The heroes of Jaron Lanier

by on May 2, 2016 at 3:39 am in History, Law, Web/Tech | Permalink

There are many, but they include:

  • J.M. Keynes,  he was the first person to think about how to really manage an information system.
  • E.M. Forster for The Machine Stops, written in 1907, which foresees our error with a very critical eye.
  • Alan Turing, who stayed a kind person even as he was tortured to death.
  • Mary Shelley who was a keen observer of people and how they can confuse themselves with technology.

And of course my friend Ted Nelson. He invented the digital media link and was perhaps the most formative figure in the development of online culture. He proposed that instead of copying digital media, we should keep one copy of each cultural expression on a digital network and pay the author of that expression an affordable amount whenever it is accessed. In this way, anyone could earn a living from their creative work.

Here is another interesting bit about the internet:

One thing that bugs me is the way context is lost. You start discovering new music or new culture in very particular ways. Algorithms become your guide. If an algorithm calculates that you may like a piece of music, it will recommend it to you. That makes the algorithm the master of context for humanity. It tends to remove culture from its context, and context is everything. The structure of the Net itself has become the context instead of real people or the real world. That’s a really big deal.

Here is the full piece, an interview with Catherine Jewell at WIPO, I would say that Lanier is or should be rising in relative status.  For the pointer I thank Samir Varma.

1 Ray Lopez May 2, 2016 at 3:42 am

My hero, first and foremost, is Tyler Cowen. First.

2 Ray Lopez May 2, 2016 at 3:54 am

“He invented the digital media link” – lol, is this like the Like button, or is it a fundamental patent like US5611040 by Timothy T. Brewer at al (“Amazon double click patent”), or IBM’s patent on copy-and-paste (yes, it exists, possibly expired by now), or the patent on the .gif format? Or is it something really profound like Al Gore inventing (de facto) the internet? Not to praise myself too much, but how did Al Gore come up with this saying, that he invented the internet? I can’t prove it, but about the same time he said this I was emailing him on an advocacy issue and praised him for being a Father of the Internet, de facto inventing the internet. Coincidence?

BTW I invented trolling. I was a member of The WELL, and back in the early 90s I trolled from a Stanford U account the ARPANET.

3 mkt42 May 2, 2016 at 4:57 am

Ted Nelson is/was the real deal, at least as a commenter on technology and culture. I came up on his book _Computer Lib_ pretty much at random but it was an eye-opening book. According to wikipedia, Ted Nelson coined the terms “hypertext” and “hypermedia” in 1963. That is not the same thing as actually inventing links, but he’s been both a commenter and a doer, though probably better at the former than the latter.

4 May 2, 2016 at 6:14 am

“Nelson had been inspired by “As We May Think”, a popular 1945 essay by Vannevar Bush. In the essay, Bush described a microfilm-based machine (the Memex) in which one could link any two pages of information into a “trail” of related information, and then scroll back and forth among pages in a trail as if they were on a single microfilm reel.”

5 anon May 2, 2016 at 11:31 am

Nelson pretty much invented the world wide web, but he got tangled in making it so much more. Since he wanted author compensation, he needed transaction control and micropayments (pay cents, or fractions, per page).

Berners-Lee didn’t need all that for a laboratory information system, so he sliced off the thinnest version. And then the slim version conquered the world.

Rude solutions like paywalls only exist because Berners-Lee beat Nelson to mass market. Though perhaps that was inevitable. A global transaction and micropayment system is still beyond us.

Lanier is hoping for it to come.

6 mkt42 May 2, 2016 at 12:41 pm

That seems to me to be an excellent succinct description of what happened.

We can try (and Ted Nelson did indeed try) to think of alternative versions of the web. Nelson had his fancy vision. France was perhaps a decade too early with Minitel. There were probably other visions as well, from Vannevar Bush’s to Arthur C. Clarke envisioning that a key research skill in the future would be who could quickly write queries that would get the relevant information from a central information source.

