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Al Rodbell's Blog

Tuesday

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.
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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 





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