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Jaron Lanier "One Half a Manifesto"

By kallisti in Culture
Mon Oct 09, 2000 at 12:44:21 PM EST
Tags: Technology (all tags)

Last week, Jaron Lanier posted One Half a Manifesto on the web. Lanier was one of the original "Cyber" dudes back in the dark ages (circa 1990), and a pioneer of virtual reality. The manifesto touches upon AI, evolution, Moore's Law, and lots of other topics.

The manifesto is a critique of a position he calls "cybernetic totalism". To simplify, this is the position that advancing technology will eventually overwhlem us with a "singularity", a point at which everything changes. This is most strikingly held by people such as Hans Moravec, who not only believes it is inevitable that robots will replace us, but that this event would be a good thing. I am also reminded of the Extropians.

I don't really go with his critique of the Turing Test (a computer is intelligent when there is no way to tell it from humans), nor the view that evolution is stupid at "strategizing". He uses the fact that evolution has never invented the wheel as a limitation. Wheels are useless without relatively smooth surfaces, which do not exist in nature. The explanation of how Moore's Law (transistor density, and thus speed, doubles every 18 months) can cause worse software is especially insightful.

Finally, the cataclysm. Lanier doesn't expect a Vinge-type singularity, rather that the expanding of computer power with mediocre software will lead to a greater stratification of society, eventually separating the classes into different species. I'm reminded of "the Moat" by Greg Egan, here.

Ultimately, the question once again boils down to "who is in control here?" The real danger is that people en masse will accept this idea that a great shift is forthcoming and inevitable. If we believe there is no choice, then there is not.


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Jaron Lanier "One Half a Manifesto" | 34 comments (24 topical, 10 editorial, 0 hidden)
I hate this kind of stuff. (4.52 / 48) (#5)
by mdxi on Thu Oct 05, 2000 at 03:15:08 AM EST

I really, really do.

Once upon a time, there was a brand new thing called the Web. In this time, there were two kinds of people on the Web, just as there are today, my children: people with a clue and lusers.

As you know, there were many types of lusers. There were B1FFs and ju4r3z d00dz and skript kiddies and all the rest, and then, my children, there was another kind of luser. A kind whom I had almost forgotten about and whom I had hoped to never see again.

These people went by a name that they gave to themselves: the Digerati. Of course, they thought this to be terribly clever. The Digerati sat around all day, dressed in clothes that were mostly black with silver lame (lah-MAY, not LAYM, althought that could also be argued) accents. They drove black cars and talked on black phones and wore mirrorshades.

They sat around drinking coffee with funny names and discussing HOW THE WEB WOULD CHANGE EVERYTHING and THE EMERGING CYBERCLASS and VIRTUAL FOO and CYBER BAR and INFO BAZ and HYPER QUUX. Oh, how they talked, and oh, how they congratulated themselves on being so fucking VISIONARY.

Then they created edgy magazines with BiCaPiTaLiZeD names like WiReD and wrote down all these things. It was a grand time, to be sure.

Unfortunately, the Digerati didn't actually DO anything. They didn't BUILD the Web or the systems on which it rested. They dodn't DESIGN it or IMPLEMENT it or IMPROVE it. The only thing they did, arguably, was SELL it.

And once it was SOLD, they weren't so VISIONARY anymore because now everyone was using the Web. They were no longer a CyberVanguard come to lead us all to a brave new world of trenchcoats and TRON-style lightbikes. They were just neopseudointellectuals who liked to throw around words in ways that weren't quite how they were meant to be used and pretend that were brutally important.

Now I see they've come up with a new way to make themselves relevant: PREDICTING THE DEATH OF THEIR OWN BRAVE NEW WORLD. Whee. It's not about CyberEnabling anymore, it's all about CyberEngulfing. Oh dear, the internet will swallow us all. It's rather like the plot of that terribly derivative movie from a few years ago. DEATH OF HUMAN RACE PREDICTED, CISCO ROUTER HELD FOR QUESTIONING. FILM AT 11

Or maybe I'm just bitter.

