(photo of Jaron Lanier courtesy me and Jaron Lanier)
Last Thursday, I had the very great pleasure of attending a talk by tech theorists Jaron Lanier and Tim Wu at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto (my alma mater). A couple of pretty smart dudes, Wu and Lanier.
Wu, a Columbia professor, Internet-regulation employee of Barack Obama, and coiner of the term "net-neutrality" has written The Master Switch, which I've just now begun reading -- a narrative history of communications monopolies and oligopolies, that is refreshingly agnostic (at least at the beginning) about the big players in today's communications revolution. I understand Wu grew up (in Toronto) as a classmate and Dungeons and Dragons opponent of prominent copyfighter Cory Doctorow, but I'm choosing to not hold that against him since, in his talk last week, he showed a far greater subtlety of thought than I've ever witnessed from his childhood friend.
Lanier's book, You Are Not a Gadget, is already part of my digital-age favorites library. The fantastically freaky Lanier is a Silicon Valley original, the inventor of virtual reality technology and a friend/gadfly to the biggest of the tech players of today. He's on a first name basis with Sergey and Larry at Google, but these days he probably isn't invited to all of the Singularity Now! parties in northern California because his book is a scorching indictment of some of the lazy philosophizing that threatens to ruin cultural production in the name of consumer "freedom."
The event was too short by half. I think I'd enjoy challenging Mr. Wu on some of his thinking about the future of the Internet, but with Lanier I'd love to just sit and listen. One of the standard criticisms of copyright defenders these days is that we "just don't understand the technology." Well, Lanier invented the damn technology, so good luck tagging him with that one.
One effect of the so-called free way of thinking is that it could eventually force anyone who wants to survive on the basis of mental activity (other than cloud tending) to enter into some sort of legal or political fortress - or become a pet of a wealthy patron - in order to be protected from the rapacious hive mind. What free really means is that artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers will have to cloak themselves within stodgy institutions.
We forget what a wonder, what a breath of fresh air it has been to have creative people make their way in the world of commerce instead of patronage. Patrons gave us Bach and Michelangelo, but it's unlikely patrons would have given us Nabokov, the Beatles, or Stanley Kubrick.