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Out of the Past, Off of His VRML Lawn.
January 3, 2010 3:05 PM   Subscribe

Jaron Lanier's new book, You Are Not a Gadget -- a cri de coeur on the commercialized, despoiled, fallen Eden of the modern Web-- is reviewed here . MetaFilter name-checked by reviewer, though with the aid of a shoehorn. The Mondo 2000-era dreadster explains himself here. Lanier, previously discussed on MeFi.
posted by darth_tedious (43 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
What's a "dreadster"?

Oh, Jaron Lanier.

Never mind.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 3:13 PM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Lanier is best known as a pioneer of virtual reality and an early star of Wired magazine.

The former is because of the latter. I have no idea why this guy is still around. Can anyone name something he's contributed to the hive mind that was actually, you know, important?
posted by fatbird at 3:13 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


"It would be fitting to rue Lanier's fate as mere sausage for search algorithms if he had organized his opinions into a coherent thesis. The reality is that Lanier's stimulating, half-cocked ideas are precisely the kind of thinking that gets refined and enlarged on vibrant Web places like Marginal Revolution, Boing Boing, and MetaFilter."
posted by ericb at 3:16 PM on January 3, 2010


Suddenly, I feel performance anxiety.

Lanier is best known as a pioneer of virtual reality and an early star of Wired magazine. 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. In what may have been a high point, Lanier's V.R. glove was used to power the graphics in a Grateful Dead video. Lanier lost his company in the early '90s in a then-legendary flameout, and he has been working in the seams of academia and Silicon Valley ever since.

I wonder if he would have been as rueful about the rise of digital culture if he hadn't failed to get rich from it.
posted by Joe Beese at 3:21 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Can anyone name something he's contributed to the hive mind that was actually, you know, important?

Well, I liked this idea: Archival Roaches.

A lot of fools work on a lot of things. Though I am probably a fool, I like his work.
posted by localhuman at 3:23 PM on January 3, 2010


Well, I liked this idea: Archival Roaches.

Ah, yes, "An archive of the New York Times Magazine and other materials will be encoded into the DNA of cockroaches which will be released in Manhattan."

But, what happens when your eyeglasses break?
posted by ericb at 3:28 PM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


When I think of people worth paying attention to because they're likely to have some big impact on the world, this is not the first type of person to come to mind.
posted by fatbird at 3:33 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Why is he eating that bagpipe? If that is Web 3.0, I don't want any part of it!

NOT-MUSICIAN-IST
posted by mccarty.tim at 3:41 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I like the web BECAUSE it's a fallen Eden. If I were to tell the people of 1985 about Encyclopedia Dramatica, they'd probably not want any of it. And yet, it's one of the best sources of jet-black humor online, and people clearly like it.

People have learned to be adept at sorting the filth (that's a different definition for everyone) and the content online. The internet is so big, that it doesn't matter if it's mostly a fallen Eden of what would have been a VR dreamsphere or some neo-Roman hall of advanced reasoning. It's like how 97% of the water on earth being non-potable doesn't make the beverages humans can drink any worse.
posted by mccarty.tim at 3:46 PM on January 3, 2010 [7 favorites]


The internet has never been better than right now. Seriously.

It is so deep and wide and populated and more international than its ever been.

Nearly everything that I found interesting or hilarious in the past year was written by complete strangers on the internet.

(I didn't rtfa though, so perhaps I'm missing something in this guys viewpoint)
posted by memebake at 3:48 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


It is strange to suggest that the net has made individual creation and thought less valuable and then to use the example of the iphone, a phone that is built around hooking into the net, as being something that the net somehow hinders.

Lanier is worth listening to. He has said interesting things in the past. I've heard him speak and been impressed. I saw him talk about how computer interfaces are brittle and how that makes integrating simulators hard. He was absolutely correct and a worthwhile antidote to a lot of what was being said by others at the time.

Does he propose anything constructive in the book? Or is it an extension of his complaint that he couldn't correct his own wikipedia entry?
posted by sien at 3:51 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


[...]unfettered--and anonymous--ability to comment results in cynical mob behavior, the shouting-down of reasoned argument, and the devaluation of individual accomplishment[...]
Too... many... opportunities...

