Review of article by reformed futurist

The article is in January 2012 Smithsonian Magazine online

The digital pioneer and visionary behind virtual reality has turned against the very culture he helped create

You may want to read the article linked above first.  Excerpts follow in the voice of the Smithsonian writer who quoted Lanier, with my comments in italics.
The article begins:

The digital pioneer and visionary behind virtual reality has turned against the very culture he helped create

Lanier is still in the game in part because virtual reality has become, virtually, reality these days. “If you look out the window,” he says pointing to the traffic flowing around Union Square, “there’s no vehicle that wasn’t designed in a virtual-reality system first. And every vehicle of every kind built—plane, train—is first put in a virtual-reality machine and people experience driving it [as if it were real] first.”

Yes, he's right about the ubiquity.  Virtual reality models for homes, factories and even aircraft carriers save billions of dollars by allowing corrections to be made in designs before they are realized the hard way.  If we had this technology a hundred years ago the word "Titanic" would still mean gigantic and nothing more. 

For instance, he said, “I’d been an early advocate of making information free,” the mantra of the movement that said it was OK to steal, pirate and download the creative works of musicians, writers and other artists. It’s all just “information,” just 1’s and 0’s.

O.K. He became famous in his explosive but narrow specialty without a rudimentary appreciation of intellectual property, and now that he has discovered it, because of his notoriety, he is able to present it as a profound innovative discovery. Now to the subject that got me to read this article

His explanation of the way Google translator works, for instance, is a graphic example of how a giant just takes (or “appropriates without compensation”) and monetizes the work of the crowd. “One of the magic services that’s available in our age is that you can upload a passage in English to your computer from Google and you get back the Spanish translation. And there’s two ways to think about that. The most common way is that there’s some magic artificial intelligence in the sky or in the cloud or something that knows how to translate, and what a wonderful thing that this is available for free.

“But there’s another way to look at it, which is the technically true way: You gather a ton of information from real live translators who have translated phrases, just an enormous body, and then when your example comes in, you search through that to find similar passages and you create a collage of previous translations.”

“So it’s a huge, brute-force operation?” “It’s huge but very much like Facebook, it’s selling people [their advertiser-targetable personal identities, buying habits, etc.] back to themselves. [With translation] you’re producing this result that looks magical but in the meantime, the original translators aren’t paid for their work—their work was just appropriated. So by taking value off the books, you’re actually shrinking the economy.”

With his new realization of the legitimacy of intellectual property, and the trade offs between its protection and its use for wider cultural advancement, he sees the Google translation method as an example of the stealing that he had advocated before he saw the light.  The translation procedure that he describes is making use of previous translations, and to the degree that they are identifiable, and are in copyright, he could have case that such use should be compensated. 

Yet, from the article linked above there are many translations in the public domain that do not cause the "theft" he describes, " In 2005, Google improved its internal translation capabilities by using approximately 200 billion words from United Nations materials to train their system; translation accuracy improved.[4]"

The way superfast computing has led to the nanosecond hedge-fund-trading stock markets? The “Flash Crash,” the “London Whale” and even the Great Recession of 2008?

This statement by Lanier shows that there is still a cultish tone to his views, as his early vision of computer connectivity being the new utopia has been transformed to their now being the root cause of all the evils that they facilitate.  This is too simplistic for an acclaimed thinker, as every advance in communication, from the printing press to the telegraph, has been put to the most pernicious uses.  

The excesses of gaming the stock market with superfast computers is not a technological problem but a political-cultural one.  This could be outlawed easily by enforceable legislation. Lanier's blaming this on technology, is not only incorrect it gets political leaders off the hook for allowing real social harm because of campaign contributions by those who subvert market principles. 

As for his larger issue of the evil of this technology, it is a universal phenomenon. The invention of mass printing, while spreading enlightenment insights, also allowed the most vitriolic propaganda that fomented revolutions-for better or for worse-a phrase not used here to be dismissive.  

Lanier because he was enchanted by this new technology, is now disenchanted with the same over broad strokes.  The advantages of accessible rapid, even realtime translation, unlike the utopian dreams of his early associates, is truly achievable.  It reverses the barriers of disparate languages that God Almighty himself inflicted on those who dared to build a tower to reach the heights where only he resided.  Such human arrogance, such achievements unthinkable in my own childhood, such breaking-- not only of barriers but of the comfort of isolated cultures-- understandably elicits extreme responses. 

Jaron Lanier, in spite of my criticisms,  has extended an important conversation that should engage us all for the next few centuries 

Secularism and Religion

The comment below was posted on this New York Times Article by Stanley Fish,  Religious Exemptions and the Liberal State

Let me offer an analytic framing that may be useful to this important subject. "Religious exceptional from in liberal state is a way for it to outsource oppressive enforcement of common social mores.." It is a domestic sanctified protected version of extraordinary rendition, where a sanctioned group is given a name, "religion" and under this may indoctrinate children into their belief system that must include a certain reverence for the national ideal.

Once under this banner, the outsourced oppressors are free to first instill a fear in children of eternal suffering, and then inculcate an elaborate set of rules to avoid this. This threat of eternal suffering that will follow apostasy, is why the outsourcing is required. The principles of the given religion, which always includes obedience to the leadership of the sacred group to protect its very existence, will always be supportive enough of the principles of the secular authority to not to breach the tacit mutual aid pact.