The change has already happened (3.90 / 11) (#6)
by Beorn on Thu Oct 05, 2000 at 04:14:36 AM EST

They sat around drinking coffee with funny names and discussing HOW THE WEB WOULD CHANGE EVERYTHING and THE EMERGING CYBERCLASS and VIRTUAL FOO and CYBER BAR and INFO BAZ and HYPER QUUX. Oh, how they talked, and oh, how they congratulated themselves on being so fucking VISIONARY.

I agree, there are few things more irritating than wide-eyed visionaries who keep telling us how technology will change everything *tomorrow*, the *huge* impact this or that technology will have when it comes, how *cool* it will be. They were annoying back then, and they're still annoying.

Imho, technology has already changed everything, just like it had already changed everything in 1990. Computers and the net has had countless real, measurable effects on my life. But all technology is by nature invisible, and it becomes hard to put your finger on exactly *how* your life is influenced by a technology, which is why these cyber visionaries can get away with their pseudo prophecies.

What's important is to understand what is possible right *now*. I am regularly baffled by discovering all the things I can *do* with the net, right here and now. Things no or few humans could do 100, 10, 5 or 2 years ago.

"Yes, I know combined PDA / cellular phones will be cool, but have you really considered the psychological and sociological impact of having your own homepage?"

- Beorn

[ Threepwood '01 ]
[ Parent ]

Re: The change has already happened (3.20 / 5) (#11)
by kallisti on Thu Oct 05, 2000 at 01:32:10 PM EST

Lanier isn't making any prophecies, he is in fact arguing against the very things you are complaining about. Technology hasn't changed things for most people of the world. It has the potential to do so, but so far has not.

Right now, there is a huge disparity between people and it only seems to be increasing. The ideal is that the free flow of information would allow everyone to benefit. In economics, for example, an exchange is made in which both parties gain. By this logic, trading actually increases wealth. By using the Internet, these trades can happen faster and faster, generating untold wealth for everyone.

Except it doesn't happen that way, only some benefit. Sure, there are lots of new millionaires (especially here in San Francisco) and, of course, Mr. Gates. But what about the rest of the world (or even just the USA?). The greater the rift between classes, the more potential for trouble.

Lanier (to try to get back to the topic) is saying that technology is speeding up the rate at which the classes are separating.

The futurists he is talking about said that a cataclysm (Singularity is Vinge's name for it, not Lanier's) of some sort is inevitable. Great, then all bets are off and we don't need to worry about anything. After all, if it is inevitable, then nothing can be done.

If the futurists are wrong, however, then we have a serious problem. The solutions proposed turn out to be the cause of more problems (same as it ever was).

Although nothing short of near annihilation will stop the technology curve, we may be able to guide it. But first, we need to remove the idea that it is out of control, since that tends to be a self-fullfilling prophecy.

[ Parent ]

The ultimate challenge (2.33 / 3) (#13)
by Beorn on Fri Oct 06, 2000 at 05:21:40 AM EST

Lanier isn't making any prophecies, he is in fact arguing against the very things you are complaining about. Technology hasn't changed things for most people of the world. It has the potential to do so, but so far has not.

I wasn't attacking Lanier, (who I didn't read), but replying to mdxi's comment on cyber visionaries.

The debate of technology availability is not a debate of technology, but of economy. In the end, it comes down to the question of whether global capitalism is good or bad. My personal guess is that as long as the world isn't disrupted by any major wars or other setbacks, western prosperity (and with it technology) will slowly come to all parts of the world.

Very slowly. Too slowly. Speeding this process up is the most important challenge humanity will have to face for the next centuries, and it's as much a question of practical economics as of morality.

- Beorn

[ Threepwood '01 ]
[ Parent ]

did you read the article? (2.44 / 9) (#7)
by fantastic-cat on Thu Oct 05, 2000 at 05:17:31 AM EST

It seems to me that the article is more about saying we can't rely on moores law to solve all our problems and we may actually need to start thinking a bit more cleverly if all this masive technology is to achieve anything usefull, not about predicting the death of anything.

[ Parent ]
Re: did you read the article? (4.16 / 6) (#10)
by mdxi on Thu Oct 05, 2000 at 12:15:44 PM EST

I freely admit that I did not read the article in its entirety.

