Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget, Part II: Bachelardian Neoteny

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You Are Not a Gadget“If you get deep enough, you get trapped. Stop calling yourself a user. You are being used.” – Jaron Lanier, in reference to Facebook


Last week, I explored some of my reactions to the first half of Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (originally published in 2010; mine is the 2011 edition, which includes an afterword in which Lanier answers some commonly posed questions surrounding the book, which is where the above quote came from). I finished Gadget this morning, and figured I’d make some brief follow-up comments regarding a particular criticism I’ve encountered, namely that Lanier’s ideas – especially near the end of the book – are at times overly intellectual, or that he’s trying too hard to be philosophically speculative, or that he is too vague.

Chris Grams’ March 2010 blog post, Is Jaron Lanier just a hater, or should we be paying attention?, exemplifies what I’m talking about. I like Grams’ post (and especially  agree with him that Lanier would do better to ditch the aggressive “Maoism” terminology), and would be curious to know what he thinks of my response to it. However, I disagree with his characterization of Lanier’s constructive work near the end of the book as coming across as a “college philosophy term paper” that “occasionally [devolves] into nearly unintelligible (at least by me) ravings about things like ‘postsymbolic communication’ and ‘bachelardian neoteny’.” Of course, I can’t disagree that these aspects of the text are nearly unintelligible to Grams, but I do disagree that this is a cause for broad criticism.

I personally find Lanier’s willingness to go into the interdisciplinary territory he goes into – invoking history, economics, socio-political systems, philosophy, linguistics, math, (neuro)biology, and of course computer science – to be refreshing both in and of itself as well as in terms of how fluidly he does so. I tire of reading books and articles that focus too narrowly on any a single field. For Lanier not to have attempted some sort of constructive philosophical work would have been a disappointment for me, as the attempt to formulate original philosophical thinking is something we don’t encounter enough of these days in literature dealing with human behavior.

Rather than engaging in abstract speculation, current writers often focus on the collection and analysis of an array of statistical summaries in order to arrive at Predictably Irrational by Dan Arielywhat are presented as more or less empirical conclusions about society. Some of these are well worth one’s time (a handful come immediately to mind by the likes of behavioral economist Dan Ariely, journalist Malcom Gladwell, et al.), but what they lack for me is contemplative, constructive, and even wildly speculative (though self-consciously so) propositions about what to do with the information at hand, particularly in terms of what it might tell us about how to live (with the future in mind). What also tends to be lacking is the question of whether the information at hand is relevant at all. That is, writers tend not to question the underlying ideology that forms how information-generating research is approached in the first place, not to mention what drove the writer to select particular informational findings to the exclusion of other findings.

I don’t agree with everything Lanier writes in the book (for one thing, I think that there are some important omissions related to aesthetics in his consideration of the connection between olfaction and the development of the human capacity for metaphor), however I really do appreciate the work he’s done, and I don’t feel that it’s all that difficult to follow if one takes the time to do some additional research.

You see, Lanier isn’t just a computer scientist (nor does he identify himself that narrowly), so his references go outside of that field. At the same time, many of the book’s most interested and critical readers will no doubt be interested in concerns directly related to computer science. I believe this has caused some of the accusations of unintelligibility, as it is not my impression that that readership has taken the time to really try to figure out what Lanier is talking about at every turn. Really, it’s not hard to do, and I certainly had to look up things relating to computer science. The book would have been massive had Lanier explained every reference he made, though he does explain many of them, and for many others he cites specific sources to which one may refer for further information. Those references that he doesn’t explain, such as “Borges’ infinity,”[1. An apt reference to Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Library of Babel.”] are clarified through context, or can be figured out with a Google search.

Lanier is also a real and digital world social and cultural critic (that is, not merely a hater, as he’s often accused of being), he’s a musician, a philosopher, and a dreamer. When these and other qualities come together productively, he becomes a visionary. With this in mind, I’m going to now choose one element that has been criticized as being overly intellectual or obfuscatory: Lanier’s aforementioned concept of Bachelardian neoteny.

In looking at this concept, I hope to impart why I think his book would be incomplete had he not included speculative ideas such as this, and not just because I find the concept thought-provoking and interesting (which I do). On a personal level, as someone interested in philosophy as a viable activity – by which I mean doing philosophy in a way that relates to current concerns as opposed to simply giving yet another interpretation of Kant – Lanier’s speculations constitute some of the most exciting aspects of the book. [2. Interestingly, some of the most relevant and inspired philosophical work today is being done by people who don’t identify themselves as philosophers, including comedians, filmmakers, television writers, investigative journalists, economists, historians, geographers, et al.]