In the last election, the Republican candidate was more blatant in demonstrating this, as in a major speech he attempted to make the secular sacred, in deconstructing the Pledge of Allegiance into a personal and national prayer.

I explored this in an article on Dailykos. com during the presidential campaign, that I revise here.  While this election is over, what this speech by a man who came close to selecting those who will interpret our Constitution  makes this speech illustrative of what our country could face in the future.


I started to write this article before before the video defaming the Prophet of Allah unleashed homicidal fury among some Muslims, yet I saw clearly the danger of what was being sowed by Candidate Romney. I envisioned his promoting a mindset that would justify similar hatred in this country against those who do not espouse the dominant religious views.

Romney has a law degree from Harvard, and must be aware of the Jurisprudence of the Pledge of Allegiance that he so blatantly ignores in detail and in spirit. His latest action is described in this N.Y. Times article, In Romney’s Hands, Pledge of Allegiance Is Framework for Criticism.

While we fear that the revolution of the Arab Spring could be the opening for Muslim Fundamentalists, we ignore the overt perversion of our own country's tradition of secularism that is unabashedly a strategy of the Romney-Ryan ticket. From the Times article:

But at a Saturday afternoon rally here, Mr. Romney did not just recite the Pledge of Allegiance; he metaphorically wrapped his stump speech in it, using each line of the pledge to attack President Obama.
“The promises that were made in that pledge are promises I plan on keeping if I am president, and I’ve kept them so far in my life,” Mr. Romney said, standing among old airplanes in a hangar at the Military Aviation Museum here. “That pledge says ‘under God.’ I will not take ‘God’ out of the name of our platform. ”

He speaks of the "promises that were made in that pledge" as if it were a solemn personal obligation that binds each American who says the words, emphasizing "Under God." Thus the elementary school children who are cajoled under fear of social ostracism to recite words, the meaning of which they could not comprehend, are bound to their oath of fealty to God.

Make no mistake, this is not a theological issue, as I do not believe that Mitt Romney is a Christian Fundamentalist who actually believes we are God's chosen country, that we alone were "endowed by our Creator" and other extensions of this biblical based American Exceptionalism. No, I believe that this is the most crass example of Realpolitik as played by a man with great ambition that knows no moral limits.

I happened to have studied quite a bit of this narrow area of constitutional law, having had extensive correspondence with Michael Newdow, who argued his case against the the Pledge in front of the Supreme Court, having prevailed at the appeals court level. Far from it being a meaningful personal pledge that Romney so passionately argued at that outing and on other occasions, such use of the word God is only given a constitutional pass by being relegated to "ceremonial deism" as described in this essay from the Pew Foundation:
Justice William Brennan wrote that while he thought this particular Christmas display was unconstitutional, less controversial expressions of religion might be permissible under the Establishment Clause. Citing Dean Rostow, Brennan argued that certain official references to a deity - such as the inclusion of God in the Pledge of Allegiance - might be constitutional "as a form [of] 'ceremonial deism.' " According to Brennan, these expressions might not violate the Establishment Clause "because they have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content."

 In other words, far from being a personal oath, they have through repeated usage become simply meaningless words. Romney goes on to expand on a national theocratic ethos that approaches that of the Muslim Brotherhood, or worse. He continued:
“ I will not take ‘God’ off our coins, and I will not take God out of my heart. We’re a nation bestowed by God.”

 Interesting concept "Nation Bestowed by God" that deserves some serious exegeses, a word usually reserved for biblical analysis. This goes beyond the Christian Dominionist's argument that the Declaration of Independence words "We are endowed by our creator...." mean we alone have this endowment. ignoring the clear context that these are qualities that are universals to all people. "Bestow" is a transitive verb meaning that this country was the object bestowed..... on humanity or the world. Romney doesn't say. This is Mitt Romney's own coinage, as the phrase does not show up on a search of the Internet and has no provenance in any historical or academic source.

There are those who think that atheists have a perverse compulsion to deny individuals of their faith, their religious beliefs that sustain and comfort them. It is often said to me, why do I make a big deal out of children being compelled to recite the pledge of allegiance or whether there is a Christian cross on public land....why not just let things be for the sake of comity. The answer is demonstrated in the campaign we are now seeing, where religion and patriotism are being merged with the goal of making non believers or those who worship a different god, into outcasts.

Under a President Romney, it is probable that we would lose the single vote that defeated both the Supreme Court decision and the Constitutional amendment that would have made the desecration of a tri-colored cloth of a certain design a criminal offense in America, similar to what is now the law for the destruction of a page of the Koran among Muslims.

Mitt Romney fully understands the unifying value of fostering hatred of outsiders mediated by religious fervor; and by all evidence, he is unconcerned with the disastrous consequences that this could bring, to our country and the world.

Addendum 12/25/2012:

While Romney is receding rapidly into a footnote of history, what he espoused described here was never condemned by the American public or the opposition.  We came close in 2012 to a move a bit towards theocracy, or more accurately, our peculiar privatized outsourced version.  And because of the special place of religion in our culture, it was generally off limits to call it what it was, a danger to the very enlightenment roots of our nation.

Link to video of speech