“Murdered most of my parents’ families.” You heard that right. Lanier’s mother survived an Austrian concentration camp but many of her family died during the war—and many of his father’s family were slaughtered in prewar Russian pogroms, which led the survivors to flee to the United States. It explains, I think, why his father, a delightfully eccentric student of human nature, brought up his son... in the New Mexico desert—far from civilization and its lynch mob potential. We read of online bullying leading to teen suicides in the United States and, in China, there are reports of well-organized online virtual lynch mobs forming...digital Maoism.
Ive, sitting in his design studio, once described his philosophy: “Why do we assume that simple is good? Because with physical products, we have to feel we can dominate them. As you bring order to complexity, you find a way to make the product defer to you. Simplicity isn’t just a visual style. It’s not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of the complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep.
Sometimes a design can be so sleek and simple that a user finds it intimidating or unfriendly to navigate. “The main thing in our design is that we have to make things intuitively obvious,”
Lapham has no love for what web culture is doing. He laments Google for inadvertent censorship in the way search engine optimization indiscriminately buries what is of value beneath millions of search results of crap. Even if that was not the purpose, it’s been the result, he avers.
“This is the thing that continues to scare me. You see in history the capacity of people to congeal—like social lasers of cruelty. That capacity is constant.” “Social lasers of cruelty?” I repeat. “I just made that up,” Lanier says. “Where everybody coheres into this cruelty beam....Look what we’re setting up here in the world today. We have economic fear combined with everybody joined together... on these instant twitchy social networks which are designed to create mass action. What does it sound like to you? It sounds to me like the prequel to potential social catastrophe. I’d rather take the risk of being wrong than not be talking about that.”
“This was a man who committed to memory and recited Shakespearean soliloquies aloud. He knew how to move into King’s English. He could do Scottish accents because he loved Robert Burns. He was a voracious reader and a lover of poetry and cadence. When he writes something like the Second Inaugural, you see the use of alliteration and triplets. ‘Of the people, by the people and for the people’ is... the most famous example,” he says. “This was a person who truly understood not only the art of writing but also the art of speaking. People should remember that, though we have no accurate memorial of his voice, this is a man who wrote to be heard. Only parenthetically did he write to be read.”
Schmeh says misguided cryptologists tend to believe that spectacular sources yield the most spectacular revelations. Since the 1850s, perfervid sleuths have been scrutinizing Shakespeare’s plays, claiming to have found ciphers denouncing the bard as a fraud and proclaiming the true author to be Sir Francis Bacon. Generations of investigators have been convinced that—through divine revelation or... the assistance of extraterrestrials—the builders of the Great Pyramid embedded the sum total of scientific knowledge within the dimensions of the structure. Fringe pyramidologists persist in their claims despite a 1992 effort to debunk them by Dutch astrophysicist Cornelis de Jager, who demonstrated the dimensions of any object can be manipulated to yield a desired outcome; he derived the speed of light and the distance between the Earth and Sun from his measurements of a bicycle.
“The reason is simple: Engineers can build a robot that will possess everything except brains. And without brains no man can ever attain championship class in the boxing game. It is true enough that we have had some rare intellectual specimens in the higher frames of boxing glory, but I can truthfully say that no man ever attained genuine boxing recognition without real headwork. The best punch in the world is not worth a whoop if the boxer doesn’t know what to do with it.”
Why is it that, in America, we have maintained the feeling that lunch needs to be a quick meal in the middle of the day? We still are working a lot—we’re working more hours in the United States than any other industrialized nation. Lunch is the original quick meal; it accommodated changing work schedules. And dinner has taken on the ideological weight of the meal. Dinner has been the time when... we celebrate family, and when we concentrate on having a nice, hot meal, ideally. Because dinner fulfilled that need, there was less of a need for the other meals to. Lunch doesn’t have a lot of cultural work to do; it just has to get us by. But, if you think about it, it’s not just lunch—it’s breakfast too. We can just pour milk over cereal, or pop some toast in the toaster and walk out the door without even needing a plate or utensils. Breakfast accommodates work. It’s not the meal that shapes work, it’s the work that shapes the meal.
Siberian summers do not last long. The snows linger into May, and the cold weather returns again during September, freezing the taiga into a still life awesome in its desolation: endless miles of straggly pine and birch forests scattered with sleeping bears and hungry wolves; steep-sided mountains; white-water rivers that pour in torrents through the valleys; a hundred thousand icy bogs.
Each issue is a feast, so well curated—around 100 excerpts and many small squibs in issues devoted to such relevant subjects as money, war, the family and the future—that reading it is like choosing among bonbons for the brain. It’s a kind of hip-hop mash-up of human wisdom. Half the fun is figuring out the rationale of the order the Laphamites have given to the excerpts, which jump back and forth between millennia and genres
At last we come to politics, where I believe Lanier has been most farsighted—and which may be the deep source of his turning into a digital Le Carré figure. As far back as the turn of the century, he singled out one standout aspect of the new web culture—the acceptance, the welcoming of anonymous commenters on websites—as a danger to political discourse and the polity itself. At the time, this... objection seemed a bit extreme. But he saw anonymity as a poison seed. The way it didn’t hide, but, in fact, brandished the ugliness of human nature beneath the anonymous screen-name masks. An enabling and foreshadowing of mob rule, not a growth of democracy, but an accretion of tribalism.
“Well, that’s what my new book’s about. It’s called The Fate of Power and the Future of Dignity, and it doesn’t focus as much on free music files as it does on the world of finance—but what it suggests is that a file-sharing service and a hedge fund are essentially the same things. In both cases, there’s this idea that whoever has the biggest computer can analyze everyone else to their advantage and concentrate wealth and power. [Meanwhile], it’s shrinking the overall economy. I think it’s the mistake of our age.”
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.”
This all sounds more Life of Brian than Life of Jesus.
In his often provocative and astute dissenting book You Are Not a Gadget, he recalls one of the participants in those early mind-melds describing it as like being “in the most interesting room in the world.” Together, these digital futurists helped develop the intellectual concepts that would shape what is now known as Web 2.0—“information wants to be free,” “the wisdom of the crowd” and the like.
You call for the end of summer vacation. Why? We want students to learn! Right now, students are spending nine months stressed, going through drills, memorizing things before an exam and then forgetting it. Then, they go to summer vacation. Some of the most affluent or motivated kids might be able to pull off having a very creative summer vacation, but most don’t. For most, it is just kind of... lost time. When people say, “Summer vacation, those are my best memories. That is when I actually got to do creative things. That is when we actually got to travel,” I say, yeah, exactly, that is what the whole year should be like. Make school year-round, but also make it much more like a creative summer camp.
“My star trail images are made by taking a time exposure of about 10 to 15 minutes. However, with modern digital cameras, 30 seconds is about the longest exposure possible, due to electronic detector noise effectively snowing out the image. To achieve the longer exposures I do what many amateur astronomers do. I take multiple 30-second exposures, the ‘stack’ them using imaging software, thus producing the longer exposure.”