Some of those visions might’ve been superior to what we have now. But I suspect that anon is correct that it may’ve been inevitable or close to inevitable that Berners-Lee’s version would be the one that grabbed the world’s attention.

7 Will Rinehart May 3, 2016 at 4:07 pm

A micropayment system is hugely expensive to run on the producer side and actually fairly costly to consume on the buyer side. Here is something I wrote a little while back, but it still applies:

For any payment system to work, a seller must be able to use it without having profit margins wiped. This is why retailers often will require a $5, $10 or $20 minimum for credit card charges because the charges to maintain the payment system only makes sense for a shop owner after a certain price level. And what goes into building such a system? Well there are fixed technical costs for developing the backend architecture and hardware, storage costs for transaction integrity and legal purposes, computational costs for processing payments, communication costs for information transfer, administrative costs, and on and on. All of these costs make sub $1 payments extremely unprofitable.

And what is in it for consumers? While micropayments might benefit individual artists, consumer demands are hardly mentioned. They too would have to buy into the project, but there is little benefit for them. For one, a huge mental transaction cost exists between free and even 1/10 of one cent, a phenomena dubbed the penny gap.

8 May 2, 2016 at 6:28 am

“In the 1980s and 1990s, he (Al Gore) promoted legislation that funded an expansion of the ARPANET, allowing greater public access, and helping to develop the Internet.”

9 Rich Berger May 2, 2016 at 7:20 am


You’re so shameless that it’s almost endearing.

10 Ray Lopez May 2, 2016 at 9:47 am

Rich, what will it take for you to drop the “almost”? Do you need Paul Krugman to reply to you?

11 Alain May 2, 2016 at 11:12 am


You say you are a proponent of patents, but yet you seem to judge some as unworthy. You understand that each has to be considered it is time period. Further the gif patent was more than just novel it is time period, it would be novel today. LZ is beautiful, clearly novel and beyond the average practitioner of the art.

12 Troll me May 3, 2016 at 1:18 am

What about the patent that led to RIM having to fork over hundreds of millions to the patent troll holder of something that amounted to “uh, send a text message from one device to another”, at the very same time that EVERY other player in the market was doing precisely the same thing but didn’t have to fork over millions and billions?

Could it have been related to the fact that Blackberry refused to bend over when it came to encryption?

13 Millian May 2, 2016 at 4:33 am

“We have seen an implosion of careers and career opportunities for those who have devoted their lives to cultural expression, but we create a cultural mythology that this hasn’t happened.” Have we? Were there ever many jobs in culture? Even the media wasn’t really cultural expression, for the most part, rather correcting spelling errors and setting type. I would like to know what the cultural expression careers were 50 years ago and what has replaced them.

14 Millian May 2, 2016 at 4:42 am

“Take the case of professional translators. Their career opportunities have been decreasing much like those of recorded musicians, journalists, authors and photographers”

Professional translation is not cultural expression (literary translation can be). The parts of journalism hit hardest seem to be hard reporting and trades related to the physical production of newspapers, rather than big-name opinion expression. I’m sure professional photography is mainly about creating non-self-expressive, almost standard products to commemorate rites of passage and corporate events. What you are left with in the cultural-expression space is recorded musicians and authors.

15 Troll me May 3, 2016 at 1:26 am

Among other things, it can often be difficult to distinguish between paid propaganda and “legitimate” culture. Indie stuff is basically always culture, in my opinion, even if not “haute couture”. But often there is an element of part propaganda part culture – even if not strictly intended by the creator, funds will be directed to creators who serve the desired purpose, with the effect of it serving as part propaganda via promotions that lead its impact to be perhaps greater than the cultural/artistic merits deserve.

Here’s one place where a lot of culture had been lost. In the 1960s/1970s, an enormous amount of the music industry was very cultural. And by that, I specifically mean for “culture” to include aspects which are anti-establishment in their general bent (although CERTAINLY this need not apply, considering that the establishment is itself a function of existing culture, for example, a Christian band is most certainly “cultural” as well). When’s the last time the established music industry has gotten behind an artist that was strongly critical of existing socio-political realities? I’m not sure it’s accurate to say that a lot of jobs were lost, but certainly the economic importance of “true culture” has been reduced in the music industry.

