Interview

Jaron Lanier about nihilism on the web, fooling people in broad daylight and the comic character of the NSA

Von am 04.11.2015 um 09:58 Uhr | 0

Jaron Lanier, 55, is being considered as one of the biggest influencers of the Digital Age. The son of Jewish immigrants demands a new way of Humanism on the web and continously warns about a tendency of wealth concentration by a small digital elite. In our interview he explains the difficulties of dealing with the Holocaust, misunderstandings of the NSA and why it is so important to own the precious right for personal data.  

Mr. Lanier, your mother fled from the Nazis. What does it mean to you that you received the Peace Prize of the Book Trade from Germany in 2014?

That's a difficult question. I remember both my mother and my father when I was small telling me that it was very important not to think of the Holocaust as being something that was done by the German or the Austrian People. That all people in history go through periods in which horrible ideas and horrible waves of actions somehow possess people. They always raised me very carefully to avoid of falling into a cycle of blaming retribution. I think that what my parents told me as a child has been very much born out. In the history of the Holocaust and many other tragedies we see something that relates to the whole of the human kind. We still have enormous problems to solve and shouldn't pretend that we fully understand what happened and how to prevent these things.

It's an ongoing tremendously difficult problem, really the greatest problem we have. Which is trying to understand how we can possibly liberate ourselves. All of us share this tremendous challenge of learning how to cope with the nature of being human, for all the wonderful and all the horrible parts which still remain. It is still an extremely difficult topic for me.

I think the climate in Germany is very open and honest, there has been a tremendous effort of everyone, individuals, cultural institutions, the government, to be honest about the history, to not forget it. That's extremely helpful. Nothing I said diminishes the horror or the difficulty though. This topic is almost too difficult for me to think about to be honest. In order to approach it you have to take in a wide range of ideas and emotions all at once, it is very difficult. It may be even a little bit beyond the capacity of people to really fully address this topic.

How should one deal with it?

I currently live in a part of California where nearly two centuries ago a different population of people who lived here for tens of thousands of years were absolutely wiped out. That happened before I was born, before I had any association with the place. But since I live here I have to accept part of that legacy – which is a very horrible one. You can't allow it to get in the way of enjoying life. You can't become obsessed with remorse – and yet we have to acknowledge this, we have to be honest about it.

The web offers a wide range of opinions regarding this and basically any other topic. These days anybody can start sharing the own opinion via social networks or blogging and potentially reach a big audience. How do you feel about that?

I was involved in this from a very early stage, almost forty years now, because I was a teenager in the Seventies. In the earlier years, when there were very few people involved in creating a digital network, we had this huge idealism that it would solve many problems. Now I have this feeling that it has succeeded in a few ways, but perhaps failed in more ways. I am now in my mid-fifties, perhaps I've fallen into the kind of era people fall into when they get older – being an "old fart".

What I am trying to do is finding those objective measurements of how the world is changing. It is not a matter of opinion. Is it good or bad that people share a lot of information online? That people who are kind of cranky or rude can get a lot of attention online? You can find anecdotes that are both good and bad for all of these things. In order to come to an opinion you have to try to look at the big picture and see: what can be measured?

I will give you an example of a big picture question that really disappoints me. I remember distinctly arguing in the early Nineties when we were talking about the idea of the internet and making the following claim: if there were a universal information system where anybody could share information openly it would become impossible for there to be widespread misunderstanding. That was important to people. We were thinking about a climate change, how to communicate to people. Yet, what I see is that climate changed to nihilism. That’s a direct disproof of a claim, of a prediction. That was a theory that was proven wrong and that’s the kind of thing that really disturbs me. I have to separate that kind of result from many personal opinions or reactions I might have - which I don’t trust as much.

In your speech for the Peace Prize you cover a lot of topics. You mention Hegel, the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament, wolve packs, the Nazi-era and the Supreme Court. Do you think people fully comprehend what you are trying to explain?

(laughing) I've been told that Germans are well educated! I am always confident that the people who will translate my writing to German will improve it. Part of the purpose of writing is to try to push one’s own thinking and understanding as far as possible. It’s about the writer, not just about the reader. It’s proper and useful to be ambitious and have as much faith in your reader as possible.

It's funny, I do get emails sometimes saying “I'm so interested in your books, but there are so many ideas and they're hard to read, could you make a simpler version?” and actually a number of times I have received offers and requests to make an easy, light version of my stuff. I am very confident I am a dummy sometimes, maybe I could even use a book like that. I don't want to dismiss that idea. Writing very simple versions of things forces you to be even clearer and it's sometimes very hard. 

