Monday, February 21, 2011

Jaron Lanier and his Six Web Commandments

You would think that a person who was doing virtual-reality experiments in the 1980s, someone who wears dreadlocks and plays obscure musical instruments professionally, and someone who just wrote a book criticizing most of what we’re familiar with about the WorldWideWeb would not have much in common. Well, they turn out to be the same person: Jaron Lanier, who is Scholar at Large with Microsoft Corporation, among several other of his hats. And he published a book last year called You Are Not a Gadget that has enough unique perspectives on engineering ethics problems to give me ideas for several blogs. Today I’ll stick to just one: the danger that the web is about to lock us into pernicious frameworks and habits that may do permanent damage to cultures worldwide.

The easiest way to understand what he’s saying is to consider the idea of the inner troll. This is Lanier’s phrase for the way normally decent and polite people sometimes turn into writers of nasty, ill-tempered, and vicious attacks in comments on blogs and other online forums, under cover of anonymity. Anyone who has spent time on popular websites where anonymous comments are allowed has noticed how ugly people tend to be when they take sides on a controversial issue. (The non-controversial ones rarely attract comments.) It doesn’t matter what the subject is, and whether the visitors are beer-drinking football fans or musicologists with perfect pitch and Ph. D’s. Sooner or later, the discussions degenerate into the kind of name-calling and personal attacks that most people still shy away from in face-to-face encounters (I hope). On some occasions involving teenagers, the pressure from hateful online mobs has even driven a few victims to suicide. Why is this?

Although Lanier isn’t sure, he has some ideas. One problem is the fact that anonymity is almost a default setting on many websites, while it takes extra effort to identify yourself in a way that can be traced back to your true name or address. This is one of the “locked-in” features of the web that is pretty hard to reverse without making folks go through a lot of identification hassle that would discourage commenting at all. Lanier explains that the first Internet users were all physicists at a few large labs, most of them knew each other, and most of them had no concern, or even a vague notion, that anyone on the web would ever be less than polite and professional. Well, this was one of those little features of human behavior that got overlooked as one of several competing versions of how the web should work took over. And now we are more or less stuck with it.

Another problem he identifies might be termed the homogenization of personhood. Contrast the old-fashioned handwritten letter from one friend to another with the impression of a person you can get from a typical Facebook page. Back in the day, you could often tell who wrote the letter simply by the handwriting style of the address on the envelope. Your friend’s handwriting became as familiar to you as his face, and everyone’s unique writing style conveyed more sense of personality, even down to repetitive phrases that could be simultaneously annoying and endearing.

By contrast, a lot of material on a Facebook page derives from a few bits that represent yes-or-no answers to a limited set of canned questions: age, sex, “single” or “attached,” and a few others. And the more skillfully a Facebook page is designed to put forward an appealing personality, the more successful it is, generally speaking, at everything but sincerity. As Lanier puts it, “The deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits.” While any communications medium inevitably reduces a holistic experience to a limited range of information, the digital medium of the web is particularly reductive. And because it’s so widespread, its effects may be more pervasive than any previous technology, perhaps including the invention of the printing press.

Lanier thinks that while it’s too late to change some things about the web, it’s not too late for others. He gives a list of practical suggestions that each user of the web can act on. While a few people who follow these rules will not revolutionize the web overnight, I think the philosophy behind these ideas will move us in the right direction. Here they are, from page 21 of You Are Not a Gadget:

1. Don’t post anonymously unless you really might be in danger.

2. If you put effort into Wikipedia articles, put even more effort into using your personal voice and expression outside of the wiki to help attract people who don’t yet realize that they are interested in the topics you contributed to.

3. Create a website that expresses something about who you are that won’t fit into the template available to you on a social networking site.

4. Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view.

5. Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out.

6. If you are twittering, innovate in order to find a way to describe your internal state instead of trivial external events, to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would define a machine.

If everyone followed these rules, I think the web experience for everyone would be much better. No. 1 by itself would rid the world of most spam, for instance. Of course it is idealistic to think this might happen, but that’s what ideals are for. Even if you never reach them, just by trying to you naturally go in the right direction.

At the risk of flattering my readers, I will say that I have rarely if ever encountered any Inner Trolls trying to post comments on this site. I view all the submitted comments, and allow ones in that I think contribute to the conversation, regardless of whether they agree with or oppose my own view. Most of the ones I reject are machine-generated spam or so short and content-free that there’s no point in posting them. The result is something that I think is in the spirit of Lanier’s Six Commandments. While few of my posts are the product of weeks of reflection, I do think about them for more than the hour or so it takes to write them. As I said, there is a lot more in Lanier’s book worth pondering, so you may read about him again here soon.

Sources: You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier was published in 2010 by Afred A. Knopf.

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