"And that's why we need favorites."
or
"Bah, Penny Arcade did it first!"
or
"You've got to think for yourselves! You're ALL individuals!"

"You are not a gadget!"
"We are not a gadget!"
"I am!"
"Shhh!"

posted by PontifexPrimus at 3:56 PM on January 3, 2010


Well, I liked this idea: Archival Roaches.

I had a roach scurrying around with a sticky note from when this came up on metafilter, but I think the cats intercepted that packet.

The most important thing to store on Archival Roach would be a recipe for a really good insecticide, because I can see us really needing that in case of a nuclear holocaust. Probably a tailored virus.

The former is because of the latter. I have no idea why this guy is still around. Can anyone name something he's contributed to the hive mind that was actually, you know, important?

I am utterly sick of this bullshit, r.e. attacking the messenger rather than confronting, engaging, analyzing, and taking action the message. It is tedious noise when it's Cory, and it is tedious now. Take your 5 minutes of hate elsewhere.

I wonder if he would have been as rueful about the rise of digital culture if he hadn't failed to get rich from it.


He's probably one of the best people to talk about the corporatization of public space. In the same way that a villager with one or two cows is the best person to talk about the tragedy of the commons.
posted by sebastienbailard at 4:08 PM on January 3, 2010 [5 favorites]


I am utterly sick of this bullshit, r.e. attacking the messenger rather than confronting, engaging, analyzing, and taking action the message. It is tedious noise when it's Cory, and it is tedious now. Take your 5 minutes of hate elsewhere.

I'll grant you that I'm being snarkier than normal, which is typical for me when Lanier is the subject. But I still don't know what message I should be bothering to engage and analyze. Whether cockroaches are a good storage medium?

The fact of the matter is that Lanier, like Paris Hilton, has a lot of undeserved celebrity within geek circles because he was doing something that fit well with their techo-boosterist heyday. Thus his messages get passed around and a lot of people go "whoa..." when the messages aren't actually that interesting. Facebook profits by violating its user's privacy? That's not a new insight, and wasn't when Friendster was being accused of the same thing.
posted by fatbird at 4:23 PM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Not available on Kindle? How am I supposed to read this?
posted by entropicamericana at 4:35 PM on January 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


Here is my Jaron Lanier story, passed along during my time in the games industry. I can't verify the authenticity but it rings true and I trust the guy who told me.

Said guy was working as a programmer for a company on a project to make a spinning plate video game. You had a bunch of plates, and moved the guy among them to keep the plates spinning. He did the programming of said game and it was functional and good.

Lanier was assigned as the musician. And by musician, he merely had to take a somewhat basic song (I believe it was an old standard, like you might hear playing on a carousel. Something established, something basic, something meant to be shoved out quickly. The whole game was basically this, by the way.

Anyway, the music came back and it was wrong. That is, it had all sorts of wrong notes. My programmer acquaintance brought this up and Lanier explained that he thought the song could be improved with a couple differently-scaled notes.

So this simple plate spinning game was created with, basically, bad music.

What amuses me the most was that the game was apparently unwanted (you think?) and ultimately was sold to a bread company. Who wrapped it in as a freebie in loaves of bread.

Whatever program or project you work on in the future, just remember... at least it wasn't included in loaves of bread.
posted by jscott at 4:38 PM on January 3, 2010 [14 favorites]


Wonder Bread!
posted by ericb at 4:42 PM on January 3, 2010


Although I find myself feeling a little like I’m having some kind of out of body experience writing this - I do agree with Jaron about some of the things his book is (apparently - I haven’t read it yet) about.