There is a little bit of protest embedded in the way I write. We are so used to very quick reads where you just look at this tiny summary, like "The 10 things you need to know about the digital economy". I noticed young people tending to read things that have this very quick Quality, where you can read a lot of different things quickly and try to integrate them, instead of reading something that is deep and difficult. I think that's a dangerous way of thinking. It's important to show the reader the respect of expecting them to be able to think deeply, to read a complex argument, to read an argument that is not presented very quickly. Maybe it's a lost cause. Maybe I'm too late and humanity will never again read material of that kind! I don't know. (laughing)

People who read about you certainly expect meeting a digital guy, maybe geeky to some extent. Then (at the Peace Price speech in Germany last year) comes this big guy wearing dreadlocks, telling the audience to love creation and also playing a Laotian flute. That may seem a bit unusual to some people. How important is it for Jaron Lanier what people think of your appearance?

I don't even think about it! It's not even slightly anything I consider at all. I don't think about my appearance, I don't plan it, I have no theory about it – I just really don't care.

A central point of your criticism is that a very small group of leading tech companies has accumulated extreme power and ultimately a few people control large parts of the web. Is there any way to get the power back to the public quickly?

I don't expect to achieve a perfect society ever, where power is perfectly democratic and shared. I am just concerned that it is so extreme right now. We have a situation that isn't sustainable. As far as how to change it - this is an interesting discussion. There are many ideas on the table, many people think of it in legal, not in economic terms. They would like to talk more about data and privacy rights. I tend to think that the more important way to think about this is in economic terms, because I think the economics overwhelms the law.

The idea I came to is to give people property rights to their data and actually act as somebody who owns something to decide whether to sell it, at what cost and all of that. I'm sure there are many people who don't like this idea, and there are many alternatives. Such as a data tax, which would fund a basic income model, and others. I am very open minded about the different ideas. I don't feel that I have perfect knowledge about what would work. But I do believe we should start testing some of these approaches to find out which ones would work.

Is it about peace and loving creation - or is it all about the money in the end? 

Money is just a number. All I am saying is: if you are living in a market economy in which money matters it should matter in a way that is sustainable. If you would like to take a different approach, reject money and work towards some other system - I am very open minded about that as well. There is nothing special about money. The more we deviate from what we know, the more radical the transition would have to be. I try to accept that money is the system we know and what we have.

The thing that doesn't work is: we use money for paying rent, paying food, paying healthcare etc., so all the stuff you need you have to spend money on. But for the stuff we get from you – which is increasingly data – we get it for free. So if you are a journalist, photographer or musician we're going to get all of that stuff for free, because that is just information. Oh and by the way, everything is getting automated. So more and more of what you do will be just information.

All I am saying is: there has to be a symmetry. If we are going to live with money, we have to be fair to everybody. We can't just tell people whoever owns the biggest computer gets all the benefits and anybody else is just responsible for sharing their data openly.

I don't even know who’s owning what type of data about me. How am I supposed to file a claim?

If you give something a value, then eventually some solution will come up for that problem. It probably has to be some middleman involved. In market economies there are people like lawyers and accountants who feel motivated to search for values like that and get a cut. They will contact you and say “Hey, we are representing 30 million people, join us and get your share!”.

There is also going to be some math involved. There is no way to know for sure how much data is worth. You have to estimate it by calculating approximately how much less valuable somebody else's big data scheme would have been without your data. Which is a complicated idea, but I think it is totally workable.

A big bank account doesn't help companies to stay on top long term, today it’s data that counts. Big players like Facebook, Google and alike already possess the biggest pile of data, and it is growing every day. Do you think these companies will ever loose this power again? Or does this advantage make them kind of invulnerable, always ahead of the competition?

That's a really fantastic question, because this is new territory! We have seen some of the big internet players die, but we've never seen one die that was based on accumulating data of people. We have seen AOL, perhaps Yahoo isn't as powerful as it used to be, I could imagine Twitter going as well. What we haven't seen yet is what happens when one of the companies that gathers a ton of personal information about people, what happens to that company? It's a new thing. I would rather wait and see. But I think it's possible that we might create pretty persistent monopolies here.

With all the data available some algorithm on some computer somewhere in the world right now is probably calculating things like what holiday you will book next, trying to predict what kind of education your daughter is going to get and what profession she will choose. How can anyone escape from this?

If you have to click "approve" or "disapprove" for all of these things for each case you would have to make a million decisions an hour. It just becomes impossible. But if you could do it by just setting the price, then you could have a sort of general influence of what would happen. If you set the price of using your data quite high, then it would severely restrict the number of cases in which somebody would make such a calculation. That's the general idea I've had about it.

