MAG #8 La Tercera Plataforma - Page 72

One day in June, Jaron Lanier was lounging barefoot in the living room of his house in the Berkeley hills. Stretching back on a worn sofa, he began musing about the connection between Representative Anthony Weiner’s tweeting of lewd photos and Facebook’s controversial deployment of facial-recognition software, which automatically scans uploaded photos and identifies a user’s friends.

To Lanier, a computer scientist and author, the common thread is that the Internet in general—and social networking in particular—has become difficult for the ordinary person to use with any security. “I’ve really been struck that a lot of people have said, ‘Why would powerful men risk so much for some sexual adventure?’ ” Lanier said. “But risk can be very sexual.” He briefly considered the possibility of two alternate Internets: one in which everything was viewable by anybody, and one in which users had absolute control over their private information. In neither case, Lanier said, would Weiner have sent his illicit snapshots. “What makes it erotic is the risk,” Lanier speculated. “If you had either perfect competence or no need for competence, because everything was a hundred per cent transparent, there would be no risk. So, in a way, the whole erotic risk factor of the Internet is being able to use it but not very well.”

He paused to interrogate a tortoiseshell kitten that was dozing in a corner of the sofa. “What’s happening, Starlight?” he cooed. As the kitten peered up sleepily, he added, “We think she’s female, but I haven’t done the most thorough examination.” He paused and said dryly, “If only cats texted, we’d know by now.”

Lanier is often described as “visionary,” a word that manages to convey both a capacity for mercurial insight and a lack of practical job skills. In the nineteen-eighties, he helped pioneer the field of virtual reality, and he is often credited with having coined the term. He has also dabbled in film. In 2001, he advised the writers of “Minority Report,” Steven Spielberg’s film about a dystopian future. Since 2006, he has worked as a consultant at Microsoft Research.

More recently, he has become the go-to pundit for people lamenting the social changes wrought by modern technology. Last year, he published “You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto,” a provocative critique of digital technologies, including Wikipedia (which he called a triumph of “intellectual mob rule”) and social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, which he has described as dehumanizing and designed to encourage shallow interactions. Teen-agers, he writes, may vigilantly maintain their online reputations, but they do so “driven more by fear than by love.” In our conversation about Facebook’s face-recognition software, he added, “It’ll just create a more paranoid society with a fakey-fakey social life—much like what happened in Communist countries, where people had a fake social life that the Stasi could see, and then this underground life.”

The Visionary Jaron Lanier

A digital pioneer questions what technology has wrought.