The Infinite Library: An interview With Jaron Lanier

The Infinite Library: An interview With Jaron Lanier

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How do you describe Jaron Lanier? You don’t. As his friend and literary agent John Brockman once said, “My favorite people are people you can’t describe—if you can describe it, it’s dead.” I’ll try to describe him anyway: he’s the guy for whom the phrase “renaissance man” must have been invented, he was once a goat farmer, when he was growing up he and his Dad lived in tents in rural New Mexico before they built a house that had a geodesic dome at its center, he coined the term virtual reality and now regrets it, he’s a computer genius and a philosophic genius and an experimental musician with a collection of instruments from around the world, he looks like a blond, blue-eyed, Rastafarian Buddha, and you can ask him any question about any topic and always get a surprising answer. So, here are a few of Jaron’s indescribable answers to a few of my simple questions.

Q: You consulted on Steven Spielberg’s latest futuristic movie, Minority Report. It’s interesting that this movie, as well as the incredible cult film, The Matrix, created an almost Cartesian dichotomy between technology and the soul. It’s as if only our human hearts and souls can save us from the coldness of technology and the evil it engenders.

A: If we believe that dichotomy, we’re doomed. We long ago entered into a game that we don’t have any option of rejecting. Whether we like it or not, on a world of different levels, we’re in this game of technology for keeps, and it can’t be a static game, it’s constantly evolving just as nature is. It’s part of life. Some people say, for instance, that agriculture was a wrong turn and we should try to go back to being hunter-gatherers. I’m sure the Unibomber thought that. But the people who invented agriculture did not want to kill the soul and life and love, they were motivated by life and love. It took a while to understand agriculture and how to use nitrogen, but when we learned to do it well there was a population explosion. And then we needed food and water for all those new people. Once you take one step you have to take the next step. If we feel this path is anti-nature and opposed to what we hold dear, we’ll be eternally unhappy.

Q: You’re a champion of the good that can come from technology.

A: It gave us something we haven’t seen in centuries, something that is one of the few truly positive silver-linings of our era. And that is the rise of the world wide web. It demonstrated an aspect of human potential that had been hypothesized but never observed—the potential for large-scale cooperative activity without any coercion. There was a remarkable simplicity to its unfolding and it was done un-self-consciously. It was not created by people who were busy patting themselves on the back and saying how remarkably advanced and on the vanguard we are. It happened without a lot of reflection or indulgence. In fact there was almost a tawdry, utilitarian aspect to the web as it grew, since a lot of the content was mediocre. That was a remarkable moment and it raises questions. We’ve had a peek at that potential—where millions of people spontaneously became cooperative providers for each other. And yet we have a sort of amnesia about this wonderful herald of human potential. I can’t think of any major media, certainly no movie or television show, that has celebrated that remarkable moment.

Q: Let’s talk a little about how the brain evolves.

A: The brain is an amazing example of what Stephen Gould called pre-adaptation, where a trait that was initially present for one reason is utilized for another reason. Somehow reading and writing as we know them took advantage of capabilities in the brain that must have initially been present for other reasons.

Q: Is culture as important as genes in shaping the future of our brains? I’m not talking about Richard Dawkins’ idea of memes here, which I dislike anyway.

A: I think the meme idea is wrong for a variety of reasons. First, there’s an obvious sense in which ideas are Lamarckian and genes are not. Memes promote the wrong idea about genes. Richard’s idea about genes is that there is a continuity of different creatures that come into being and evolution is walking through an infinite library where each space on the shelf is a slightly different creature. It’s like Borges’ infinite library, which contained every book that could be written. Every organism that could exist is in Richard’s library, and there are two problems with this idea, both of which should kill this metaphor. The first problem is the size of the library. Let’s suppose Borges’ library was actually created and only held books up to 300 pages. Even in that case the library could not fit into our universe. Our civilization could not possibly survive long enough, even with the biggest starship we could build, to hold it. Just to get from one interesting book to the next would require more energy or space than our civilization has available to it. We’re lucky enough to be next to one readable book and that’s the only one we’ll ever see. You could think of his library as the most efficient, definitely mathematical, perfect, conceivable form of procrastination ever invented.

The second problem is the difference between Borges’ and Dawkins’ infinite libraries. In Borges’ library all the books in between the readable books might not be sensible to us but at least they’re printable. But in Dawkins’ library, all the creatures between viable creatures are not sensible or even viable. They’re just possible creatures. You can’t take an arbitrary genetic sequence and have a creature come out.

Q: I know you’ve discussed this with Dawkins. What does he say?

