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What Turned VR Pioneer Jaron Lanier Against the Web 212

i_want_you_to_throw_ writes "Details of Jaron Lanier's crusade against Web 2.0 continue in an article at Smithsonian Magazine. The article expands upon Lanier's criticism of Web 2.0. It's an interesting read, with Lanier suggesting we are outsourcing ourselves into insignificant advertising-fodder and making an audacious connection between techno-utopianism, the rise of the machines and the Great Recession. From the article: '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. ... '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. ... 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.'"
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What Turned VR Pioneer Jaron Lanier Against the Web

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  • Anonymous commenters (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ArcadeMan ( 2766669 ) on Friday December 28, 2012 @03:57PM (#42413121)

    An enabling and foreshadowing of mob rule, not a growth of democracy, but an accretion of tribalism...

    I also think the same thing about Facebook. Here we have people and companies putting all their eggs in the same basket controlled by a single entity.

  • Anonymity (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Dan East ( 318230 ) on Friday December 28, 2012 @04:02PM (#42413173) Journal

    I became aware of the impact of anonymity on a person's behavior back around 1991 when I operated a dial up BBS. Punk kids would get on and cause all kinds of problems, but when we politely showed up at their house and advised their parents that someone from that phone number had been dialing into our system and making all kinds of threats, well, the kids would typically practically wet themselves when their parents called them out on it. So for one thing, this is nothing new, and for another, it's an obvious fact of human nature that people will behave differently when they feel there isn't any direct accountability or ramifications for their actions in the "real world".

    However, I'm still having trouble seeing where this all fits in to be anti "Web 2.0". If anything sites like Facebook have taken things in the opposite direction, making it more difficult to be anonymous (or at the very least, encourage the majority of people to simply use their actual identity online). At the end of the day there isn't any "real" ramification to these "poison seeds" of anonymity.

    Perhaps a real-world example of what he's so concerned about would be more helpful. I skimmed through the rather large story at the Smithsonian site, and I just couldn't really pull any meat out of it. Lots of, um, words about disjointed stuff that I couldn't tie together. Maybe someone else can be so helpful as to sum it up in a way that makes sense?

  • Re:Oblig. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 28, 2012 @04:13PM (#42413287)

    Yes, anonymity has its downside, but "a danger to political discourse and the polity itself"?

    The Federalist Papers were published under a collective pseudonym.

  • What? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by bmo ( 77928 ) on Friday December 28, 2012 @04:29PM (#42413435)

    "As far back as the turn of the century, he singled out one standout aspect of the new web cultureâ"the acceptance, the welcoming of anonymous commenters on websitesâ"as a danger to political discourse and the polity itself."

    Oh you mean Fidonet? AKA Fight-O-Net? Or like my local bbses where everyone knew each other? One wag commented just hours ago at another forum that the local networks were "the crazy story of raging hostility and love." And they were. We would fight it out online and go to Rock&Bowl and RHPS every weekend. The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory doesn't account for cruelty and bickering among the people you know and love. It also doesn't account for the BS people post under their *real names* - see Facebook for that.

    This isn't some new phenomenon. This is human nature being acted out online. I don't know where he's coming from that he should be surprised at all. I think he led a very sheltered life online and offline. He thinks that the masses should go back to where they came from. We're well past that point of no-return. Maybe if he doesn't want to be immersed in society, he should go create another Internet, with a population of 1, himself.


  • Re:'Tis alright (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Mashiki ( 184564 ) <> on Friday December 28, 2012 @04:36PM (#42413495) Homepage

    Adblock is so effective that advertisers want it outlawed.

    I always liked this one, I mean it. I really like it, it means that the people are speaking loudly enough that they find their methods irresponsible. If advertisers weren't acting like flashers in front of 10 year old's, who had a side-job as peeping toms after 9pm, they'd probably wouldn't be having this problem with people installing adblockers.

  • by Krishnoid ( 984597 ) * on Friday December 28, 2012 @04:45PM (#42413583) Journal

    Lanier seems to cavalierly disregard the potential for being locked up simply for expressing the truth in open discourse.

    I wonder if he, in his wisdom, foresaw a time where government agents or Islamic assassins appear at one's door step simply for expressing an opinion. I can't imagine someone with even a modicum of historical hindsight would dismiss this so easily.

    His experience in this area seems to actually be the basis for his opinion:

    But something he mentioned next really astonished me: "I’m sensitive to it because it murdered most of my parents' families in two different occasions and this idea that we're getting unified by people in these digital networks—"

    "Murdered most of my parents' families." You heard that right. Lanierd'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.

  • by Areyoukiddingme ( 1289470 ) on Friday December 28, 2012 @04:49PM (#42413629)

    Seems to me that while anonymity is a problem (and the post of the link to Penny Arcade deserves to stay at the top of the heap), pseudonymity is very very useful, and largely immune to many of the problems of anonymity.

