This is a blog about technology in society and how you can use it for good.
I’ve been exploring this theme for many years. It’s the subject of my book Who Owns the Future? and much of my work as an activist, technologist, and artist. I think it’s important to consider the social effects of technology — both its potential and its actual impact on people and culture.
To help others who share my interests, I’m starting a blog to cover topics that come up in my journalism, speaking engagements and research. Topics will include:
How our private data is used by governments, corporations, social media platforms, etc.
How technology can be used to make society more just, democratic and free
The history of technology. Where we are now. What’s next?
Updates on my work with the National Science Foundation Blue Sky Ideas program and other projects
Technology is often used to control, coerce and otherwise diminish human freedom. By: Jaron Lanier
Technology is for good when it’s about sharing, caring and extending our humanity, not when it’s about making more efficient systems of control. When digital technology is used to enhance human power and freedom, it can be a beautiful thing. When used to diminish humanity and freedom, there is something wrong with the technology itself.
There are several ways in which the freedom of individuals can be diminished through technological means:
– The most direct way is through surveillance and censorship. I would say this mostly happens through corporate interests, but governments also do it in some countries.
– Another way that people choose to diminish their own freedoms is by choosing addictive technologies that are designed to be addictive. There are many examples of this now: social media, gambling machines and so on. This one is tricky because there seems to be a voluntary element, but I still think the technology itself is defective if it diminishes individual freedom or humanity. I don’t think advertising should be allowed on digital platforms at all; advertising should only be allowed in public spaces such as billboards that no one has to look at if they don’t want to; online ads should be illegal for much the same
I’ve just finished reading Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, which is published next week. I found it a fascinating read, albeit one that is occasionally frustrating, and in this post I wanted to explore why.
I can’t go into great detail about the book here (for reasons I will get to later), but the central theme revolves around the idea that technology can be used for good or bad, and that in the last decade or so there has been a shift towards using it for bad. The bad he specifically refers to is the emergence of something he calls “digital Maoism”, which he defines as “the seductive belief that by promoting a culture of free sharing of facts and ideas, you promote freedom and empowerment. This is an extremely attractive idea, but it’s wrong.”
The book is ostensibly a manifesto, but it also contains some fascinating glimpses into Lanier’s life, his views on politics and society, and his thoughts on what we should do with our lives (many of which are familiar from previous interviews). It also contains some very personal attacks on some high-profile figures in the Web 2.0 world (I’ll get to them later).
“The title of Jaron Lanier’s new book, WHO OWNS THE FUTURE?, is one of those questions that seems like it should have an obvious answer: “I do!” or “We all do!” But Lanier argues that the way in which we are currently using technology is actually undermining our ability to own anything at all.
Lanier is not a Luddite; he has been a pioneer in virtual reality and other cutting-edge technologies for decades. He’s also a musician who has collaborated with Philip Glass, Yoko Ono, and others. In other words, he knows a thing or two about creativity and about how artists get paid for their work.
And what he sees now is not pretty.”
We can use technology to make the world a better place.
If we want to create more value in society, it should be done with software.
The best way to create value with software is by solving problems.
We need to focus on the biggest and most pressing issues.
We can’t do this alone: we need a diverse range of people, ideas and resources.
We need you: if you’re reading this, you’re probably one of the people who can make this happen.
When I was in my twenties, I worked on the first efforts to commercialize virtual reality. It was an exciting time, and one of the most intriguing aspects of that work was meeting all kinds of people who were interested in virtual reality for all kinds of reasons. The philosopher-novelist Don Ihde was an important early influence, as were people like Jaron Lanier, Thomas Zimmerman and Scott Fisher. I met these people when they were just starting out; they hadn’t achieved fame yet, but they were clearly destined for important things.
Jaron Lanier’s new book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now is a great one-volume introduction to what he has been warning about for years. As someone who lived through the first wave of internet startup culture and then did not live through the second wave (I have never had a Facebook account), I find his perspective compelling. He has some provocative arguments:
“If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.”
“Social media makes people mean.”
“Social media is making what you say meaningless.”
“You are losing your free will.”
“Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times.”
A decade ago, I was contacted by a young woman who was in the midst of an existential crisis. She had been a successful computer programmer, writing code that was compelling enough to be used by millions and admired by some of her peers. But she didn’t feel good about herself any more. She’d been working on a social-media platform, and although she wasn’t directly involved in the feature, she found out that it had been used to ruin the life of a teenager who committed suicide as a result. The company’s decision makers didn’t care about that end user’s life, and neither did the woman who built the code. I will call her Jane.
Jane had to make a living, so she kept working at the same job for some time afterward, but her self-esteem fell steadily in inverse proportion to her achievements. She had been objectified herself: turned into a machine for making money for others. She felt like a cog in an increasingly inhuman system that was beyond her control.
In 2010’s You Are Not A Gadget, I wrote about Jane’s situation in order to illustrate how new technologies have changed social norms, and how this change hurts people because we are human beings first and foremost, not merely consumers or producers of information goods.