The problem I have is: when we don’t use a pricing mechanism but a consent mechanism instead, how do you manage the millions of consents? You can't just reasonably say "Never use my data, ever!" because sometimes you want your data being used for some purposes. The level of complexity for distinguishing the cases you want from the cases you don't want is absolutely, absolutely beyond the capability of anybody.

Google, Facebook, Amazon all collect data. How about the NSA?

The NSA kind of steals everybody else's data - which in turn was stolen. They are "second hand thieves". Google and Facebook are more or less the "direct thieves" in my view, the various intelligence organizations are the "indirect thieves". The question about "Which upsets you more?" is an interesting one. There are some people who are not disturbed by Google, but are disturbed by the NSA. And there are other people who are perhaps disturbed by Google, and they’re not disturbed by the NSA. (laughing) These are very interesting attitudes.

To me the companies like Google and Facebook are the ones I criticize more than the NSA right now, because I think they had a bit more impact on the world and they have contributed to the tendency of wealth concentration which I think is unsustainable. So much wealth and power accrues to whomever is closest to the big computers, that would also account for companies like Amazon and Uber. I think of those kind of data aggregators as already having changed the world in a way I feel as damaging. Of course there is tremendous potential for an organization like the NSA to change the world in a damaging way. In my view that hasn't been realized yet, although the symbolism of it is deeply disturbing.

So far in the NSA if anything there is a bit more comedy than tragedy in it. This isn't like the Stasi where they have really been going after people and ruining trust and families. It is more this crazy hunt for benefits that I don't think they have ever been able to demonstrate. It has more of a comic quality to it. Like this quest for some kind of achievement that's been entirely elusive. It's like some absurd cartoon version of the Stasi, but they actually never can do anything. That's at least my view so far. Of course it's possible that there is information we don't know, there might be some truths that I am unaware of that have a totally different character.

Do you think in the future we may see leaks about big tech players by employees within these companies who don’t agree with what they see at work and leak it to the public?

That's an extremely interesting question. You know the funny thing? I've had an opportunity to see a lot of what goes on inside both Google and Microsoft. And in truth, I think the public knows everything... in principle. That's the thing that’s strange about it and that’s part of the reason I decided to write books. It's not as if the stuff is hidden. We know what you know, that some model about your nutrition and your friends and whatever is already affecting your credit rating. We already know that, just based on who you share your profiles with in social media. That can have an effect on how much money you'll have in the future directly, because it will effect how much interest you pay, it will effect what schools you can get into. I mean, there's no secret here! That's the thing about it. These organizations are actually pretty public.

I can say that the secrets that I've seen within both Microsoft and Google are pretty boring and unimportant compared to the stuff that is already known. The one big secret that I didn't know about until Edward Snowden informed us of it is the particular method by which the NSA and other organizations were tapping into that data... so that was secret! I don't think these organizations are particularly secret.

People are being fooled in broad daylight here! That's the nature of our times. Somebody can go to you and say "Hey! I am ripping you off!" and the person can say "Oh! That’s just so delightful! You're ripping me off in such a fashionable and hip way! I am delighted that you're ripping me off!". That’s much more how the tech world is.

Talking about Edward Snowden and his revelations, what do you think about him? Is he a traitor or a hero?

A couple of times people have been trying to organize a contact between us. That has never happened. But I know people who had a lot of contact with him and all indications about him personally are quite positive. He seems to be a genuine person who's thoughtful and somebody who deserves our respect on some level.

At the same time, you know when I was younger, I was very interested in non-violent action. I got arrested once in a protest related to nuclear weapons and that sort of thing. And the ethic I always had is: one should break the law when one feels there is a moral or ethical demand to do so. But you have to do it in a way where you accept the consequences and you don't run afterwards. Whenever I was involved in something, I would present myself to the police and be arrested peacefully. I understand that in his case, if he had been arrested he would have been put in some weird situation where he just disappeared from the earth. His case is unique, and I don't want to make a direct comparison. But this whole circumstance of running on to China and Russia is something I don't fully understand. My initial impression of him is actually quite positive, but I want to withhold my judgement until more of the story comes out at some point.

I also want to say something else, because in a mathematical world everybody knows people of the NSA and other organizations. It's a very direct connection between the math-world and those organizations. The people involved in the NSA whom I have met are also very decent and good people. I have never met anybody who struck me some sort of creepy, “Dr. Strangelove”-type person who wants to control the world.

I think what we have here is not so much good people against bad people, but really coming to an agreement what is best for the world. I think the NSA people I have met have a sincere belief that what they are doing is helpful. I'm more concerned that they are operating on the basis of untested hypothesis. I'm not sure that all of this data aggregating has helped them. I think it might be a superstition-based obsession rather than a rational project.