the person who can write this :
The internet has never been better than right now. Seriously.It is so deep and wide and populated and more international than its ever been.
obviously doesn’t even understand the frame of reference that Jaron is writing in. Yes, in many ways it is deep and wide, but so much possible diversity has been lost. I suspect, for instance, that for the person writing the quote above “the internet” is more or less synonymous with “the web”. The great Cambrian explosion of possibilities of the early days has been reduced to a largely html-based monoculture. As someone else who "failed to get rich" during those days, I remember a time of terrifyingly utopian dreams - none of which were about monetising eyeballs or relationships, but were aimed at *literally* trying to invent new languages and ways of thinking. At the time, I positioned myself a long way away from the Mondo2000 cyber-hippie Lanier crowd because they seemed to lack any capability of self-criticism or rigorousness - for a European, they looked like a lot of rather spoiled west-coast kids divorced from the real world. But looking back now, I feel more warmth towards them, I can see that we were all basically fighting the same battles - we all thought that by creating new tools for people to think and create with that we could make the world a better place. And that really didn’t happen. The web is great, but it’s still basically text and pictures and the odd video. It’s the same stuff that’s been around for hundreds of years, but done better. Some things have been improved by the net, but human beings haven’t changed much. I suspect that’s the heart of Jaron’s sadness, not that he “failed to get rich”.
posted by silence at 4:46 PM on January 3, 2010 [17 favorites]


Oh god, far be for the Internet to not be quirky, small collective that it used to be.

You say you love the internet and are part of the “loyal opposition” within the industry you’re criticizing; you even currently work with Microsoft. So what’s the way forward? If you could re-route the metaphorical boat, where would you point it?

The architecture of the internet must support a global, universal micropayments capability. In this way, anyone could charge for information made available online, whether it is music or a program for a future robot. A silly YouTube-like prank might generate a windfall for a silly teenager, while a scholar’s writing might be only occasionally accessed, but over a long period might still generate enough income to be of use. People could then re-create the best social formula that has been achieved thus far in human experience. Middle class people could own something- the information they produce- that would give them sustenance as they have children and age.

In order for this scheme to work, there would have to be some structural changes introduced gradually, as I explain in the book. This direction is the only way to create a human-centric internet, instead of one that serves the cultists who believe in information more than people. It would not attempt to make information free, but instead make it affordable. It is worth noting that this is exactly how the web would have developed if the initial design proposal for it, dating back to the 1960s, had been carried out. (This was Ted Nelson’s vision.) It is the obvious way to design the network if people are your top priority.


Micropayments, he is from the 90's. And no, youtube pranks will never make money because people won't pay for stupid jokes, especially teenagers.

And really, what sort of structural changes can you make to make information not copyable to hell and back. The Genie is not going to be shoved back into the bottle, no matter how much you whine.

I think he misses the small Internet, that contained no large corporation, and mainly consisted of geeks webpages. He opines that the individual is now marginalized on the Internet, how people just click the first link in Google to find information. Individuals aren't marginalized on the Internet because of it's structure, they are marginalized because millions of people now exist on the Internet. It's the same reason newspapers are dying, they no longer have a monopoly on our attention.

He wants a people focused Internet, I fear it's because he thinks the Internet no longer focuses on him. I don't know of a way that the Internet could be focused on people unless it made a large majority of users on the Internet into passive viewers.
posted by zabuni at 4:47 PM on January 3, 2010 [6 favorites]


I think there's a lot to say for and against the things that Lanier is saying. I feel that he's really hit the nail on the head with some of these points -- music is distressingly retro, culture having moved into a "recycling" phase where we repackage the best moments from the 20th century. I'm not sure if this is actually related to other points that he's making, but I believe it to be incontrovertibly true. He's also right about like-minded bubble communities forming that only reinforce the common biases of the participants, who never venture beyond their bubble. He's right about the small-minded forum shoutdowns that dominate discourse in many locales.

However, I think all that stuff about valuing information over people -- I disagree with this. This is just the old idea of valuing money over people, and valuing information that can be used to make money. Also, I don't know how you can deal without aggregators like Google; wouldn't things only become more balkanized and isolated without search engines? As for these bubbles, you can't complain about them and complain about "information globalization" at the same time. Many of the differences between the Lanier and the review can be resolved simply by saying that "decision by committee" works in some contexts, and not in others. I think that the review is correct that part of what Lanier is complaining about, whether he knows it or not, is the fact that internet access is now quite common, whereas it was the playground of intellectuals until the late nineties i.e. the unwashed masses are upon us. Finally, the idea of a government content database that only represents each piece of data once sounds quite ludicrous to me on many levels.
posted by Edgewise at 5:16 PM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


silence: I suspect, for instance, that for the person writing the quote above “the internet” is more or less synonymous with “the web”. The great Cambrian explosion of possibilities of the early days has been reduced to a largely html-based monoculture.