16 mkt42 May 2, 2016 at 4:59 am

We’ve cited “The Machine Stops” in at least a couple of threads over the past couple of years, but it was an excellent science fiction short story when it came out and as the decades have passed has turned out to be astoundingly prescient and wise.

Turing and Shelley are conventional but good choices.

But I’m not sure what sort of information management Lanier’s talking about when he cites Keynes.

17 Agrabah May 2, 2016 at 5:57 am

Exactly, I’d be very interested in knowing what is the Keynes insight on managing the information system.

18 ShardPhoenix May 2, 2016 at 5:35 am

>instead of copying digital media, we should keep one copy of each cultural expression on a digital network and pay the author of that expression an affordable amount whenever it is accessed. In this way, anyone could earn a living from their creative work.

This doesn’t really make sense, at least as written. The way a computer “accesses” information is by making a copy of it. You can try to stop it from saving the copy, but without “trusted computing” (ie you give up control of you computer to the copyright holders), this is impossible.

Lanier has always struck me as a hippie dreamer with no special insight and these excerpts aren’t changing my mind. It’s not that there’s necessarily nothing wrong with technological society BTW – it’s just that Lanier’s commentary is not very helpful.

19 Troll me May 3, 2016 at 1:32 am

Technically true. But why would a user want to evade payments to the creator by handing out copies to people who could otherwise have freely downloaded from the same source? I imagine people would have just kept copies to have certainty of access at a later date.

The main problem, I think, is to make sure that the system can’t be gamed. For example, diverse ways of getting the download to appear to originate from a diverse number of IP addresses to create millions of fake downloads to increase the payouts to the creator.

So, to manage such a system you’d need all downloads to be matched to individual accounts or files of some sort, and this database would have to be maintained. Pioneers in the early internet were very concerned about things like freedom, and I highly doubt they would have been naive to the risks for liberty if, say, some future police state could directly determine the entire reading/music/movies/etc. history of ANY individual and then use it to identify people for “special interest”, for example the fact of downloading many titles relating to Marxism, etc.

I really like the idea for paying creators, but until there’s a way to ensure there’s a way that the system can’t be gamed that ALSO prevents any such police state from using such data to target those with “undesirable” interests, I definitely would not jump on that bandwagon.

20 Axa May 2, 2016 at 6:13 am

On the context part: I think he has a pessimist bias.

Algorithm’s have no free will, there’s always a human behind them. It can still be argued that in online music services a team of people “control” what you listen to and there’s no context. However, before Internet most of people just had the local FM station and the recommendations from paper/magazine. So, a song getting repeated every 120 min because that’s what “our callers want”. People living in certain urban areas had the “context”. Perhaps, for those living those cultured places Internet may be a step down, but for the rest it’s an advance.

Going deeper into the context topic, his critique of the Net can be applied to books and newspapers. We just got used to see news about hundreds of dead people in the news and the issue is trapped by the structure of the media: frontpage, homepage, a follow-up everyday until readers get tired. What important issue last more than 90 days on the news?

Internet is a tool for information exchange as a car is a transportation tool. No one says a car is bad car because it does not provides context of the places you visit..

I read once about him once in an interview around the “stupidity of crowds”. Collaborative work, as Linux, is not perfect. But, individual work has the same problem. The “mob” work and the individual work complement each other. However, I had the impression that this guy tends to minimize the good of collaborative work. Perhaps it’s a personal problem that people around him say the Wiki is the best, but for lots of other people Wiki is just a complement to books, newspapers and science journals.

