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Jaron Lanier: Let’s Unmask the Great and Powerful Oz of Technology

What’s the Big Idea?

We may not yet possess those cool transparent computers they have on CSI, but we live in a science fiction fantasy world of seamless information exchange, one in which even our telephones seem to possess magical powers. The less you know about technology, the more magical it seems, so the more the sophisticated the tech becomes, the vaster the cultural gulf between the computer literate and the computer-challenged.

This is a dangerous situation, says Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not a Gadget. Lanier, an early virtual reality pioneer and researcher for Microsoft Kinect has been a vocal critic of what he sees as a dehumanizing trend in our relationship with technology. When we treat computers as godlike beings, he warns, we become dependent upon them to solve problems that require human ingenuity to address. And by denying the incremental, human-driven progress that, say, enables Siri to offer you exactly what you want, we also run the risk of creating an economy that doesn’t support human contributors – the legions of everyday people behind the “Great and Powerful Oz.”

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What's the Significance?

The technology knowledge gap can create serious challenges for businesses small and large as they try to remain competitive in a world of rapidly fluctuating risks and opportunities. Media companies like Big Think, for example, facing the complex issue of online discoverability, expend enormous resources scrambling to keep up with best practices in SEO (Search Engine Optimization) – the calculus of keyword choice and positioning that aims to ensure that readers and news aggregators will pick up your content. The trouble is that the search engines themselves are constantly changing the formulae whereby they serve up results, leaving less technologically-savvy websites uncertain and vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous or ill-informed SEO consultants.

Codeacademy, a 2011 startup that teaches weekly programming lessons online, acquired millions of users within the first two months of its release. Its initial success among coding neophytes was undeniable, newsworthy evidence of people’s hunger to understand these machines that increasingly rule our lives. But Lanier argues that we’d be better served by broad-based computer literacy courses that teach the logic behind our IT. Languages change fast, he says – what people need to understand are the underlying capabilities and limitations of the hardware and software.

Understanding that machines aren’t magical, and grasping at least the essentials of how they “think” can enable individuals and businesses to make smarter IT decisions about which problems machines and software can solve independently and which require direct human intervention. Back to the SEO example, it can empower media companies to experiment intelligently with headlines and content rather than submitting blindly to external advisors. We can’t afford to live and do business in a world so specialized that every aspect of existence requires a paid consultant.

What Lanier advocates is a simple yet profound shift of priorities off of technology’s demands and onto the needs of the humans who use it. In the long run, so Lanier’s thinking runs, the change of focus may prevent us from creating a robot dystopia in which humans are useless even as slave labor. In the near term, it will help us to make smarter decisions and waste far less of our time and money.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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