Well, I was on the internet in 1993 ... a bit ... and from where I was at that point, most of usenet seemed to be full of jokes about Barney the Dinosaur, and most web pages seemed to be about Monty Python. There was something called gopher, the aim and point of which I never really grasped. There was a tragic, massive search problem that hadn't been solved at that point, so the overall experience was less like surfing and more like stumbling around very slowly.

I'm sure there were very philosophical corners of that early net, with mind bending possiblities being explored. In fact, I'd wager that there are the same number, if not more, of similar minded people discussing similar things today. But now its a niche. I would argue that back then it was also a niche, but the people involved mistook it for a wild new frontier.
The web is great, but it’s still basically text and pictures and the odd video. It’s the same stuff that’s been around for hundreds of years, but done better.
I disgaree, I think thats an oversimplifying deconstruction. Of course the web is made up of text and pictures. Thats what turned out to be most convenient. But its not just an old thing being done better. Its a new thing, evolving in directions that early net-philosophers had no way of guessing at. The internet is only about 6000 days old, and it has already transformed the way people work and socialise. And I think it is starting to change the way people think about the world, other people and themselves, but these kinds of huge changes take a long time to really become apparent and discernable. So I wont get into that. But I think it is pretty clear that what we are experiencing is not just something old done better, its something completely new in human history.
posted by memebake at 5:19 PM on January 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Ahh, Mondo 200. A bunch of crazy futurists who got ahold of Dawkins's worst theory, and proceeded to horribly misunderstand that in predicting that the future was just around the corner. On the other hand, they probably paved the way for associating that theory with goatse and cat pictures, so it's not all bad.

HTML or rather HTTP+ECMAscript is overall turning out to be a good thing IMO. It's not that we didn't have collaborative teleconferencing and collaboration tools like Google Wave in '93 (or even as far back as '83.) The big problem was that those applications were chained to proprietary networking schemes like AppleTalk or worse, Token Ring Networks, or horribly expensive in terms of hardware, software, and dedicated bandwidth.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:30 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I was horrified to hear myself say, when videogames came into the conversation the other day, "well oh yeah? We had PONG!" And then there was silence and I thought, really, who am I trying to impress here? Pong sucked.

So I'm going to stop saying shit like that. Nostalgia is all very well, but there's a difference between fondly remembering one's dialup connection and actually using it.

As for the grand visions of creating a new reality and whatnot, they always struck me as similar to hippies declaring we'd all fuck our way to enlightenment. Being part of change is intoxicating, and when you're intoxicated, you tend to think you've rediscovered the nature of reality.
posted by emjaybee at 6:09 PM on January 3, 2010 [5 favorites]


Oddly, if I was asked to identify a single moment that defined the turning point when digital technology took the direction he decries, I would point to his own presentation at SIGGRAPH in 1989. Nothing about him, or the content of his presentation, just that it was the first time I'd seen standing room only spilling out into the hallway for a panel discussion, instead of a technical paper. Prior to that time, things were driven by programmers focused on how to build new tools, after that time, it switched to journalists and eager users who wanted to talk about the implications of the new tools.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:26 PM on January 3, 2010 [4 favorites]


Not having read the book and having followed Lanier's career only tangentially, I may not be in the best position to comment, but nevertheless I feel he may be on to something.

Computers have turned from dream machines into glorified fax machines. "Teh social" is all anyone talks about these days - perhaps because it doesn't require any specialized knowledge. The "great Cambrian explosion of possibilities" (thanks silence for that expression) has made way for Twitter updates about puking cats.

It's like the future never happened.
posted by eeeeeez at 6:26 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


This thread actually demonstrates some of the very things he is saying.
posted by stbalbach at 6:46 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I once worked with a guy who had met Jaron Lanier. He said Jaron smelled bad.
posted by kcds at 6:51 PM on January 3, 2010


I think that zabuni nailed it. Lanier was one of the first real Internet celebrities--I can still remember seeing him on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, waaaaay back in the day, and being excited that not only was he in the WSJ, but that I knew who he was already--in part because he was working on some of the technologies that William Gibson and Neal Stephenson had assured us were the wave of the future, at a time when the technology to work on them barely existed, and in part because, with his dreads and work in world music, he was pretty much the antithesis of the Woz/Bill Gates-type nerd. But, if he's still mooning over micropayments--the rock upon which Ted Nelson's (and, very nearly, Scott McCloud's) career ran aground--then he might as well join Clifford Stoll in the only coffeeshop in the Bay Area that doesn't have wifi, wherever that is.