21 Troll me May 3, 2016 at 1:36 am

Yeah, I thought Pandora was great. For a few weeks. Until it was recommending “too similar” stuff and I got tired of it. Different music for different times. Algorithms aren’t good at that, and I sure hope there is never an algorithm that has such pervasive knowledge of the individual that it can tailor the recommendation to your present emotional state (e.g., such information could also be appropriated for highly subversive and politically repressive uses).

22 Axa May 3, 2016 at 2:00 pm

I used before it got blocked where I live. After 2-3K rated songs (love/fast forward) the algorithm started to give really good recommendations. The emotional state was input as “create a playlist of music similar to X (tags: band, style, region)” and the proposed playlist was more than good.

23 rayward May 2, 2016 at 6:51 am

Prisoners of the algorithm, and the walls are closing in. And it’s not just in matters of culture. Two people can enter an identical search on the same search engine and get radically different results. The algorithm is narrowing knowledge, or what passes for knowledge, as well as culture. And there’s no end in sight. Will a driverless car choose a destination based on algorithms? Over 60% of content on the internet is accessed via social media, mainly Facebook. Algorithm squared. [I get the convenience, but the algorithm shrinks the world, it doesn’t expand it.]

24 Steve Sailer May 2, 2016 at 6:57 am

J.M. Keynes — gay (although apparently converted to straight, although that’s not supposed to be possible)

E.M. Forster — gay

Alan Turing — gay

Mary Shelley — not gay

25 Millian May 2, 2016 at 7:55 am

The 3 men read as undergraduates at King’s College, Cambridge.

26 prior_test2 May 2, 2016 at 9:48 am

‘although apparently converted to straight, although that’s not supposed to be possible’

Well, as part of your ongoing research into that whole gender thing, you just might want to check out the term ‘bisexual.’ Then read a bit about Alexander the Great to get some possible insight into an entire cultural context that would be thoroughly dismissive of the idea that gay or straight would be meaningful descriptions to apply to anyone.

27 So Much For Subtlety May 2, 2016 at 12:44 pm

There is no evidence Alexander the Great was bisexual. Or ever even had sex with men once. The main evidence we have for male-with-male sex from that period is mostly political smears. Which suggests rather strongly that the concept of being gay was entirely well understood.

After all, being a passive partner was still grounds for being stripped of your political rights in Athens.

28 Art Deco May 2, 2016 at 11:54 am

Well, that’s the chatterati of our time.

29 Art Deco May 2, 2016 at 12:10 pm

He also lists someone named ‘Ted Nelson’ as a ‘hero’. Five people who had 3 children between them (of which just one survived early childhood) and no grandchildren.

30 Rich Berger May 2, 2016 at 7:21 am

I’ve been reading stories about Jaron Lanier for 15-20 years based on the assumption that he is “important”, and have yet to understand why.

31 Dan in Euroland May 2, 2016 at 9:40 am

Seems like a smart dude that is a “might have been.” Too much of a dilettante to produce anything note worthy.

32 Art Deco May 2, 2016 at 11:56 am

I’d never heard of him before. Someone said he wrote for Wired, which always struck me as garish enough to generate migraines, so I was never tempted to read it.

33 Troll me May 3, 2016 at 1:42 am

There are a lot of misses at Wired, but there’s a lot of coverage of very important events/perspectives that for some reason the mainstream media demonstrates basically no interest in.

34 bob May 2, 2016 at 4:39 pm

Me too. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s simply because of the dreadlocks.

35 dearieme May 2, 2016 at 7:47 am

“he was tortured to death”: but how would he describe it if someone really were tortured to death?

36 Todd Kreider May 2, 2016 at 8:43 am

Several years ago there was a documentary on Turing and a close friend of his had suspected that Turing’s suicide wasn’t because of the government harassing him because he was gay but because he was over 40 and “knew that mathematics was a young man’s game.” (near quote by memory.)

37 Josh May 2, 2016 at 8:31 pm

Also, gay people commit suicide a lot.

38 Troll me May 3, 2016 at 1:53 am

Definitions of torture in international law including intentional mental anguish and psychological torture. I think, especially given the ignorance of the times, it would be more accurate to say “he had a torturous experience”, not “he was tortured”.

