Jaron Lanier: the Father of Virtual Reality technology speaks at Canadian Music Week

Nathan Fan is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

At this year’s Canadian Music Week International Breakfast event, Jaron Lanier had a few moments to call upon his audience of fellow music industry top thinkers and executives to consider this question: “What happens when we stop shaping technology and it starts shaping us?” As the digital revolution expedites us into the future, those who have embraced it have often forgotten to step back and think about where the train is headed; or to take a retrospective lens to our past and observe how the tracks laid down back in the pioneering age of the internet might guide and limit the future development of our society.

Wielding a Laotian khaen, Lanier began his call to action by filling the Royal York’s ballroom with the exotic sounds of the ancient instrument he referred to as the ancestor to the computer, fittingly chosen to symbolize the union of music and technology at this event. Lanier, who has been described as the father of virtual reality technology and is still actively involved in the technology field, spoke of the early development of the web and how specific choices made by its designers, such as anonymity, have continued to survive into its current incarnation. These parameters continue to guide and restrain the development of the web into a form that raises serious concerns for Lanier, namely the “open culture” concept in a Web 2.0 culture and the rise of a “hive mind” online society spurred on by the dependence on collective wisdom forums like Wikipedia.  The growing acceptance of crowd identity and the notion that collective wisdom is always the better “truth” are part of what Lanier calls digital Maoism or cybernetic totalism, and Lanier foresees stark consequences for the value of human intellectual potential and human dignity – and the music industry is no exception.

Being an accomplished musician and having worked with the likes of Philip Glass, Yoko Ono, and Ornette Coleman, Lanier offered his perspective with a music industry example. These days, the growing business model for music artists is to have their music given away for free and the money is made through merchandising and touring (artists like Radiohead being championed as the shining example). The combination of “open culture” and the hive mind have reinforced this notion that “information wants to be free” (as evidenced through the lingering problem of music file-sharing). However, Lanier argues that information should not be free and that musicians should be paid for their music. While this may seem like a common rant at a music industry conference, Lanier’s argument goes beyond the Lockean “reap what you sow” argument and argues from the perspective that this “open culture” mentality of devaluing content ends up devaluing humans and their individual intellectual capacity, which in turn also results in the loss of human dignity.

Lanier also argues that this business model is not sustainable for a couple of practical reasons. While an artist is young and childless, solely making a living on touring might be possible – living out of a van and crashing on friends’ couches. But when an artist reaches the stage that they want to start a family or have some form of security and stability, this model no longer becomes feasible and the life of musicianship is severely cut short. Even if one were to supplement revenue through merchandising, the technology to be able to reproduce those band t-shirts or posters in the comfort of one’s own home is just around the corner. Again, neither of these scenarios helps to prevent the loss of any human dignity for the artists. To further bolster his point, Lanier stated that he has yet to find more than a handful of examples where this model has been successful, and that many of those who purport to be “successful” are in actuality faking it.

To be clear, Jaron Lanier is not anti-net or anti-technology. He argues that the web’s early design has been so ingrained in the social integration process that it has created a “lock-in” effect – restraining the way we are able to express ourselves over the web now and even forgetting that it could be any different. What we need is a new form of humanistic technology. His criticism of “open culture” and cybernetic totalism is not that they should be abandoned entirely, but rather that they be limited in their scope and their use. Lanier rejects these concepts as the basis for all decision-making, but recognizes that they have their time and place to be useful tools.

Lanier stated in a Q&A after his speech that the solution to the file-sharing problem is not to go around demonizing copyright infringers, but rather to help them understand and respect the value of a creator’s intellectual output and to recognize their own potential for creation. As pointed out in a recent interview with Vit Wagner, Lanier’s hope for the near future is a revival of our understanding and respect for intellectual property and the value attributed to every person’s creative output.

It is clear that not everyone agrees with the controversial change that Lanier has proposed, but I believe his call for a re-evaluation of the system of which our society continues to further assimilate into our daily living is a very useful exercise, even if only to strengthen our understanding of where our system’s current infrastructure is capable of taking us. As Lanier had aptly put it, “Technology criticism should not be left to the Luddites”.

I am perhaps part of the last generation who will have remembered a life before the internet and while I now seem to be inseparably attached to the internet at the hip, I am concerned over the next generation’s inextricable link between the web and daily life, nurtured from birth. The internet will have a significant role in their formative years and will shape the social landscape in the years to come. Any critical analysis of the internet and its technological framework, and what they should be, needs to occur now before our society becomes hopelessly dependent on an inappropriate system. After all, we created the web to adapt to our needs; we should not have to adapt ourselves to the web.

I strongly urge you to get Jaron Lanier’s recently released book You Are Not a Gadget as it spells out in much more interesting detail his thoughts on how technology affects our culture.