And I'm pretty fucking sick of hearing would-be pundits describe their extended essays as "manifestos". Lanier has already used the word to label his warning to us about Skynet taking over; you'd think he'd know better this time around.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:28 PM on January 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Lanier has bundled up his old internet droppings in dead tree form and proposes to lecture us on the disappointment of the internet? No. Fucking. Way.
posted by telstar at 12:20 AM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Being part of change is intoxicating, and when you're intoxicated, you tend to think you've rediscovered the nature of reality.

Perhaps I was intoxicated, and then, perhaps it was real. I still believe that virtual reality was - as Wm. Bricken of Hitlab said - "the first tool of metaphysics". The technology itself was mind altering. For me. Just saying.

I don't know how much Jaron Lanier contributed to the castration of VR (as it has since been swallowed, digested and regurgitated into its impotent form by corporate/military interests), but I do remember his conflict with Bricken in 92. Ironic? Is there *anyone* working on the pure science of VR anymore? I think that is a more interesting question than the web one.

And, all of this discussion (and Lanier's essay) on Web 2.0 is hard for me. I always felt that Lanier was self-serving and opportunistic, but some of his points in this new book mirror my own cyber-dysphoria of late. I am not nostalgic (it was fucking hard to navigate via UNIX and dial up - let alone do searches), but I am sad. My internet-philia has died; I find almost no joy in anything online.

Yes, there is greater access to wondrous people, events, ideas ... there is more *stuff* for the consuming mind. But, no, there is not the same playing, invention, serendipity, illumination ... and even transformation of the early (pre web) internet.

I am not able to wrap my mind around the why; perhaps I am too close to it. It is just interesting (even a relief) to see that perhaps my present state of mind may not be due entirely to my 'ennui'.
posted by Surfurrus at 1:27 AM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Computers have turned from dream machines into glorified fax machines. "Teh social" is all anyone talks about these days - perhaps because it doesn't require any specialized knowledge. The "great Cambrian explosion of possibilities" (thanks silence for that expression) has made way for Twitter updates about puking cats.

The in the long run internet is going to reflect human civilization and culture the way every other medium has. The net's early adopters - gopher? I remember when gopher came out, and was describewd as a "much better ftp" - have been spoiled by a web that skewed heavily to their tastes. The huddled masses had not yet begun to create their own content en masse. But now that they have, well, the internet looks like everything else.

That's the true "long tail" story of the internet - that for any given person only a very tiny part of it will be very important and worthwhile, while the vast majority is viewed as uninterested. The fact that the corporations are looking to the mass appeal stuff should come as no surprise either - look how quickly they embraced television.

If you want better content, or a more utopian internet, you need to educate and raise future users to want to consume better content. You need to want the future generations to want utopia in every aspect of their lives. People have to want to freedom along with its attendant chaos more than they want the comfort and security that comes with ceding control to others.

What Lanier represented in the 90's was the possibility that the utopian future would actually come to pass, at least online. You can't blame him for trying, or dreaming.
posted by Pastabagel at 6:26 AM on January 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


you need to educate and raise future users to want to consume better content

Errm, don't you mean... produce better content?
posted by fake at 6:42 AM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Pastabagel: "... in the long run internet is going to reflect human civilization and culture the way every other medium has. ... The huddled masses had not yet begun to create their own content en masse. But now that they have, well, the internet looks like everything else. ... If you want better content, or a more utopian internet... People have to want to freedom along with its attendant chaos more than they want the comfort and security that comes with ceding control to others.."

So much for that then.

But this is the story of all utopian movements, isn't it? The visionary new Way becomes just a new framework in which people's trivial and sordid natures express themselves - leaving the visionaries embittered.

