Tuesday, September 30, 2008

.5 Manifesto

Jaron Lanier's One-Half of a Manifesto provides arguments against some of the tropes of a train of thought that seems to be stemming directly from previous documents we've read such as the Cypherpunks Manifesto and Crypto-Anarchist Manifesto. This line of thought continues the same ideas of technology being/becoming some kind of autonomous entity that has what could be described as a mind and purpose of it's own volition, not something necessarily controlled by humans. He defines this line of thought as 'cybernetic totalism' and explains a fear within this ideology, "cyber-Armageddon in our lifetimes, a cataclysm brought on when computers become ultra-intelligent masters of matter and life." He then goes on to provide arguments against the six main themes of this fear and provides alternatives to them from his own ideology.
I found many of Lanier's arguments interesting and useful in looking at not only the fears he outlines but also the arguments we've already heard from previous techno-elites that posit computers and the Internet as a massive, self reproducing, self-sustaining entity(much like a living organism). One of the first things that I noticed about the 'cyber-Armageddon' theory was the supposition that computers have an innate motivation for taking over the world and other anthropomorphic qualities. What seems to be missing here, and what Lanier later points out a number of times is the blatant fact that computers are machines created, supported, and operated by humans. Computer autonomy can only go as far as their electrical cords (unless of course they begin to generate their own power).
Another interesting idea that Lanier points at is the switching of human and machine roles within the ideology of the autonomous computer-run world; the idea that humans will eventually become subservient(in some fashion) to computers as technology matches then continues on to exceed human brain power. Although I think it's a little absurd, it feels slightly possible(at least some version of human-to-computer submission) based on our current dependence upon and full-time devotion to our tech devices.
Later, Lanier talks about Darwinian evolution as a parallel for the way that computer technology develops and, matched with biotechnology, the possibility of some post-human super species comes into the scope of the arguments. While the lines between computer and bio-technology are becoming blurred, it doesn't seem possible to look at the two under the same lens; biological evolution and computer science can't operate on the same premises unless organisms are just computers(which is an argument that Lanier argues with), which sounds interesting in a hypothetical pipe dream kind of way but just doesn't seem to make sense in the real world.
One last remark about Lanier's writings... In his last segment, Lanier brings up the idea that information systems serve the purpose of making capitalism far more efficient and that one reality to the whole idea of a techno-biological take over will possibly be limited to the super wealthy and will in fact facilitate the spread of the massive gap between wealth and poverty. Technology is not a democratically spread resource, just like every resource. It is created, controlled, utilized, and distributed largely by those who can afford it. It is true that there are programs to give laptops to education-starved children in third-world countries but where are those machines originating and who is designing and paying for them?
Maybe I'm a little less savvy on what is really going on with today's technological boom/push. And maybe I'm a little resistant to some of the ideas that are coming up in these discussions but I think Lanier brings up some really interesting challenges to the ideas we've been discussing for the last few weeks and the ideas he addresses directly here in his manifesto. (and maybe, ultimately, I just want to agree with a manifesto that is appealing to me, heh, heh, heh...)

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