I read the introductory paragraph and was about to click "Back" when I saw the photo of the author and realized that I'd seen him before, in an issue of some magazine, circa 1995. He had the same dreedlocks and was wearing some kind of big silvery-black poncho sort of thing. He had wired clipped to him and the poncho, and I believe he was playing a recorder (the wind instrument).

So *then* I clicked the back button and typed the above. Perhaps it really is just personal bitterness, but it is honest.

His writing really is kinda bad anyway. I was not aware that "singularity" could be used to mean "watershed event", for instance, and I'm still not sure what "resplendent dogma" (shiny doctrine? possibly an extension of the Ivory Tower metaphor?) is. I didn't like the Caterpillar in Through the Looking Glass, and I don't like this guy.

I guess I *am* just bitter. But that still doesn't change the fact that this guy writes like a l33t-0 version of Jon Katz with a thesaurus. And he's still just *writing* rather than *doing*. All IMVHO, of course.

[ Parent ]
Re: I hate this kind of stuff. (2.50 / 8) (#8)
by CodeWright on Thu Oct 05, 2000 at 08:40:49 AM EST


Jaron Lanier wants to jump on Bill Joy's bandwagon, declaring "Woe is me!" and whining incessantly about all the cool stuff that people want to do with technology, because it isn't what THEY want to do with technology (ie, control YOUR noosphere).

Jeez. Cry me a river. I'm tired of people telling me what they think I -should- or, more often, -shouldn't- think about.

Frankly, I can't wait until I'm pressed in silicon (or the era-specific technological equivalent) and can modify peripherals and drivers at will, without (too much) concern for the consequences (note to self: keep multiply redundant backups).

If Lanier and Joy and all the other Neo-Luddites want to keep scooping biomass into their cavernous jaws while they frolic in the mud, more power to them. I'll probably be powered by decaying radioisotopes and headed on a plasma stream slow road to a nearby star system.

Viva la mechano sapiens superior!

A: Because it destroys the flow of conversation.
Q: Why is top posting dumb? --clover_kicker

[ Parent ]
Re: I hate this kind of stuff. (3.25 / 4) (#18)
by 0xdeadbeef on Sat Oct 07, 2000 at 05:18:48 PM EST

If you haven't already read it, you'd probably enjoy The Guy I Almost Was by Patrick Farley.

[ Parent ]
Re: I hate this kind of stuff. (none / 0) (#31)
by Bad Mojo on Wed Oct 11, 2000 at 01:09:39 PM EST

I read this entire web story. There is only one word to summarize my response.


-Bad Mojo
"The purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure pure reasoning, and inhibit clarity. With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog!"
B. Watterson's Calvin - "Calvin & Hobbes"

[ Parent ]
Electric sheep (none / 0) (#34)
by Beorn on Thu Oct 12, 2000 at 03:20:07 PM EST

Thank you for the link! I read that story a year ago, and swore to come back and read all the other stories at e-sheep.com as well, but I forgot. Now I did. They're .. totally, completely great.

- Beorn

[ Threepwood '01 ]
[ Parent ]

Re: I hate this kind of stuff. (2.20 / 5) (#19)
by joshv on Sun Oct 08, 2000 at 08:16:38 AM EST

Anyone who uses the word "neopseudointellectual" might rightly be accused of being the same.

[ Parent ]
One Half-Read Manifesto (3.90 / 10) (#16)
by your_desired_username on Fri Oct 06, 2000 at 01:52:32 PM EST

  (0) If the comments posted here are representative, about 20% of
      kuro5hin's audience will read past the introduction.

  (1) The introduction is highly misleading, especially if skimmed. In
      particular, note that several posters here seem to think One
      Half a Manifesto is similar to Bill Joy's essay. It is not. Bill
      Joy predicts that technology will destroy us. Jaron Lanier
      objects to such predictions. (He also objects to predictions
      that technology will exalt us.)

  (2) kallisti's write-up is a reasonable summary of Jaron Lanier's
      essay. Unfortunately, many of the posters here seem not to have
      read it either.

The conclusion? Most of the discussion here will be discussing an
  article Jaron Lanier never wrote.