God must love naive young idealists - since She makes so many of them. But they don't seem to handle disillusionment very well. I mean, to give humankind a revolutionary new communication technology and have them use it to post videos of their cats riding vacuum cleaners is, from a certain perspective, not only amusing but touching.
posted by Joe Beese at 7:01 AM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think a lot of folks here are mistaking nostalgia for the vision we once had of what the internet might become for nostalgia for the early 90s internet itself. And Lanier sometimes falls into the same trap. Of course, the old days weren't better, but they weren't weighed down by the same problems we have now. The web has been heavily co-opted by corporate capitalism. It has played out much of its formal/technical potential. For those who once thought (naively, I felt, even then) that "information had to be free", that the net was un-co-optable, that the formal/technical potential of the net was limitless, this is bound to be demoralizing - and well, maybe more of us should be demoralized. Instead of hating on idealists for, bizarrely, being idealists. When did we get the idea that being good practitioners required us to dismiss and ridicule our blue-sky astronauts, our dewy optimists? We need them. They help us reflect. They make us better people. And if this thread is any indication, they're a dying breed.

It's easy to say that, well, of course the web had to develop somewhere; the web had to change; and therefore nostalgia for a time when there was more possibility and less actuality is inevitable, unsurprising, blah blah. But nothing is more unsurprising and less interesting than the "no new thing under the sun" attitude, and the way people cling to it for all kinds of self-serving, small-minded, unimaginative reasons. Instead of admitting we've often failed to live up to our ideals and imagining new ways to tackle new problems - to get/stay on track.

What happened to "the best of the web"? When did it become so reluctant to be self-critical, so reluctant to evaluate itself by the standard of its once great aspirations and hopes?

Lanier might be a really bad messenger, but if his work can help encourage us to step back and ask "How are we doing, web community? Are we living up to our ideals?", then it's worthwhile, imho.
posted by macross city flaneur at 8:39 AM on January 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


You can't blame him for trying, or dreaming.

Should have just dittoed that. But apparently you can blame him. We live in an age that flees player-hating, but is all ABOUT dreamer-hating.
posted by macross city flaneur at 8:49 AM on January 4, 2010


Jaron's lament about the lost possibilities of the internet reminds me of an essay by historian Roger Chartier which torpedoes the romantic notion that new technologies -- i.e. innovations in the production and distribution of printed matter -- diffused the ideas of Voltaire and Rosseau to the masses and paved the way for the French Revolution. One of the ways he does this is by showing that the vast majority of printed material in pre-Revolutionary France was porn.

What was the alternative Lanier had in mind? An enlightened republic of the Internet, in which self-appointed philosopher-kings used YouTube to bring "virtu" to the great unwashed?
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 10:28 AM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


macross city flaneur: "What happened to "the best of the web"? When did it become so reluctant to be self-critical, so reluctant to evaluate itself by the standard of its once great aspirations and hopes?"

Not sure who you're referring to here.

Some people hoped the Web would free the politically oppressed. It hasn't - although it's still trying.

But some people hoped it would help them commit fraud. And some people just wanted free porn. I'd say their aspirations have been fulfilled.

This is the problem with visionaries. They work on behalf of an idealized humanity that doesn't exist.
posted by Joe Beese at 11:13 AM on January 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


This is the problem with visionaries. They work on behalf of an idealized humanity that doesn't exist.

This. And we're made to feel bad by people like Macross City Flaneur because we don't get dewey-eyed when contemplating Lanier's vision of a better humanity.
posted by fatbird at 11:47 AM on January 4, 2010


Is there *anyone* working on the pure science of VR anymore?

A couple problems here. First, VR was never "pure science" as far as I understand the word science...rather, it is a technology. Second, you asked what torpedoed VR? I would say it torpedoed itself. Beyond providing people like Gibson with a great idiom, what value would it have brought to the table? Applications are actually pretty narrow. As a young programmer, I struggled to understand how it would make things easier to program if I was using big colored blocks instead of text. How does it make web browsing better if you actually go to the page in question? VR was never much more than a geeky idea that sounded a lot better in sci-fi than reality.

On the other hand, I think augmented reality could really make a splash, by providing an actually different kind of interface, rather than just another idiom.
posted by Edgewise at 1:51 PM on January 4, 2010


"is saying. I feel that he's really hit the nail on the head with some of these points -- music is distressingly retro, culture having moved into a "recycling" phase where we repackage the best moments from the 20th century."

