Web 2.0: The Ominous Era

The moment Jaron Lanier takes the stage at the solidly packed Actors' Gang Theater, even those unfamiliar with his work sense that he's the real deal — a Bay Area–based computer wizard/philosophical thinker/experimental musician with decades-long influence on cultural, political and economic movers and shakers.

But let's start with appearances. Lanier's signature look is dirty blond dreadlocks and a dense beard, framing a wide, sphinxlike face that is equal parts 18th-century philosopher and mischievous beast from Where The Wild Things Are. A large black t-shirt covers gently sloping shoulders and a perfectly protuberant belly, both of which lend an air of Buddha-like innocence. It's fitting for a man who has served as "scholar at large" for Microsoft, among other things.

The effect? Street cred. In a society where even highly individualistic achievers generally follow basic guidelines of visual decorum, any Silicon Valley player resembling a cross between a white Rastafarian shaman and an oracle in a Star Wars film must be packing some serious intellectual firepower.

After a casual greeting and a request to have the stage and house lights adjusted to allow him to view the audience, Lanier produces an exotic, hand-held musical instrument and blows into its long, thin, wooden cylinders, producing a sound that is tonally complex, oddly industrial and surprisingly modern. It's an ancient Laotian kan, Lanier explains, and its linear, multichoice, binary nature makes it the earliest link in an evolutionary chain of technology, passing through steam-powered organ, automated loom, and calculator, and ending right here with our modern computer.

So here is Lanier, kickin' an impromptu jam on a distant cousin to the MacBook. How could this crowd be anything but rapt?

But all is not sunshine and roses in Technologyville, Lanier says. Seventeen years into the World Wide Web and 10 years into "Web 2.0," the Internet has moved far past democracy and dangerously into anarchy. He schools the crowd on "punctuated equilibrium," an evolutionary theory positing that the creation of new species almost never occurs in a population's mainstream, or center, which is rife with interbreeding among similar creatures.

Rather, new species arise at the edges, where a small group can separate and undergo vast, sudden changes that lead to a "survival advantage."

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are examples of the mainstream, places where introspection, reflection and complex synthesis — ingredients for evolutionary change — are washed away by the shallow conformity of status updates, tagged party photos and viral videos of dogs licking their balls. Facebook and Twitter aren't even real businesses, Lanier says, as they aren't financially profitable but rather are public rituals designed to make it seem as if the Web is coming alive.

In Lanier's view, the world today has a living, breathing "computer religion," which is both posthumanist and possessing its own end-time scenario — "The Singularity." It is the time when computers replicate and improve themselves, and one alpha computer takes over; that machine will absorb our brains, and turn biological beings into computers and vice versa.

Lanier says this idea is connected to computer engineers' constant creation of the illusion that the computer is our friend and partner, doing the work for us and actually getting "smarter."

In a similar vein, he labels the Cyber-age catchphrase "free/open access" a religious idea, one that will take 10 years for committed fanatics to give up.

If Lanier is not one of the Internet's direct inventors, he is certainly one of its early and most diligent evangelists, and his personable, histrionic-free tone sweetens the bitter pill of what amounts to a gentle Jeremiad. It's like hearing Robert Oppenheimer warn about the effects of splitting atoms.

Lanier offers compelling examples, even if some sound arcane or have no apparent connection to the topic. One such illustrative tale concerns a powerhouse English mathematician named Alan Turing, who cracked the Nazis' communication code, helped to design the original computer, and — presumably because of government-forced hormone treatments meant to undo his homosexuality — ate a cyanide-laced apple in his own lab.

But other points are devastatingly relevant, including Lanier's observation about the kinds of people who have been put out of work because of Web 2.0: musicians, journalists, illustrators and — ironically — computer programmers. Worse, he says, this list will grow and grow and grow.

The crowd is smart, quirky. The funniest yet most sociogeographically telling comment comes during the post-talk Q & A session, when a middle-aged man with a ponytail asks about the act of reading aloud and uninterrupted James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, as a sort of analogy to a computational operation.

Lanier replies: "I can't repeat these questions to my San Francisco friends. They won't believe me."

Alas, this crowd of Angelenos is not as dumb as it's supposed to be.

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