On Thursday, February 16, 2012, Jaron Lanier
, introduced by Patrick Carmody ’13 as a Renaissance man and as one of Time
magazine’s “100 most influential people in the world” in 2010, spoke to Hill students, faculty, and community guests in a free-flowing presentation that touched upon world history, human rights, and contemporary culture – all with an emphasis on the impact of technology on the lives of ordinary people.
Lanier, 51, a computer architect for Microsoft and a self-described “nerd,” urged the audience not to be passive about their use of computer networks such as Facebook. Even while encouraging caution regarding sharing information online, he noted, in a spirit of full disclosure, “The more you put on [Facebook], the more money I make.”
A few of the observations and historical reflections shared by Lanier included the following:
- Karl Marx, whose career including writing about the technology of the day, first raised concerns about what would happen to society when machines became so good at achieving key tasks that people could, in some cases, become obsolete.
- A short story, “The Machine Stops,” written by E.M. Forster in 1907 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Machine_Stops), in many ways describes the Internet as we know it today, including Facebook and its social networking phenomenon.
- Alan Turing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Turing), a British mathematician and computer scientist, was the “hacker” who broke the Nazi’s secret code and “probably saved many, many lives and cities.” He also, Lanier said, happened to be gay, during a time when it was illegal to be homosexual. As an alternative to prison, he was forced to endure injections of massive doses of female hormones, as it was believed that this treatment would remedy his “condition.” Turing became extremely depressed and committed suicide. Lanier pointed out that Turing “was a hero” in Britain’s fight against the oppression of the Nazis – monsters who felt they were superior to people who were different from them – but Turing was, in turn, also persecuted for being different from other people.
- Later in his talk, Lanier vaguely alluded to the awful irony of Turing’s situation, urging his audience not to be afraid to be different – whether that “difference” involves being a “nerd,” or having the fortitude to defy social pressure to do drugs. “I don’t use drugs and I never have,” he said, noting, “I really felt that [doing drugs] was a dead end, in which people make themselves less powerful.”
- Similarly, he continued, “I feel the same way about Facebook: It’s scary to see everybody trying and wanting to do the same thing – which means that people are not thinking for themselves. This really concerns me.” Lanier urged Hill students to shut off their computers and take a break – especially when they are feeling some bizarre compulsion to update their Facebook statuses or check on “friends.”
- Lanier also warned students about the reality of advertising that appears on Facebook – and how cyber information provided through searches and postings is collected by software gurus (like Lanier) in order to present targeted advertising to Facebook users. “I want you to be skeptical,” he said.
Lanier complimented the Hill students, with whom he had met throughout the day. “Watching you makes me feel very optimistic,” he said.