I wonder if when I read Lanier and agree with some things he says, that those things also look as ridiculous to anyone paying attention to the particular medium he's discoursing on?

Take the example of the "retro" music, the thesis that we can't think of '00s music because everything is retro now. It's an attractive idea for folks who find themselves mumbling that everything sounds the same these days, or who came of age in whatever prior era.

That assumes three things, that "retro" in music is a new phenomenon, even among chart pop, and that the '00s didn't have sounds that are distinctly fashionable, and that we are good subjective judges of the nebulous idea of "date" in songs.

Retro, in pop music, is part of the inescapable fabric of post-modernism. Pastiche, parody, reference, they're the same conceptual action in the Beatles or Sha-Na-Na; it's only the referents that distinguishes them from Blondie or M.I.A. Insisting that Lanier's moment was special, was ahistorical, just isn't supportable—"retro" is not unique to now. Instead, he only realized "retro" during his life and extrapolates from there, just like every generation does when it discovers drugs and fucking.

The second contention, that you can't name music that sounds distinctly of the '00s is also false, and again locates the fault at Lanier. From the mainstreaming of the indie sound, to metal getting "popular," to auto-tune, there are plenty of easily "dated" sounds that came out in the '00s. If you can't tell a pop hit from now against one from the '90s, you're not paying attention, even if you can't articulate the difference (in which case, it's likely compression and the mp3 sound).

Finally, it takes years and years to sort out the cycles and fads of previous eras, and even then we're pretty sloppy about it. The Cars sound like an '80s band to me, even stuff that came out in the '70s. Devo too. The Pixies sounded like a '90s band in the '80s, and so did a lot of other stuff—The Goo Goo Dolls might as well be a terrible Replacements tribute band.

Even the argument that used to underpin Lanier's disdain toward current pop music, that sampling simply recycled, coasting on the goodwill of prior (unpaid) creativity, has become less relevant as sampling has decreased.

But, see, because Lanier doesn't pay attention to pop music, he misses a lot of the depth that pop music has, and I'd say that's a pretty common thing. Most people simply do not have time to investigate all the new music or movies or theater or art or whatever part of culture you want to talk about. They go see movies to be entertained, read books to be entertained, even read newspapers and magazines to be entertained, because they have full lives outside of that media. What Lanier doesn't realize is that for most folks, the internet is exactly the same way. When everyone putting up web pages was interested in the internet as a frontier, as a way of life, those web pages reflected that (ignoring for the moment that most of the early internet was fun more in potential than actuality), but as it became easier to use, it became something that folks did for entertainment, not art, even if the two overlapped.
posted by klangklangston at 2:26 PM on January 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Some people hoped the Web would free the politically oppressed.

Did they? Or did they extrapolate too enthusiastically from the demonstrated power of some de-centralized networks to disrupt the hierarchical organization of western societies to an overestimation of the internet's power to resist co-optation - even when controlled directly by the agents of hierarchy? And did they mistakenly neglect the radical parts of engineering culture (human beings and their ideological orientation) to focus too greatly on the supposedly determining character of technological form?

But some people hoped it would help them commit fraud. And some people just wanted free porn. I'd say their aspirations have been fulfilled.

The last I checked, porn and fraud created the internet. Remember hackers? Those tricksters who settled the web? Those folks who invented MUDs and blogs and "e-commerce" and streaming video, or at least made them all bear real fruit. If you think porn and fraud are killing the internet, then you don't know what the internet is. What's killing the internet is the slow increase in technical savvy of certain corporate opportunists and their manipulation of the regulatory structure to favor their interests. Not to mention the increasing groupthink of blogger culture, abetted by the increasing enervation of the hacker ethic.

This is the problem with visionaries. They work on behalf of an idealized humanity that doesn't exist.

Yes. If only we could get technologists to think less of human beings, the quality of technical objects would be so much higher! Lanier's original sin is clearly his demand that technology be considered in a human context, and valued for its power to transform human life, rather than acknowledging the Truth that technology is always most effective when it is imagined as somehow divorced from society. The latter isn't a kind of idealism - not at all - in fact, it's exactly how things are in "real life" on Mecha X, the planet where robots and autistics live quite well together, thank you very much.

