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Can a Computer Replace the Real Thing?

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This blog is an excerpt from Lightweb Darkweb: Three Reasons To Reform Social Media Before It Re-Forms Us, to be published in June, 2103 ©Homeland Press, 2013

If the internet and InfoTech have become the background of our thoughts, something fundamentally human may be shifting. Our relationship to Nature, our footing on Earth. Our essential experience of human reality.

InfoTech pioneers, brilliant engineers and visionaries, have had diverse motivations in leading this digital revolution. Originally, InfoTech wasn't all about money, though money is very much at the centre of it now. Many were thrilled at the democratic possibilities of an electronically connected world; some were dazzled by the chance to alter reality. By a chance to play God.

In 1995 I saw Jaron Lanier (the so-called father of virtual reality) at a Social Venture Network conference where he and high-tech guru Mitch Kapor shared an evening presentation. Their praises of the Internet made me uneasy; they spoke of its growth as inevitable and unstoppable. Inwardly I recoiled, resisted. (If you weren't online, I wondered, were you expendable, invisible?) Kapor, regarded by many as the Thomas Jefferson of the Internet for his defence of Net freedom, spoke of his Lotus operating system and the coming laptop wave. Lanier was something entirely other. Introduced by spiritual teacher Ram Dass in glowing superlatives, Lanier shared with the audience his passion for what he called virtual reality technology (VR), which he described as where the dream is found. He went on:

So with VR, I'm not going to go through explaining all the details of it--but I'll show a video of it at the end of our talk for those of you who have never seen it--but it's a technology where you wear computerized clothing over your sense organs and it simulates the experience of being in an alternate world entirely. It doesn't do it very well but it does it well enough that you can buy into it, and most importantly, you can buy into it with other people: you can have an alternate universe that's created by the computer that you share with others. It's big news philosophically, it's the first new objective place since the physical world. And it has a remarkable quality when compared with that old objective place, the physical world.

He was given to making grand statements, so you had to just stay with him and hope for a place to land.

The source of the magic is the notion that this technology can bridge the interpersonal gap in a fundamentally new way and give flight to the imagination. And the notion of post-symbolic communication, which is that if a generation of kids grew up not only being able to do this but being able to invent things within the world very fluently and very quickly, they would be able to communicate in a new way in addition to symbols, by directly making up stuff instead of referring to stuff indirectly through symbols. Do you follow that? That's a very big deal, that's a really big deal.

Then, in a disjointed way, Lanier alluded to children and their apparent affinity with computer technology.

This technology is very much the province of young children. Young children get it instinctively; they have a fluency that I certainly don't have, and I'm pretty good at this stuff. They are part of a new culture that's arising which I find wonderful. I find this to be really a great generation gap, because when we look at our children, like children under 10 now have this capacity, I'm sure you've all seen it, and this generation gap is not like a generation gap of increased delinquency or something. It's a generation gap caused by increased ability. We can see it and we can celebrate it, and I just find it so wonderful.

I did not share his enthusiasm. He even claimed that a laptop would produce images of a sunset so beautiful that kids who saw them would want to run outside to see the real thing. I then had to endure a video about VR that had the look and feel of disembodied non-human weirdness.

When the Q & A finally came, up shot my arm. I said I'd worked with little kids for 20 years and strongly objected to the notion that they needed a computer representation of a sunset to enjoy the real thing. Jaron responded with a dismissive "Oh, that's nice." I was dumbfounded. At the close of the session, out of concern for both of us, friends brought Jaron and me together for a private conversation.

It didn't help. His eyes darted all over the place.

In the years since that conference, it seems that Lanier's views have changed considerably. On the death of computer pioneer and apologist Joseph Weizenbaum, he wrote a tender eulogy:

History will remember Weizenbaum as the clearest thinker about the philosophy of computation. A metaphysical confrontation dominated his interactions with the non-human-centered mainstream. There were endless arguments about whether people were special in ways that cybernetic artifacts could never be. The mainstream preferred to sprinkle the magic dust of specialness on the "instruments," as Weizenbaum put it, instead of people.

But there was a less metaphysical side of Weizenbaum's thinking that is urgently applicable to the most pressing problems we all face right now. He warned that if you believe in computers too much, you lose touch with reality. That's the real danger of the magic dust so liberally sprinkled by the mainstream. We pass this fallacy from the lab out into the world. This is what apparently happened to Wall Street traders in fomenting a series of massive financial failures. Computers can be used rather too easily to improve the efficiency with which we lie to ourselves. This is the side of Weizenbaum that I wish was better known.

Today, Lanier is a critic of the Net's "hive mind." His book You Are Not a Gadget is driving people to write blogs titled "Why Does Jaron Lanier Hate the Web So Much?" They should heed his current caution:

We wouldn't let a student become a professional medical researcher without learning about double blind experiments, control groups, placebos, the replication of results, and so on. Why is computer science given a unique pass that allows us to be soft on ourselves? Every computer science student should be trained in Weizenbaumian skepticism, and should try to pass that precious discipline along to the users of our inventions.

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