2001 : WHAT NOW?

jaron_lanier's picture
Computer Scientist; Musician; Author, Who Owns The Future?
A Manifesto

I want nothing more right now than to have distance from the awful events of Sept. 11th, but distance is not available to me. I live five blocks from the poor World Trade Center and saw the attack from an outdoor café at the corner. I saw many things that I am not ready to describe. I was evacuated and returned almost a week later to find my home damaged. It isn't yet clear if I'll have to move or not. And yet, of course I feel lucky, even a little guilty, at my relatively extreme good fortune.

Seeing the dreadful rescue site is an unbearably sad daily ritual. It is beyond my mental capacity to register that I have seen with my own eyes over 6000 civilians suddenly killed in front of me.

I struggle for something useful to say. I think I'll be wiser about this at some point in the future, because some distance must surely form with time.

Here is a scattering of ideas that might be of some small use:

I must first address some remarks to "Leftist" readers in Europe. Many of you have suggested to varying degrees that we Americans brought this attack on ourselves through our horrid foreign policy. The claims vary from the mild- that we can't expect to extend our will around the world without somebody striking back- to the insane, as exemplified by the words of Karlheinz Stockhausen , who said the attack was "the greatest work of art ever." I'm a composer, and I fear these words will tarnish the tradition of Western music forever. That someone could even think to say this is an indictment of our esthetics. Could one of our most prominent artists really have lost touch with all concerns other than the quest for extremity and public notice?

To address the more mild slights: I don't think our recent foreign policy has been as consistently bad as it's often portrayed. Somalia really was a humanitarian effort; our Balkans policy was late and confused, but not imperialistic, and was at least better than Europe's; the Clinton mid-East peace proposal was enlightened, respectful to all sides, and at least plausible; our man Mitchell is roving around the world talking sense to all parties

There are a lot of kinds of power. There's an odd strategic parity between post-industrial democracies and the new worldwide society of suicide-cult terrorists. You really don't need to envy us now, ok?

Here is a historical framework that I have found useful in thinking about the attack: The advantages of confederation have not been constant. Rather, they've been on a constant track of modification due to changing technologies. Technology has changed the degree to which cooperation between people improves their fortunes.

If we go back far enough, say before the bronze age, there were limits to the advantages individuals could gain from forming large alliances, and indeed there were benefits to staying in small hunting or scavenging parties instead of large ones.

But once a technology like the shield appeared, it created a rationale for large scale cooperation. A line of men cold walk with their shields overlapped to form a moving wall of metal which was quite impenetrable. Similar observations could be made about agricultural and many other technologies. This enabling of scaling produced in its extremes the Roman Empire, and eventually the modern states.

By the time we come to the twentieth century, there was a new problem: States had become TOO powerful, once again because of changing technologies. Survival in a nuclear age depended on détente and treaties, structures that superceded states.

Perhaps we are now entering a period when tiny groups of people, or even individuals, routinely become powerful enough to be threats to large numbers of people. If this is so, then the original advantages of the state no longer apply. The technologies that are enabling this transition are, disturbingly, ones that I have devoted much of my life to improving; distributed communications networks, simulators, and open education institutions and teaching tools.

As I think about the forms of defense that could protect us from repeated intense threats from insane but powerful small groups of people, I see few strategies that are appealing. We could try to live in something like an immune system instead of a state with it's attendant army. It's plain, after all, that a traditional army is ill-matched to the present threat. The immune system metaphor is revolting to us, however, because we've all struggled so hard to cease to be racist or to otherwise divide the human family into the similar and the foreign.

It's hard to be completely honest about whether an immune system approach is what's really needed, or whether it's just the easiest response for us to envision. Xenophobia seems to me to be a universal human tendency, and that observation stands whatever mix of nature and nurture might be responsible.

On the other hand, maybe ever more severe social structures that resemble immune systems are inevitable, and as we learn to survive in the new situation we will expose a new grim corner of the confines of the human condition.

In the past, I was pro-privacy and most definitely against the notion of a government spying on me. Now I think I was crazy to have that position. Yes, the government poses a threat, but I wasn't willing to believe before that there were other threats that are even worse.

I can see a few rays of hope that dimly illuminate how a society might be pleasant and still protect itself from violent/suicidal cults. Instead of surveillance, a high degree of transparency might protect us from evil. An American supreme court justice famously proclaimed that "Sunlight is the best disinfectant". While this trope originally concerned censorship, it could just as easily be applied to the balance between privacy and security. The Dutch came upon a version of this. Theirs is a dense society of intense interdependence, and in it one does not close one's curtains. Perhaps we should make all our emails and phone calls freely available to anyone who is interested. Almost no one will be. Once revealed, our fascination with the private lives of other people will be so minimal that our boredom could form the basis of a stable social order.

Another possibility is that we might retain privacy but imagine more elaborate governmental structures than we have yet seen to reduce the chances that intelligence agencies will abuse their powers or become lost to their own ideological phantoms.

There is also a McLuhanesque thought that has occurred to me. In the last few years, the Arab world has encountered its own mass media for the first time, in the form of satellite television stations. I've seen a little of the material, and it is inflammatory. It might be the case that societies require some years to get sufficiently used to mass media so as not to be driven insane by it. World War II might have had something to do with the West's early experience of the power of mass media and modern propaganda. Over time one grows somewhat immune to it. In this light, cynicism is seen to be not only a good thing, but a mental habit that is necessary if any society is to survive in an age of potent media.

Finally, I must address a question to my colleagues on edge.org. In the final decades of the twentieth century we've seen an unprecedented rejection of the enlightenment. The assault on rationality has come in many forms, from pricey astrologers for coddled pet dogs, to the prominence after centuries of obscurity of the most militant and strident variants of just about every world religion. We have recently seen neo-Christian suicide cults (the Branch Dividian), Jewish extremists not heard from since Roman times (the "Settlers"), Hindu ultra-nationalists, and many others.

Is our way of marketing science and technology part of the problem? I must emphasize that it's the marketing that I worry about, not the technological capabilities or scientific theories. I'm thinking of the way we market computers as living things and Darwinian interpretation as an oracle. Some of this must play very strangely to people who are poor and wonder what will happen to them as the elites in the West soar into uncharted heavens on the wings of Moore's Law and the genome, hoping to leave even the most basic rules of life as it was known behind.

Is violent fundamentalism in part encouraged by a sense that science and technology are ruining faith in the soul?

I'm not talking about any notion of an immortal soul. I just mean the sense that a person is somehow really there, conscious, that when one communicates with other people they are similarly really there. I know many of the respondents on edge.org believe it's only a mental confusion to feel alive, but I beg you in this instance to reconsider your position. You can do so without harming science in any way, and you'd be more honest for having done it.