The ALA Annual Auditorium Speaker series kicked off on Saturday with an eye-opening talk by Jaron Lanier, one of the visionary forefathers of tech culture who popularized the term “virtual reality,” and the author of the bestseller You Are Not a Gadget. Lanier’s latest book, Who Owns the Future, addresses the detrimental effects networking technologies have had on our economy, and by extension, the lives of everyone on the planet.
Lanier pulled extensively from his latest book during his talk. His message was cautionary. “I’ve seen things that have led me to worry and complain,” he said at the outset. Lanier warned about the ubiquitous nature of digital networking and how the aggregation of our personal information by search engines, social network sites, merchant sites, and other apps have led to the destruction of the individual. He said that people have become a set of numbers and statistics that large companies and organizations can use and manipulate to achieve their goals: “Pure computing wins and human judgment loses.” This loss of man’s individuality has also been exacerbated by the rise of Wikipedia and other networked information conglomerates, according to Lanier, who said that information has become standardized by the all-seeing network. Lanier equates Wikipedia to a groupthink mentality—if your information does not adhere to what is already standardized by the network, it must be wrong. Free thought, new ideas, and challenges to old ideas are not tolerated. “Whatever the network settles upon must be true,” said Lanier, going on to note that, in reality, this is not always the case.
Lanier’s message was dire and often dark, but its messenger was the exact opposite. A proclaimed hippie with dreadlocks hanging down his back and resting below his waist, Lanier is a natural storyteller who used humor and often self-effacement throughout his talk. He was quick to point out personal hypocrisies, as well: He counts the owners of many companies he calls out for malfeasance—including bigwigs at Google, Amazon, and Craigslist— amongst his friends and colleagues. The levity made the lecture all the more powerful. Lanier was not a complete harbinger of doom, however. He is optimistic about the future. “We can break this covenant,” he predicted, by opening up information access to all.