The irony of this is that Jaron Lanier seems to put GEB in the same
  category as works that predict computer intelligence will match or
  outrun human intelligence. GEB is (mostly) devoted to arguing that
  many human intellectual feats require operations that are impossible
  to simulate with digital logic. So I wonder if Jaron read GEB. Of
  course, it is possible that I did not read the paragraph in which
  Lanier mentions GEB. It is also possible that I did not read the
  comments about this article. :-P

Welcome to the dark land of the monkeys.

Re: One Half-Read Manifesto (3.00 / 1) (#22)
by _cbj on Mon Oct 09, 2000 at 10:59:10 AM EST

GEB is (mostly) devoted to arguing that many human intellectual feats require operations that are impossible to simulate with digital logic.

No, it isn't. If by GEB you mean "Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid" by Hofstadter, in which the author takes some pains to refute J.R. Lucas's assertion that Gödel's incompleteness theorem means machines cannot equal humans.

[ Parent ]
Re: One Half-Read Manifesto (none / 0) (#30)
by your_desired_username on Wed Oct 11, 2000 at 05:17:28 AM EST

I did mean the Douglas Hofstader book - but perhaps I should re-read it; it has been over 12 years since I read it.

[ Parent ]
Re: One Half-Read Manifesto (3.00 / 1) (#23)
by kallisti on Mon Oct 09, 2000 at 01:27:35 PM EST

I'm curious why you think GEB is arguing that human intelligence is impossible to simulate. I thought that the main theme of GEB was the way complex things can emerge from simpler processes. For example, see the discussion with the ant hill. Even though you cannot see the intelligence by studying an ant, it never-the-less emerges.

He seems to be arguing that intelligence cannot be understood by studying the lower-level interactions. This does not make it impossible to recreate intelligence, it just means that traditional bottom-up design is futile.

Of course, I think the real reason Hofstaedter wrote GEB was to prove how clever he was.

[ Parent ]

Re: One Half-Read Manifesto (none / 0) (#29)
by Wah on Tue Oct 10, 2000 at 04:56:17 PM EST

Of course, I think the real reason Hofstaedter wrote GEB was to prove how clever he was.

Which of course, proves how clever a computer it would take to act human. One that acts clever. And knows it.
Fail to Obey?
[ Parent ]

The future (4.00 / 2) (#21)
by caled on Mon Oct 09, 2000 at 01:08:12 AM EST

For an interesting article on a similar subject, try I Believe The Robots Are Our Future.

Boring, meandering fluff... (2.00 / 1) (#24)
by itsbruce on Mon Oct 09, 2000 at 03:08:14 PM EST

This is one of the worst pieces of writing I've come across for a while. It's aimless, name-dropping and full of long words inappropriately used. It reminds me of deconstructionist writing - the deconstructionists create a whole new language in each essay to hide tha fact that they actually have nothing to say.

The replies to the essay, by eminent thinkers and scientists such as Freeman Dyson, are models of clear language and clear thought - Lanier's prose is pathetic and meaningless in comparison (or on it's own).


It is impolite to tell a man who is carrying you on his shoulders that his head smells.
Re: Boring, meandering fluff... (1.00 / 1) (#28)
by micco on Tue Oct 10, 2000 at 03:05:49 PM EST

I find it interesting that you criticize Lanier's name-dropping and then cite Freeman Dyson's response as an alternative when Dyson's post is little more than a "me too" to an earlier response. Did you think that citing George Dyson or Cliff Barney's more substantive responses wouldn't suffice to attract attention?

I am a great admirer of Freeman Dyson and don't mean to denigrate his comment on this topic, but it seemed a little ironic for you to label Lanier as a name-dropper and then do exactly the same thing to make your point.

[ Parent ]

Re: Boring, meandering fluff... (none / 0) (#32)
by itsbruce on Wed Oct 11, 2000 at 06:14:13 PM EST

FFS, I mentioned Freeman Dyson's name since it was the one most familiar to me. Since he is quoted on the page, since I wasn't making any claims for my own writing, I hardly call it name dropping.

Did you actually have something to say, in support or rebuttal? Or was scoring a point enough for you?


It is impolite to tell a man who is carrying you on his shoulders that his head smells.
[ Parent ]
Re: Boring, meandering fluff... (none / 0) (#33)
by micco on Wed Oct 11, 2000 at 06:54:44 PM EST

I wasn't just trying to score a point. I didn't mean it like that at all.

