What’s the Big Idea?
Dreadlocked virtual reality/motion-sensor technology pioneer, octopus enthusiast, and master of a wide array of rare indigenous musical instruments Jaron Lanier is concerned about conformity.
Lanier has been more intimately involved than most, since the very beginning, in the explosion of public internet technology. He has watched closely and written extensively on the social changes it’s bringing about. And while his optimism about technology’s potential is boundless, he is troubled by the ways we often allow it to limit ourselves.
As Lanier sees it, there are essentially two kinds of technology – the first adds something new and beautiful to the world. People adopt it simply because they love it. The latter “lure[s] them into a regimentation scheme,” forcing them, in using the technology, to conform to a diminished identity and worldview. He cites social media software that reduces the limitless field of human expression to a featureless list of desires and interests – #baseball, #ladygaga, #sushi, #books.
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Lanier’s critics often label him a pessimist. They are mistaken. What he’s after is a world in which technology extends human capability – where it serves us rather than the other way around.
Throw a rock in any Starbucks and you’ll hit at least one social-media entrepreneur. There’s a software development boom on, and while many more start-ups are born than the market can bear, something significant is happening to the way we interact with each other and the world.
In other words, these new businesses have tremendous power over what it will mean to be human in the coming decades. And with great power comes great responsibility. And the responsibility part often gets lost in the giddy, optimistic zeitgeist of Silicon Valley and Alley. We hear often that the world is changing fast – we talk less about what we’d like to change into.
Rather than throwing a wet blanket over anyone’s dreams, this observation should fill us with awe and optimism. We’re at a turning point – a moment of unprecedented scalability where we can change the lives of millions with a staff of five or six. Now is the time to pause, reflect, and design new products and services that will change those lives for the better.