22 December 2010

Jaron Lanier's Virtual Reality

There is now a well-established class of writers about the digital world whom I fondly dub the Old Curmudgeons. Basically, they agree, things there are getting worse all the time; this modern online nonsense is bad for us, and will give us all fallen arches or something. Leading exponents of this view include Nicholas Carr, Andrew Keen and Jaron Lanier.

I think Mr Lanier is the most interesting of these, because he has a solid technical background and has been creative in the digital sphere a long time. That makes his Savonarola-like denunciations of the same particularly striking.

Against that background, it was perhaps inevitable that he would weigh in on the Wikileaks business – and equally inevitable what his line would be, as his title makes clear: “The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of WikiLeaks”.

If I had several hours to spare, I might try to go through it addressing his various arguments, many of which amount to unsubtantiated assertions about “The ideology that drives a lot of the online world”; ad-hominem sniping (for example, “we didn't necessarily get to know where Mr. Assange was at a given moment” - maybe because he is doing things a lot of governments and organisations don't like, and so discretion is the better part of valour); outright misapprehension (“Wikileaks isn't really a "wiki," but it is designed to look and feel like the Wikipedia” - er, well, no actually, it doesn't look like it in the slightest); and various straw men: “What if we come to be able to read each other's thoughts? Then there would be no thoughts. Your head has to be different from mine if you are to be a person with something to say to me” - as far as I am aware, nobody is calling for mandatory telepathy.

But I'd rather examine Lanier's peroration, because I think it exposes the fundamental flaw in his indubitably entertaining essay:

Anarchy and dictatorship are entwined in eternal resonance. One never exists for long without turning to the other, and then back again. The only way out is structure, also known as democracy.

We sanction secretive spheres in order to have our civilian sphere. We furthermore structure democracy so that the secretive spheres are contained and accountable to the civilian sphere, though that's not easy.

There is certainly an ever-present danger of betrayal. Too much power can accrue to those we have sanctioned to hold confidences, and thus we find that keeping a democracy alive is hard, imperfect, and infuriating work.

The flip side of responsibly held secrets, however, is trust. A perfectly open world, without secrets, would be a world without the need for trust, and therefore a world without trust. What a sad sterile place that would be:A perfect world for machines.

What the Wikileaks cables show is precisely that those sanctioned “secretive spheres” are not currently accountable to the civilian sphere. They show all the shady deals made in backrooms, the outright lies told to the public to keep us quiet, the connivance with big business to ensure that profit comes before ethics.

Lanier's logic seems to be that everything's fine and the revelations of Wikileaks will only mess things up. And until Wikileaks' revelations, people might have gone along with that analysis, since that was the story that governments were feeding us. But in the wake of Wikileaks, that is simply not a tenable position: as the words of diplomats delineate time and again, everything is not fine, and the social pact of accepting those “secretive spheres” in return for a responsible use of the advantage they bring has been broken.

I would love it to be the case that Lanier's analysis were true, and in some scaled-up, digitised version of Athenian democracy we could have a responsible wielding of state powers, with secrecy applied wisely and justly. But Wikileaks has confirmed what many have suspected, but hitherto been unable to prove: that politicians use secrecy to hide their continual and continuing breaches of the trust we placed in them.

Until they change in the light of what Wikileaks is showing, we cannot trust them as we did before. And the more they – and their defenders, however well intentioned – deny the situation revealed by their own words through Wikileaks, and try to stop us seeing it, by hook or by crook, the longer that is likely to take, and the messier it will be.

And given that proven record of abuse, when they do finally change we will need more transparency about what they are doing – but not *total* transparency, which is neither feasible nor necessary – to make sure that they are not falling back into their bad old ways under the convenient, comforting cover of secrecy.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.


FleaStiff said...

>shady deals in backrooms, lies to
>keep us quiet, the connivance to
>ensure profit before ethics.

I keep wondering why this is suddenly considered news?

If the NY Times hadn't published the Pentagon Papers, the Martha's Vineyard weekly would have.

Glyn Moody said...

@FleaStiff: as I wrote, the key difference is that it is not just a suspicion, but demonstrably true from the diplomats' own words...

Anonymous said...

That is the change. We now have evidence.

I don't think any government should be allowed to keep secret anything that 1) is illegal, 2) violates any treaties that the country has signed up to, and 3) impairs the ability of the people to elect a properly representative government.

Glyn Moody said...

@Anon: indeed - it's a matter of defining new and *reasonable* boundaries of what needs to be secret in the digital age.

Valdis said...

I think that level of transparency is decided by interest and general consensus that it is reasonable.
Not everybody is interested in cosmology, but if somebody is, and others agree this interest should be satisfied, it would be weird not to allow him get necessary information. On the other hand, if one is interested about somebody's private life, though general opinion is that it would be snooping, it should be left private.
Similarly should be handled economical and political issues. If most of society thinks it should be public, it must be so.

Glyn Moody said...

@Valdis: indeed, the distinction between private and public sphere is crucial - and one that Lanier glides over.

Jean-Marc Liotier said...

Rebuttal to Lanier's article - also published on The Atlantic.

Glyn Moody said...

@Jean-Marc - thanks; yes, it's very fine

reine said...

You'll notice that, in the "Athenian Democracy", women and slaves DIDN'T VOTE!.

Glyn Moody said...

@reine: well, I wasn't suggesting we emulate all its aspects.

Jose_X said...

"NY Times Finally Speaks Out Against Financial Firms Blocking Wikileaks" http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20101225/23385712407/ny-times-finally-speaks-out-against-financial-firms-blocking-wikileaks.shtml

Glyn Moody said...

@Jose_X: thanks, another fine piece from the virtual pen of @mmasnick.

frizztext said...

I've written about Jaron Lanier for amazon.de - thanks for sharing your thoughts, very interesting for me ...

Glyn Moody said...

@frizztext: thanks for the feedback - glad it was of interest.