Back in 2000, internet pioneer Jaron Lanier astonished the digital world by turning his back on the very thing he helped to create and promote — namely, the unabashedly enthusiastic and quasi-utopian vision of the future Web that took root in the late 1990s.
In his Wired article, "One-Half of a Manifesto," he attacked "internet intellectuals," and "cybernetic totalists," arguing that the Web was likely devolving into an online lynch mob. Nearly a decade later, Lanier has not changed his tune. And as a recent interview with Smithsonian's Ron Rosenbaum has shown, he's as opposed to Web 2.0 culture as ever before.
These days, Lanier is concerned with the rise of a detached "hive mind" mentality — which he fears could destroy political discourse, economic stability, and the dignity of the person. It could eventually result, he says, in a social catastrophe.
And indeed, among his many concerns is the rise of anonymity and the tribalistic urges it often unleashes. He points to the recent row involving Reddit's Violentacrez and Gawker as an example. Rosenbaum writes:
At last we come to politics, where I believe Lanier has been most farsighted-and which may be the deep source of his turning into a digital Le Carré figure. 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.
It's taken a while for this prophecy to come true, a while for this mode of communication to replace and degrade political conversation, to drive out any ambiguity. Or departure from the binary. But it slowly is turning us into a nation of hate-filled trolls.
Surprisingly, Lanier tells me it first came to him when he recognized his own inner troll-for instance, when he'd find himself shamefully taking pleasure when someone he knew got attacked online. "I definitely noticed it happening to me," he recalled. "We're not as different from one another as we'd like to imagine. So when we look at this pathetic guy in Texas who was just outed as ‘Violentacrez'...I don't know if you followed it?"
"I did." "Violentacrez" was the screen name of a notorious troll on the popular site Reddit. He was known for posting "images of scantily clad underage girls...[and] an unending fountain of racism, porn, gore" and more, according to the Gawker.com reporter who exposed his real name, shaming him and evoking consternation among some Reddit users who felt that this use of anonymity was inseparable from freedom of speech somehow.
"So it turns out Violentacrez is this guy with a disabled wife who's middle-aged and he's kind of a Walter Mitty-someone who wants to be significant, wants some bit of Nietzschean spark to his life."
Lanier is particularly concerned about what he calls "digital Maoism" and the onset of dysfunctional and socially isolated online communities. He points to everything from online bullying to the rise of well-organized online virtual lynch mobs in China. And disturbingly, he says we're all concentrating ourselves into a "cruelty beam" — the same social effect that fueled much of the impetus behind the totalitarian experiments of the 20th century.
I've barely scratched the surface of this provocative interview, and it's definitely worth reading in full. Lanier also goes over the economic problems inherent with the Web, and he talks about his new book, The Fate of Power and the Future of Dignity. Check it out.