To understand Bachelardian neoteny. We should first look at chapter two, where Lanier explains his deep respect for the neurological evolution of certain cephalopods (e.g., octopus and squid)[3. For an introductory glimpse into the significance of octopus neurophysiology, check out this edition of The Philosopher’s Zone podcast, which also includes an online transcript: How Do Octopuses Think?]. For this reason, he won’t eat them, though he will eat chickens, which he describes as “little more than feathery servo-controlled mechanisms” (here he’s talking about morality and empathy, among other things). Now, fast-forward to the final chapter of the book, where he explains Bachelardian neoteny, which relates to his aforementioned respect (and fascination) for cephalopods (postsymbolic communication factors in as well, but is not necessary to get into here).

To illustrate his point about cephalopods, who (or “which”?) can “think in 3-D and morph,” he references the following startling video of an octopus in three-dimensional-morphing action:

With this in mind, as well as other stuff I’ll get to in a moment, he presents the following equation:

Cephalopods + Childhood = Humans + Virtual Reality

To understand what this means, one must understand what is meant by “neoteny,” which he explains at length. A simple explanation is that humans have an advantage over other species because of their extended childhood phase (or, alternatively viewed, delayed early developmental phase). Children must be taken care of, during which time they develop in ways that animals who have a short rearing phase cannot. Cephalopods are pretty much ready to go out into the world at birth, with no level of neoteny, instead immediately relying on instinct in order to survive. Lanier believes that if octopuses had a childhood phase in which parents could impart knowledge and experience to their young, “surely they would be running the Earth.”

That explains “neoteny,” but what about this word “Bachelardian”? Lanier describes three kinds of human neoteny, each of which Lanier uses to represent a kind of childhood: Goldingesque (after William Golding’s Lord of the Flies; that one shouldn’t be too hard to figure out), Bachelardian (after Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Reverie; more on that in a moment), and Infantile (this relates to existing notions regarding the evolutionary benefits of neoteny and human brain development).

Gaston BachelardBachelard (1884 – 1962) was a French philosopher and scientist who wrote about the power of imagination in many contexts, including science, childhood, poetry, consciousness, phenomenology (i.e., human experience), and psychoanalysis. The book in question, Poetics of Reverie, is brows-able at Amazon.com, and there are plenty of biographies of Bachelard online. Lanier explains that his reference to the philosopher is meant to represent what is good about childhood, while the reference to Golding is meant to represent what is bad (in Lanier’s estimation, the bad kind enjoys greater online representation than the good kind).

But you don’t have to know anything about Bachelard to understand what Lanier sees in his work. Lanier spells it out himself, as follows:

“The good [childhood] includes numinous imagination, unbounded hope, innocence, and sweetness. Childhood is the very essence of magic, optimism, creativity, and open invention of self and the world. It is the heart of tenderness and connection between people, of continuity between generations, of trust, play and mutuality. It is the time in life when we learn to use our imaginations without the constraints of life lessons.”

So far, we now understand a lot of what Lanier is getting at  with the aforementioned equation, but how does virtual reality fit in? Lanier, by the way, is Jaron Lanier - Virtual Realityextremely influential in the field of virtual reality, and was an early pioneer and innovator of the technology (the back cover of Gadget describes him as the “father of virtual reality technology”). He’s never stopped in his quest to advance the field so that it might one day meet, and then exceed, his vision of the technology’s potential, the progress towards which he thinks is being impeded by current digital ideological constraints. When Lanier talks about virtual reality, he’s talking about possibilities not just for a new gaming, aesthetic or learning experience (all of which he does talk about, especially the latter two), but for contributing to the next stage of human evolution.

In Lanier’s view, in order for cephalopods to evolve to fulfill their greatest, currently unimaginable potential, they’ll need to somehow develop a childhood phase. Lanier draws an analogy between cephalopods developing a childhood and humans developing virtual reality technology. He doesn’t necessarily claim that virtual reality will be required in order for humans to continue to evolve (that is, to continue to adapt to their environment), however there is the implication that virtual reality is the best bet for humans to evolve to a place that is currently unfathomable, such as into a post-human phase.

Freed from physical limitations, virtual reality can create new environments that can enable humans to evolve – especially mentally – in unimaginable ways that could range from beautiful to bizarre, but without the threat of extinction that exists in the real world. Evolution in the real world is vicious and cruel, evolution in virtual reality would be, well, Bachelardian: an extended childhood full of imagination and wonder.