    Take Slashdot, in particular. Slashdot has accounts and a reputation system. You are not required to use your legal name as your account name, but that's irrelevant. Once you've chosen a name, it's your name. Outside of astroturfers, most of us use only a single Slashdot account. (I'm sure there are those of you out there who work really really hard at muddying the waters around yourself. We know you're out there. Congratulations. Don't respond.) In consequence, the karma an account accumulates maps pretty well to a single individual. Lanier's concerns about a lynch mob congealing out of the masses are short-circuited by that mapping. We don't know each other's given names, but we know a name for each other. Except for actual Anonymous Cowards, we are pseudonymous, rather than anonymous. And that's enough to form a community, rather than a mob.

    Well, almost. I mentioned the reputation system and karma already, but it bears repeating. That plus conversation threading is probably indispensable as well. The @Blah convention of non-threaded comment systems works very poorly, since it doesn't scale. Taken together, the three features form a community.

    Lanier is right if you ignore Slashdot. Every other site that accepts comments is full to the brim with useless trolls. But it's easy to see why, and the names in use don't matter a damn. What matters is the lack of karma, moderation, and threading. Youtube comments are a cesspool of noise that should simply be deleted, right now, and reestablished with a SlashCode moderation system. The difference would be astounding.

    In truth, because the names currently in use are usually required to be unique within a system, they're usually better identifiers for an individual than their legal names. If my account name was John Smith, I could be one of thousands of John Smiths. But I bet there's only one AreYouKiddingMe on the entire internet. (I haven't Googled and I'm not egotistical enough to bother.) So advocating for requiring the use of legal names online is rather missing the point. The identifier isn't relevant to either the problem or the solution.

    And Lanier is wrong, whether you ignore Slashdot or not. There is one crucial difference between an online mob and an actual mob: nobody can get killed by an online mob. Driven to suicide is the worst it gets, and if our personal support systems (in-person friends and family) weren't so broken, even that wouldn't happen. Nobody has ever been strung up from a tree by a crowd of Youtube commenters, and they never will be, because they AREN'T a crowd. They're a bunch of individuals sitting in front of screens, separated by a cumulative total of millions of kilometers. That, and the psuedonymity/anonymity cuts both ways—the mob can't hang a person it can't find.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 28, 2012 @05:08PM (#42413789)

    I think the main reason for Lanier's discomfort lies in idea that the web is driving us towards a significant shift in social interaction. The old standbys of social segmentation mean nothing on the net. Age, race, gender, religion, sex, even language. Anyone can rotfl or TL;DR or RTFA along side their now global peers, even if in reality they currently share no common norms. I think it is this one change which should be celebrated.

    This change has not come without consequences, however. With a lack of norms comes a possible anomie, and my main concern lies with the coming generations. While most of us reading (indeed, the early adopters of this evolution) are like minded in nature; introverted, rational thought, highly adaptable with great problem solving ability, it doesn't mean that we have become the archetype of the world. We also have found our 'place' in society. A lack of definite social structure can be harrowing to most, especially when coupled with the main social controls that the net currently employs: shunning and shaming. We don't hang online offenders, but to some on the receiving end of these controls, the effect may end up being the same.

    Also realize that children pickup up much more than just language by watching their parents and siblings, and other members of the kid's self defined community. Important cues as to personal space, appropriate gestures, the levels of response to various stressors. Your kids are watching you on levels that you find innate and invisible. The net doesn't provide these important queues. When (North America) has both parents at work, the siblings at higher grades of school and the net as the next social everything-anytime, along with it's inherent anomic state, I think we are going to see much more behavior crop up which we would find highly erratic or disturbing. I predict a large rise in violence/suicide in the coming years, especially amongst children in ages were we've not considered such behaviors possible.

    As to social catastrophes... I don't think those are the words he wants to use. Significant social events maybe. His position is obviously one of concern, but to be honest, the doom and gloom side of human nature is an everlasting trope. It's 2012, soon to be 2013. Villages are still being sacked. Thieves and sociopaths still kill and plunder for personal gain. Revolutions still promise change. And most people still try and lead a peaceful life while still enjoying a good fart joke now and then. Nothing new under the sun there.

    What is changing is our interaction with one another on a global scale. With the advent of a mostly norm-less, instantly accessible society for all comes a new era for both social wonders and horrors.

  • Re:Oblig. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by alexander_686 ( 957440 ) on Friday December 28, 2012 @05:33PM (#42413985)

    I am going to have to disagree with you – the writers of the Federalist papers where widely known to support the constitution.

    Back then, advertising your ideas were taken as sign of ego and hubris – signs that you coveted power and fame – implying that you wanted to set yourself as aristocracy. The time favored cool rotational thinking. The writers wrote anonymously to remove their personal interests from the debate so the focus would be on the ideas.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 28, 2012 @06:26PM (#42414471)

    This is going to read like an ad hominem attack but I am genuinely curious because I see so many sarcastic remarks like yours on a daily basis that I have to ask:

    Have you ever considered that you might actually be wrong about something? That it is possible that someone older and/or more experienced than you in a particular field can have some particular insight backed by their experience that allows them to see things you don't?

    Could it be possible that this "Aging 'Genius'" isn't weird, he just disagrees with your particular world view and that you are the one who is mistaken and possibly even weird?

    To me, the current willful acceptance of surveillance by the masses is very "weird". The Stasi archives did not contain anywhere near the detailed information about people that Facebook now possesses and the people using it, delivered that data on purpose.

    "They thought they were free" as it were.

Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing. -- Wernher von Braun