I think there has to be torturous intent to call it torture.

39 Ricardo May 2, 2016 at 8:41 am

“If an algorithm calculates that you may like a piece of music, it will recommend it to you. That makes the algorithm the master of context for humanity.”

That’s true only to the extent that people disengage from social life. Before the internet, people without social lives would have gotten music recommendations from MTV, advertisements, radio or musical guest bookings of late night TV shows. Algorithms tend to replace the old media gatekeepers. However, for those who are not completely socially isolated, they will always get recommendations word-of-mouth, including recommendations they see on blogs or from their Facebook friends.

40 Sam Haysom May 2, 2016 at 8:49 am

Whats important to remember is that the public association between homosexuality and security risks that was responsible for Turing losing his security clearance was proven completely untenable by the discovery of the Cambridge Five a few years later.

41 Ricardo May 2, 2016 at 11:28 am

Turing was, of course, criminally prosecuted for “gross indecency.” The catch-22 that existed at that time for gays was that they risked criminal prosecution and even imprisonment by coming out but then, as long as they stayed in the closet, they were at risk of being blackmailed by enemy agents which, I think, was a big part of the reason for security fears.

42 Art Deco May 2, 2016 at 11:52 am

I doubt you could blackmail Guy Burgess or Anthony Blunt; both were flamers. Donald Maclean, who was bisexual, perhaps.

43 So Much For Subtlety May 2, 2016 at 6:36 pm

Except it doesn’t look like anyone was ever blackmailed by enemy agents for being Gay. This looks like a post-facto explanation of the Cambridge Spy ring. In a way it shows how nice Britain used to be. The British did not explain their treason in support of genocide as moral degeneracy but as blackmail. Which is absurd. They (or most of them at any rate) were convinced Stalinists.

The British did seem to like to recruit homosexuals to their intelligence services. Not sure why. Perhaps if you were that deep in the closet, living another lie would be easy? Perhaps once one got in, he recruited all his friends? It could just be a lack of children keeping people at home.

44 Josh May 2, 2016 at 8:36 pm

Maybe just a kind of old boys network. The British public school system, The nazi sa and Hollywood are thre very different examples of semi closeted gay power networks.

45 anon May 2, 2016 at 10:36 am

Jaron Lanier deserves more status than Daniel Hillis. (Edge joke)

46 Rich Berger May 2, 2016 at 10:47 am

They were both darlings of Wired magazine as it was beginning its long fall into mediocrity.

47 anon May 2, 2016 at 11:13 am

Lanier did epic work on VR and maybe people like Wired did him a disservice by hyping it too soon.

I think of Lanier as a specialist mislabeled more recently as a generalist, but I have no objection to the àttached interview. It is fairly conventional, especially if you remember your Nelson.

48 Art Deco May 2, 2016 at 11:49 am

Alan Turing, who stayed a kind person even as he was tortured to death.

Turing wasn’t tortured to death, literally or figuratively. He was humiliated, but that’s anyone more-or-less respectable who has landed in the penal courts. Is Owen Labrie going to be on an updated list of Jaron Lanier’s ‘heroes’?

49 So Much For Subtlety May 2, 2016 at 12:49 pm

The odd thing is that the Athlete Formerly Known as Bruce Jenner is going through exactly the same thing – hormone therapy. Same hormones too I believe.

But that is not torture. That is a cause for celebration.

50 Art Deco May 2, 2016 at 2:47 pm

Good point.

Supposedly, Turing’s estrogen treatments were to be given over one year only. They’d stopped a year before he committed suicide.

51 Paul May 2, 2016 at 1:27 pm

“J.M. Keynes, he was the first person to think about how to really manage an information system”


52 Rimfax May 2, 2016 at 3:42 pm

I really wanted to find value in Lanier’s opinions, but they always seem to boil down to, “I miss the days when experts like me held sway over culture.”

