Jaron Larnier Presentation

Loose notes from the SXSW 2010 session Untitled by Jaron Larnier.

Wasn’t sure what to expect from this session, which had no title and no description. But a few weeks ago, the photo professor at the J-School handed me a copy of Larnier’s new book You Are Not a Gadget, a sort of backlash manifesto against the digital age. Well, that’s not entirely fair — it’s not so much a backlash as it is a reasoned, thoughtful wander through some of the gotchas and backwaters of the digital age. Larnier talks about dignity, culture, black boxes, the history of our relationship to technology, mean-ness in online communities, and everything in between. His talk was as meandering as the book is, but inspirational and amazing at every turn. Though difficult to encapsulate, Larnier and his thread is something I feel everyone and tech should be listening to.

Lanier opened with a solo performance on a 7,000 year old instrument he says was, in a way, the first computer.

Implored audience to put away the gadgets and “engage with me, for just a moment.” It’s good to experience another mode just for a little while (confession: I did not go with his suggestion there – wanted to capture as much of this as possible).

“Instead of trying to generate as many tweets as possible, maybe it would be nice to have something less than perfectly documented. If you do it later, it will come from inside of you. ”

“Cloud computing is incredibly important to our continued survival.”

If you’re going to do a grand experiment, it only makes sense if you look at the data, look at what’s working and what’s not.

We have all these tools online but the nation is less able than ever to look at something like global climate change.

The future is this twisted thing where everything is more open than ever except for the most important stuff. It’s almost as if we decided to privatize the NSA and call it an ad agency.

Is there a third way, without polemics? It’s not like Lanier is “against the future.” The third way goes back to the original web, to the vision of Ted Nelson, articulated in 1960 (this is the Xanadu story). Ted’s idea: You have one password to get online and if you want to you can pay to be able to publish in various places.

All of our tech infrastructure is a giant industrial facility spread across the planet. We as good engineers need to do what we can to minimize carbon footprint. Why is there a Kindle and an iPad etc. etc.? So everyone can do lock-in. We don’t need that many physical things. Part of Nelson’s idea for original Xanadu is that there would only be logical copy of each file everywhere (no duplication). With open file copying we’re making arbitrary numbers of copies of so many files, making the internet bigger. Bit Torrent by itself is half the bits on the internet, for all these duplicate copies. This is where cloud computing becomes so imporant (the green issue).

People used to storm the gates at Nelson’s talks, claiming that he wanted to allow money into the beautiful new information age, he’s eeeeevilll..

Tim Berners Lee put together something infinitely simpler than what Nelson envisioned. Ugly and crude, but wow, it worked! There were millions of voices out there. Here was empirical data that people were better than we think they are. A flood of good will. So Ted was right and his critics were wrong.

If we think most people are creators, then we ask “How do we help the creators first?” But if we assume most people are passive consumers, then we bias toward consumption.

AS the web came up, there was an ascendancy of geek power, and people get drunk on power. Do non-geeks comprehend their Facebook privacy settings? We have created this world of geek primacy.

Craig Newmark didn’t say “Let’s make as much money as possible.” He said “Let’s do this minimal thing and see what it does for our society.”

The problem with Google’s stuff is that it represents an actual monopoly (whether it is or not).

Social contract: There’s an endless tedium about what’s fair use and what isn’t etc. But none of that matters until people buy into a social contract that gives the average citizen equal respect and opportunities. So we get away from the DRM problem “Oh you bought it but we still control it…” (which is a stupid arrangement). The Nelson model gets away from this.

Humans have ability to work as singletons or as pack animals. All of our conflicts – political, religious, etc. come down to that pack animal switch getting thrown. What wars are started by individuals? Connect this life online. Drive-by anonymity, or uninvested anonymity. Look at polarization of political debates. The world is made of divisions where people consider each other “the other.”

Facebook very different for adults who have a history of friends to mine, compared to 16 year olds who are creating their life for the first time. Very different experience. To have a persona as an adult requires some strategic forgetting of your old persona. Imagine Bob Dylan with his Facebook presence: “Oh there’s his Bar Mitzvah photo.” No, that stuff is forgotten.

The mean-ness problem is mitigated when people have something at stake. Clans coerce mean-ness towards people below them on the pecking order. When I mention a site that’s less mean, someone tells me “You have no idea how mean people get there.”

There are mean people in both Second Life and on YouTube but YouTube comments are the most base. Why?

A myth: “Give away the music and sell the t-shirt.” Well, it /can/ work, but it usually doesn’t. Coming are robots that copy any design onto a tshirt. So this model can only work until the robots arrive.

Strongly recommends E.M. Forester’s “The Machine Stops.”

Self-invention is the core of person-hood. Which is why this issue of Facebook for kids is such a hot button for me. You can’t self-invent on Facebook – you need to do that in the real world.


– Gotta make a living
– Too many mean people
– Social contract where everyone is a first-class citizen

The problem with this online culture is that everone’s required to be a self-promoter all the time. “Me me me me me!!!”

Suddenly I remember that I’m biological, and have to deal with that.

Dignity means you don’t have to sing for your supper every damn time.

Three black boxes that rob you of dignity:

– Hedge fund computer
– Google computer
– NSA computer

And then he tooted on some flutes.
Undocumented instrument, bought off some teenage Hungarian gypsies. Wow – like a pair of two-foot fangs, fingers plaing off the ends.. He played masterfully

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