Thus the phrase “Bachelardian neoteny” and its connection to the equation, which I’ll cite once again:

Cephalopods + Childhood = Humans + Virtual Reality

(Aside: It’s interesting to contemplate the notion of dualism in this context. That is, the idea that the mind is not physical, but immaterial. The common thought these days is that the mind is physical. The implications of what Lanier is proposing is that the physical body that is in the world would continue to be prone to natural selection, while neurological content – ranging from imagination to perceptual faculties and the sense of one’s own body – would have the additional advantage of a nonviolent evolutionary process that would enable humans to do better both in the virtual and natural worlds. So, he’s not describing a Matrix-like existence in which humans abandon their bodies, but instead a self-conscious use of Matrix-like tools in order to enhance what it means to be human. For example, he refers to a mastery of certain aspects of virtual reality becoming one day required for mating rituals. He’s also very keen on its use for aesthetic purposes. This process would alter the brain physically. What would this do to the rest of the body within the context of the real, non-virtual world?)

As for any aspects of Lanier’s thoughts that are vague (or perhaps better put, inchoate), he owns up to them. That is, he recognizes his own inability to think outside of the ideology – the conceptual framework – within which his consciousness, experience, and self-identity have been formed. In order to escape such constraints, one must push past rational thought and attempt to approach the unimaginable, because you can only step back so far beyond the frame of the picture within which you exist, and then from the frame surrounding that new bigger picture, and on and on. There’s always another framework surrounding the one you’ve just managed to grasp.

Lanier is trying to subvert existing ideologies as much as possible in an effort to aspire to the currently unthinkable. This is one of the noblest endeavors a philosopher can undertake when done with the sincerity that Lanier evinces. When I encounter books like Lanier’s, that stretch the author’s grasp of his or her subject, I get excited.

cartoon against evolutionI am disheartened by the current of anti-intellectualism that runs through American culture. This is an observation that is often made within and outside of our borders, and it’s a hard one to deny when so many of our politicians spend more time talking about God and denouncing evolution and global warming than they spend trying to solve our problems of political paralysis, social disaster, economic downturn, and catastrophic foreign policy. This isn’t just a tendency of conservatives, though. I observe anti-intellectualism among many liberals as well who are too quick to dismiss – sometimes angrily – ideas that remind them of when they were in college (not to mention that we’re no where near a liberal atheist being a viable candidate for high political office).

Perhaps I’m overly sensitive to it, but when I see reviewers wincing at Lanier’s sincere and, in my opinion, fun and thought-provoking use of made-up phrases, I can’t help but feel we’re losing the battle against manufactured and willful ignorance in this country. [4. For a good example of this, see The Geek Freaks, Michael Agger’s 2010 review at Slate.com, in which he writes that Lanier’s creative terminology “makes your ears hurt.” Not that Agger’s review isn’t intelligent. It is. What I don’t like is that it’s ok for him to reference classical or otherwise established intellectual standards and content (Agger quotes Samuel Johnson and references Plato’s theory of forms), but it’s not ok for Lanier to attempt to create and develop a viable intellectual system catered to his own vision. Lanier is criticizing a similar phenomenon when he urges people to favor creating original content over making mashups of already existing content.] To be fair, Lanier pops up in a lot of places these days talking about some of the more basic ideas in his book, and a lot of people sympathize with him, whether they’ve read the book or not. [5. Here’s an interview to check out, if you’re interested, with links to others: http://edge.org/conversation/the-local-global-flip]

To make it exceedingly clear, I don’t agree with everything Lanier has written in Gadget (another example: I don’t agree that the culture resulting from current software design implementation threatens a musical – or any other kind of – dark age). What I’m more concerned with here are the conversations that Lanier’s book could inspire ending up snubbed due to a lack of interest in thinking speculatively, or due to an unyielding lack of interest in venturing outside of one’s particular area of intellectual obsession. I believe this to be a form of anti-intellectualism, though perhaps of a softer variety that, in this case, says, “a computer scientist should stick to science references and cease with the literary and philosophical and political etc. references.” Thank goodness he doesn’t, because world doesn’t work that way.

When done right, philosophy contributes to our ability to view the world holistically, as well as to explore questions concerning the nature of human experience in ways that science cannot, while science is great for exploring the mechanisms that make human experience possible (e.g., science can explain the faculty of audition, but it can’t explain why we are moved by music, or why we should or shouldn’t even care about such a question). Whether or not I agree with his views, Lanier is doing philosophy the way it should be done, and that’s something to be encouraged.


Dan Jacob Wallace

One Comment

  1. I’m surprised by your measured sympathy for Lanier, whose writing I’ve found to be shallowly interdisciplinary, often shockingly ignorant of the history of ideas, and even more frequently ignorant of their use and sense, merely provocative rather than stimulating, ultimately more disturbed than disturbing. A good cure for the nickel-and-dime nihilism of Lanier and his ilk is the work of Evgeny Morozov, himself a bitter pill to swallow, but a damn sight more educated and thoughtful than this cyber-grandson of Barnum.

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