His griping about lost context just seems to be another way of saying this same thing, in that “lost context” is a proxy for “lost status of experts”. I’m having difficulty missing the days when my primary context for music discovery was the expertise of a radio station deejay.

53 Todd Kreider May 2, 2016 at 10:13 pm

Lanier doesn’t get the translation business::

“We scrape the translations made by real people millions of times a day to keep example databases up to date with current events and slang…But the problem is we are not paying the people whose data we are taking to make these translations possible. Some might call this fraud.”

The translation has, not surprisingly, always been the property of the person who bought the translation.There is no such thing as a platonic “real translation” anymore, if there ever was. A translator uses machine translation like Google Translate either to look up words a large dictionary or to help with grammar more for clues if at the lower end. A translator also reads articles on the web that he didn’t pay for in order to research a topic he is translating.

Wages have dropped as Google Translate got better since those who are least skilled and charging low rates can use machine translation to get a passable translation out whereas before 2010 or so this was much harder or impossible for language pairs like Japanese-English or Korean -English.

54 Troll me May 3, 2016 at 2:09 am

The market has expanded due to Google translate. Wages have not dropped. (I’m a translator.)

When you’re getting started it may appear like wages are lower. However, the reality is that people who were always willing to pay top dollar for a high quality translation are still willing to do so. But the low end of the market has exploded exponentially, so it just seems like wages are dropping. For example, I plain and simply do not compete with Indians, Ugandands, etc., and the gain of technology from the internet are shared by both translators and their clients (many agencies are very tough in this regard, but they will only get the dregs).

On the matter of IP and Google translate (and similar services). This kind of bothers me. Since I DO know that I am proprietor of my translation databases, and this is recognized legally, whether or not I’ve formally listed them. But Google (and others) just scrape the net for loads of translations and pile this into their database. I DO think there should be compensation, but I understand that this is not easily feasible for many reasons.

I take solace in the fact that Google (and many other online services) would be hit with a massive class action suit if they ever try to charge for their translation service, which allows me to also benefit from the work of many others. And which also serves the purpose of technological development in general. is in a somewhat safer position, since it doesn’t process the data so much, and merely produces snippets from a large number of documents where the target phrase appears. They may be able to monetize this service without violating IP law. However, it is also far more easily replicated than Google’s work in translation.

55 Todd Kreider May 3, 2016 at 7:38 am

re wage drop: 1) This is from an article written in 2012: “The global market for language services is growing at an annual rate of more than 12%. Although demand is up, the average per-word price for translation into and from the 30 most commonly used languages on the web has fallen over 30% since 2010 and over 40% since 2008. However, the study also finds that some of the most popular individual language pairs, such as Spanish into English, have increased in price.”

2) I know the Japanese into English translation market through friends and blogs. Wages seem to have been flat for that language pair since 2000. If translating in the U.S., that means a 30% decrease in real wages due to inflation assuming the yen oscillates around 95 to 105. 30% is a big drop.

The fact remains that in almost all cases, once a translation is accepted by the one who requested the translation, then that party can put it online for a fee, put it out for free or not put it up at all. It doesn’t matter though since there is so much free out there.

In 1996, I predicted that as computers got much faster and the content on the internet would balloon, machine translation would start to get very good by 2006 and that by 2009 those translating Spanish, French and German into English would start to be turned into editors and almost completely so by 2015. Japanese grammar is much further apart so thought a 5 year lag but that Japanese into English translators would be essentially editors by 2015 as well.

I’m off a little, but I won’t be off by that much. (Most translators say “never” or “in 100 years”). Looks like around 2020, instead.

56 Troll me May 3, 2016 at 12:57 am

It’s hard to discover anything new when all recommendations are based on previous preferences.

Also, there will always be the temptation of any successful recommenders to take bribes/fees to tilt the recommendation in the favour of those with deeper pockets. Then again, if people aren’t willing to pay much for the service, then how else would it be funded? How much would deep-pocketed communists be willing to pay to tilt the recommendations in favour of pro-socialist work?

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