For the record, I enjoyed Lanier's article quite a bit and I thought he raised a few very interesting points. Much of it was material I had considered before, but some of it was fresh to me so, whether I agreed completely or not, I found it useful. However, you made your opinion clear and I didn't feel it necessary to argue those points.

I also found the article fairly well written, though I'm not qualified to really judge that or to defend his writing to you.

My point was simply that what you refer to as name dropping could also be seen as citing respected references. Rather than throwing up straw-man opposition to make his rebuttals easy, he cites actual arguments made by people who have positions on the issues he's discussing. This not only serves to provide the reader with background and bibliography information if desired, it makes it clear that Lanier is not arguing in a vacuum, something all too common in this type of pseudo-visionary essay.

And I just thought it was funny to see you cite Freeman Dyson when I'd been somewhat disappointed by the brevity and lack of substance in his response. (as noted before, this is in no way meant as a criticism of Dyson...)

[ Parent ]

There are many routes to creating an AI (none / 0) (#25)
by SIGFPE on Mon Oct 09, 2000 at 06:01:13 PM EST

It's interesting to read many of the replies to Lanier. Many are no better than replies you know where without even an attempt to back them up. For example one writer simply asserts that machines cannot be sentient without even bothering to argue the point.

Others are more interesting but look at Smolin's argument. He goes into a crazy discussion about class N problems but he has completely missed the fact that if we want to design a sentient creature we already have a design to work from and humans have been busy reverse engineering humans for a long time now and we have taken small steps in replacing human parts. There might come a day when enough parts of humans have been replaced by synthetic elements that we can no longer consider some humans as non-artificial without having to overtly build any machines that have to solve problems of class N. I'm not saying that this will happen but it seems like a powerful counterargumet to Smolin who I think just likes formalising things - hence the Class 1 to 6.

It's interesting to speculate about the very long term. I expect a split between humans who are cybernetic totalists and those who are not. This is not such a trite statement - we can make such a split now but it has very little practical value. But a time will come, I suspect, when the cybernetic totalists will be happy to upload/scan/rip themselves and there will be the rest who refuse. The non-totalists will be arguing among themselves about whether the totalists are really sentient and worth placing within their empathy circle (I like that idea) and the totalists will be arguing about whether people as stupid as the non-totalists are worth placing inside theirs! (And don't read this as me saying non-totalists are stupid - I'm just saying that from the point of view of the uploaded totalists the non-totalists are going to look pretty dumb!)
Re: There are many routes to creating an AI (none / 0) (#26)
by kallisti on Mon Oct 09, 2000 at 08:19:45 PM EST

Even though we have a model (ourselves) to work with, the question is whether we can recreate that model in a different medium. So far, we really haven't gotten very far in figuring out how the mind works. Yes, we know how neurons work and can create simple networks which show memory and learning, but is that really all there is to consciousness?

Uploading is even trickier than AI, since we are trying to recreate an exact copy, not just a Turing test winner. Just coming up with a way to store that kind of pattern in a different medium would be difficult. Especially since the current state of your mind is continually changing, how could you stop things long enough to read them?

Otherwise, you are recording over a period of time, and what kind of effect would that have? Then comes the really hard problems, are you still "you", do you have rights to property, and, worst of all, what happens when you get uploaded to Napster?

[ Parent ]

Re: There are many routes to creating an AI (none / 0) (#27)
by SIGFPE on Mon Oct 09, 2000 at 09:45:50 PM EST

Then comes the really hard problems, are you still "you"

Funny. I've always thought that was the easy question! At least philosophically I think it's a trivial issue. Legally it's a different matter but I'll let the lawyers figure that one out.

do you have rights to property

There is no correct answer to this now as the law does not deal with this issue. No doubt laws will be introduced as the need arises. But a related question is 'Do you own "you"'? Given the precedent set by pharmaceutical companies owning DNA patents the answer to

what happens when you get uploaded to Napster?

is that they complain that people or ripping them off!
[ Parent ]
Jaron Lanier "One Half a Manifesto" | 34 comments (24 topical, 10 editorial, 0 hidden)
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