Jaron Lanier grants these pseudo-Christian concepts the benefit of the doubt and concludes that like so many other digital progressions, eternal life will end up eating its tail. Unless limited to an elite, it would demand restrictions on how many new people can be put into the world, ending up in an “infinitely stale gerontocracy”. What looks like creative destruction in many cases turns out to be truly conservative.

Another disappointment of Lanier’s is how the digital revolution did not end up making us better people. This is the part where he may be criticised for naivety. Again in the acceptance speech, Jaron Lanier expresses that he had hoped that through digital networks, we could have belonged to many different groups rather than organising in packs, or hives. (I would argue we do belong to many different groups, but each can still find a mirror or an opponent group). I see it as his take on the Filter Bubble-problem, the networks tend to connect like-minded people, creating echo-chambers where oddball ideas can start to look realistic. Lanier doesn’t say it out loud, but I can’t help but read it as a reference to the current so-called #GamerGate debate, where packs of men hiding under aliases on Twitter or forums like 8chan threaten and harass women who publicly criticise sexism in video games, to the extent that their physical safety cannot be upheld, even in their own homes. This is one of the worst examples of that horrible mix of perceived online untouchability, radical information freedom, misogyny and lack of consequence or accountability on the part of the intermediaries. If that is the prize we have to pay for so-called internet freedom, it’s not worth it.

Perhaps it’s not too late to change the tide, but the digital revolution did not deliver on its promises. Or, as Jaron Lanier put it in an interview for his most recent book Who Owns the Future(Allen Lane/Penguin 2013) – “I miss the future”