April 27, 2010
The second successful season of the Winter Park Institute came to a close with Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in "virtual reality" and creator of the term, and his reflections on the new technology, digital humanism and the musical side of the puzzle.
The Winter Park Institute was inspired by the College’s eighth president, Hamilton Holt, who launched The Animated Magazine in 1926, an annual series of mini-lectures by the day’s luminaries. Following on the success of a second Colloquy in 1997, President Lewis Duncan convened a third Colloquy at Rollins in 2007, which brought together 10 thought leaders—including Jaron Lanier—to consider Liberal Education & Social Responsibility in a Global Community.
Lanier, a computer scientist and composer, returned this month to Rollins to work with John Sinclair, Rollins’ Tiedtke Professor of Music and artistic director and conductor of the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park, to rehearse his symphony that will be premiered by the Bach Festival in fall 2010.
A founding contributing editor of Wired, Lanier has written for such publications as The New York Times, Discover, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Harper’s Magazine, and Scientific American. He is also an accomplished musician, visual artist and author.
“Jaron is credited with coining the term ‘virtual reality’ and leading the team that developed the first avatars, so it isn’t surprising that he appears on Encyclopaedia Britannica’s list of history’s greatest inventors—and on a postage stamp honoring visionaries of the Information Age,” said President Duncan. “He is a true 21st Century Renaissance man and a humanist at the dawn of this digital age.”
On Thursday, April 22, Lanier talked with members of the Rollins community about his new book, You Are Not a Gadget. He kicked off his talk by playing a kaen—an instrument from Laos that is at least 25,000 years old and which Lanier referred to as “as a wonderfully strange instrument and humanity’s prototype for the digital age.”
With its reeds like the “first bits” in an “array of on or off,” Lanier traced the evolution of the kaen to the hydraulis (ancient water organ) then to a medieval pipe organ, to keyboards and string instruments, then to calculators and finally to computers.
“When we interact with a physical instrument, the connection is deep,” said Lanier after his lively performance. “And two different instruments can be played simultaneously,” he continued, “but if they were digital, they would have to be compatible.”
That, he explained, is also why the music from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s is easily distinguished. “The sounds of the decades were always very different, but almost all pop music is made with certain [limited] tools,” he explained, “so the music from the ’90s and ‘aught’ are often indiscernible. Lady Gaga could have been from the ’90s!”
Lanier’s stream of consciousness comments wove in the good, the bad and the ugly results of the Internet on everything from music to our identity and our privacy. People have become pigeonholed by what Lanier calls a “hardening of the categories.”
“The real failure of the way the Internet works is that we are isolated into groups of likeminded people. It’s an excessive degree of socialization,” said Lanier. “With all of these ‘like’ buttons, people are trying to get your data. Your lack of privacy is the commodity.”
According to Lanier, Google cornered the niche market of “advertising” by companies paying to maintain links, but Facebook has the lock on the data. “If you already have a life, you’re connected with people you know on Facebook. It’s very different for kids.”
Lanier uses the term “digital Maoism” to refer to the online collectivism. “People are relying on these aggregate news services to get their news where ‘recommendation’ buttons direct you to stories,” he said. “You’re the product, not the customer, until you make a purchase.”
While Lanier laughed and admitted that “this is all pretty depressing stuff,” he is a self-described optimist and believes the critical minority is starting to get it.
“The dislike of the like button is heartening,” quipped Lanier. “And ultimately we are in control of the machines. They cannot exist without us. We’re in the ‘machine’ now,” he said referring to The Machine Stops, a short story written by E.M. Forester in 1909 which forecast the role of technology in our lives. “We have to find a happy ending that includes technology because we need technology to live well.”
The 2009-10 Winter Park Institute lineup included more than 20 thought-provoking presentations, performances, symposiums and conversations with leaders from a variety of industries including the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal and author Terry Teachout, former President of Peru and political activist Alejandro Toledo, documentary filmmaker Jean-Michel Cousteau, renowned pianist and composer Leon Fleisher, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, novelist, playwright and screenwriter Jules Feiffer, and Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman.
Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate, inaugural Winter Park Institute Fellow for 2008-09, and Senior Distinguished Fellow for 2010-11, will return to launch the Institute’s third season, which will again boast many well-known and highly regarded luminaries representing a wide range of expertise.