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The Wonders of Man in the Age of Simulations.


AMONGST THE MANY CRITICS of Singularity, Jaron Lanier stands out. A fixture in Silicon Valley for decades and one of the founders of virtual reality, he is hardly a Luddite. Lanier even has his own utopian version of how technology can help us to be more human—what he calls “postsymbolic communication.” And yet, Lanier’s recent book, You Are Not a Gadget, is a scream of protest, a manifesto against old friends who now form what he terms a subculture of “cybernetic totalitarians” and “digital Maoists.” While many proclaim the internet age as the dawning of a new freedom, Lanier argues that current trends on the internet prefer the crowd over the individual, value the abstraction of the network over real persons, and threaten to eradicate consciousness, spirituality, and humanity from the earth.

Lanier’s attack encompasses more than just the Singularity movement, but it is centered there. Most fundamentally, he sees the Singularity and similar movements as anti-human. “The Singularity,” he writes,

… would involve people dying in the flesh and being uploaded into a computer and remaining conscious, or people simply being annihilated in an imperceptible instant before a new super-consciousness takes over the Earth. The Rapture and the Singularity share one thing in common: they can never be verified by the living.

Lanier takes on one of the central metaphors enabling the belief in the coming Singularity, the Turing test. The Turing test is supposed to tell us whether computers have attained human intelligence. It works like this: A human and a machine have a conversation over the computer. A third person, the judge, is to determine which one is the human and which the machine. If human judges cannot determine the difference between man and machine, the machine is supposedly intelligent.

Lanier responds that the Turing test does not necessarily prove the intelligence of computers, as many futurists believe. Instead, the fact that human judges mistake computers for humans may mean that we humans have “just lowered [our] own standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machine seems smart.”

“People,” Lanier continues, “degrade themselves in order to make machines seem smart all the time.” This seems shocking, and yet it is the thesis that keeps Lanier’s book moving forward.

One example of how humans dumb themselves down to worship machines is the financial crisis. The best and brightest on Wall St. put their faith in computer models and fancy derivatives that they couldn’t understand but were blessed by computer-guided risk modeling. In a section titled “What Will Money Be?”, Lanier argues that as computers advance to act without constant human intervention, humans will be less and less valuable. And digitally connected mobs that staff wikis and other technologies will devalue individual work “until all jobs are done that way.” In such a world, the “cloud lords might still be able to hold on to their thrones” but the vast majority of human beings will be superfluous. Robots and cloud economics threaten to “usher in a dark age in which everything human is devalued,” where the economic impact of technology would be a “dismal boomerang between gradual impoverishment under robot-driven capitalism and a dangerously sudden, desperate socialism.”

The merit of Lanier’s skepticism is to remind us that as we place increasing faith in computers to govern our markets, teach our children, and make political decisions, we are lowering our standards and allowing ourselves to be governed by machines, algorithms, and crowds. He decries the loss of creativity that he attributes to the web generation: books disappear, replaced by the “one book” in which the entirety of written content subsists in cloud “accessed via user interfaces that encourage mashups of fragments that obscure the context and authorship of each fragment”; music becomes bland, homogenized by digitization software that culls the ambiguities of flexible thoughts into pre-existing musical structures; and self expression is regularized and automated in formatted facebook profiles, pre-built websites, and algorithmically organized behavior. Overall, the “deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits.” The danger, Lanier insists, is that the focus on networks, clouds, and abstractions forgets the humanity of real people.

The question Lanier forces upon us is: What in the person is impervious to cognitive discovery? For Kurzweil, humanity is about knowing and mastering. For Lanier, humans are subject to an unknowable and mysterious consciousness that cannot be mimicked but only castrated by the immersion of humans in intelligent software and content-filled clouds. What the debate between Kurzweil and Lanier is about, then, is the very sense of the human.

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