And we're made to feel bad by people like Macross City Flaneur because we don't get dewey-eyed...

If I made you feel bad for not feeling bad, I apologize. I know how painful it can be to have one's cynicism interrupted.
posted by macross city flaneur at 7:45 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is the problem with visionaries. They work on behalf of an idealized humanity that doesn't exist.

The critical word in that sentence was 'idealized'.

A less idealized view of humanity and lucky technological guesswork might have landed you with an idea of something like the net we have now. Something that is useful for protesters in Iran, people on facebook or etsy, academics and scammers, pirates and pornographers.

Is the recycling of past music just a net driven thing? Electronic dance music was about the last big new thing in music and that's from the 1980s or even earlier. Perhaps it's just that popular music is a limited form. Classical music, jazz and just about everything have stagnated, why shouldn't pop music?
posted by sien at 8:59 PM on January 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


That assumes three things, that "retro" in music is a new phenomenon, even among chart pop, and that the '00s didn't have sounds that are distinctly fashionable, and that we are good subjective judges of the nebulous idea of "date" in songs.

I don't think that it assumes any of those. I'm sure the concept of "retro" styles goes way back further than the Renaissance. My personal complaint is that retro styles dominate the current landscape.

As for the idea that the 00's aren't distinctive, that's not necessary, either. Retro culture remixes old culture, and in the process, certainly adds or subtracts something. Neither I nor (or so it would seem) Lanier are saying that there's nothing new under the sun. What I object to is that it seems to me that there's less innovation, quantitatively and qualitatively.

I'm not sure whether I really understand your third assumption. Yeah, I feel I can tell when someone is working within a well-trodden path, if that's what you're saying. I'm not saying that it's something we're all going to agree on, but since we're discussing matters of taste, I take that for granted.

From the mainstreaming of the indie sound, to metal getting "popular," to auto-tune, there are plenty of easily "dated" sounds that came out in the '00s.

These are trends, not innovations. Mainstreaming...of something that's been around a while. A resurgence in the popularity of a thirty-year-old genre? And the use (or abuse) or autotune hails back to Cher's late nineties "classic."

If you can't tell a pop hit from now against one from the '90s, you're not paying attention, even if you can't articulate the difference (in which case, it's likely compression and the mp3 sound).

I believe that this is a bit of a straw man, at least compared to what I would argue. To say that retro styles dominate current culture is not to say that they can't be distinctive and current. It's all given a new spin. It would be utterly hyperbolic of me to suggest that music has stood absolutely still since '99.

Finally, it takes years and years to sort out the cycles and fads of previous eras, and even then we're pretty sloppy about it. The Cars sound like an '80s band to me, even stuff that came out in the '70s. Devo too. The Pixies sounded like a '90s band in the '80s, and so did a lot of other stuff...

This is true, though I might dispute some of the particulars. The Pixies still sound fresh to me today. As for The Cars, they sound very 80's to me, it's true, but they also sound like an 80's take on the 50's. This only makes sense, because 50's nostalgia and retro styles were popular in the 80's, and it seemed like this influenced a lot of 80's culture. Don't get me wrong; I still enjoy The Cars.

In fact, I would point to the 80's as a time when retro culture really started to develop into what it's become today. Again, retro is not new; listen to The White Album, and you'll run into shout-outs to the 30's, or even earlier (e.g. Rocky Raccoon). But on the balance, I'm unhappy with what I see as the current trickle of innovation in pop music, and the various underground scenes that orbit it (the ones that I'm familiar with). To me, it seems like everybody's trying to get back to some time when the music was better, while updating it with their own interpretation. Some people are doing it brilliantly, which is great, until you get the sense that very few people are trying to break new ground.

I recognize that the idea of "original" culture and art is technically impossible. It's been said that there's nothing new under the sun, and I'd be inclined to agree with that. Everything is a remix, the product of countless influences and exposure. But I do believe that there is a difference between a work which is influenced by the past, and one which is explicitly an effort to work within a well-worn tradition. Yes, it is a matter of degree, but once you reach a certain threshold, the quantitative becomes, for all practical purposes, qualitative.
posted by Edgewise at 6:22 AM on January 9, 2010


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