A: Richard would say that’s true, but because of our understanding of genes, there is a filled-in pathway between creatures that does exist. A series of simple mutations creates a viable organism. And yet on earth we’ve never had the same creature appear twice so apparently there’s precisely one viable pathway to that organism, and that’s where the ideas get fuzzy. And given the vastness of the infinite library and the potential perfection of procrastination—how did we ever get a process efficient enough to create a book or a creature? We’re left with the two great mysteries of science—how does the brain work and how does life work?

Also, the other thing that’s really strange and surprising about genetic evolution is not that other creatures are available, but that they’re so readily available. There are so many new, viable species. The potential for new creatures that can display remarkable traits is so rich it seems bizarre to me.

Q: What do you think of Stuart Kauffman’s ideas about that? He talks about the interlocking complexity of life continually creating new niches for new work, thus new life.

A: I have an exceedingly strong sympathy with his ideas and work. He’s one of the better thinkers but there are still missing ideas. There are obviously things nobody understands. You’d expect a lot more dead ends, where the visible lines of evolutionary development got stuck. It’s surprising that we haven’t found creatures. And it’s weird that the legacy of alternatives to DNA is missing entirely.

Q: Unless DNA is the only option.

A: I would find it peculiar that the only viable system is also the one that has such rich potential. However, I refuse to enter into a creationist metaphysics, so then the explanation has to be that DNA-based creatures ate all the other ones. I also wonder about the brevity of evolution. If you look at particular changes it’s really quite remarkable how fast it happened. The difference between great apes and humans is pretty striking. I would have expected great apes to go somewhere interesting. I’d expect a period of active experimentation, of a thousand or a hundred thousand different species of which we were one. I don’t see evidence of enough micro-niches in evolution to create all this variety, so it must be a more focused process. I could be wrong. It could be if we dig deep enough in earth, to some extremity of our environment, we’ll find some proto-DNA based creature. It could still happen, and that’s a great thing.

Q: If natural selection were the only engine of evolution, this might be confusing. But sexual selection can explain a lot of the richness.

A: Actually, lately I’ve been excited by the idea that sexual selection is, in the broadest sense possible, a Lamarckian type process, where the experiences of an organism have an influence on the nature of its offspring, simply because it chooses its mate. Obviously we have very strong cultural influences on sexual selection. One could come up with a theory about the historical phases of sexual selection, where in the earliest phase it was based on direct interactions between proto-people in their tribe or collective, and as we came into cities it was based on a meritocracy that was materialist-based, and then with the advent of mass media it became something based on self-reinforcing media images and ideals. If you believe sexual selection is a powerful enough force to focus and accelerate evolution, then when we complain about the mass media we’re not merely complaining about culture, we’re actually talking about genetic engineering. So Hollywood is responsible for our germline!

At the same time because of modern medicine we’ve influenced our capacity to survive. So because of medicine and clean water and food, many more people survive to reproduce than before. The engine of death that was one driver of evolution has largely been shut down. Although I’ve been wondering about the toxins in our environment and the immune system, which obviously plays a role in sexual selection. What if the toxins and microorganisms you’ve been exposed to influence your immune system and therefore change your mate selection? That would be a kind of Lamarckian engine to evolution that isn’t cultural.

Q: What do you think of the idea that we can create artificial life—that artificial intelligence will someday emulate consciousness and the soul?

A: There are a lot of different levels at which to be annoyed about that idea. The most important one is that it lacks intuition about computational scale. The computation required to get at anything useful is so vast it’s not worth talking about. So that even if the only difference between life and artificial intelligence were one of scale, even then the metaphor is broken and we shouldn’t use it.

Then on another level my objection is that if people spend a lot of time playing with what they consider to be simulations of life, or human beings, on computers, they will ultimately and subconsciously redefine themselves downward. They’ll think of themselves more like these simplified reflections and make themselves into morons. I really do believe that. This is the great failure of computer culture, which balances that utopian revelation I was talking about before. There is a way in which interaction with computers makes life bland and less rich. In that sense computers are the opposite of se. If we say that sexual selection is a self-reinforcing process that made people richly-constituted and full of subtlety, then sex is a complexifying mirror. Computers are a simplifying mirror.

Q: So why would we want to believe that about ourselves? Why do we reduce the brain and mind to a computer?

A: I think it’s a form of psychological denial and I think Alan Turing invented it. The Turing test was the origin of the idea that people and machines might be equivalent, but at the time he invented it was undergoing a bizarre torture. He was being given massive doses of female hormones because it had been discovered he was a homosexual. Eventually he committed suicide by injecting an apple with cyanide and eating it. He was a brilliant guy who, instead of seeing himself as a tortured sexual being facing mortality, imagined he could be a computer. Who will begrudge him that? I won’t, but it’s the origin of this idea. We like to think of ourselves as computers because we are afraid of our mortality, our lack of control, our sexuality, all those things. This is where Freud re-enters the picture, and it’s a way to start reconciling the Freudian and Darwinian traditions, which is a process that needs to happen.