Cyberbole

We associate manifestos with big ideas, combative theses itching to
change the world. While the roar of the manifesto has pretty much faded
from the culture at large, it can still be heard loud and clear in the
digital world. Digital culture continues to foster grand ambitions; it
nurtures not only the ongoing quest for the killer app but also the
search for the one idea that will make sense of most everything.

Jaron Lanier's recent "One Half of a Manifesto" has this
heaven-storming quality. The 9,000-word document (at
www.edge.org/3rd_culture/lanier/lanier_index.html) flexes the usual
manifesto muscles, but with one difference: It is dedicated not to
proclaiming a new theory but to deflating one that is already fully
formed and, in Lanier's view, primed to wreak havoc on the world. Lanier
names that theory cybernetic totalism. It is cybernetic because the
computer is at its core; and in a sense, the computer, more than any
written document, is its manifesto. It is totalistic because it aspires
to an intellectual synthesis loath to let much of anything escape its
explanatory grasp.

Whatever you think of the contents of "One Half of a Manifesto,"
Lanier has to be credited with nerve for issuing it. The thinkers he
sets out to oppose are some of the most formidable writers and theorists
of our time, including the geneticist Richard Dawkins and the
philosopher Daniel Dennett.

Of course, Lanier, too, is a name to reckon with. The blue-eyed,
dreadlocked, multitalented visionary made his reputation as a prodigy in
the mid-1980s: Still in his twenties, he coined the term virtual
reality and launched VPL, the first business to try to implement
the concept. Since then, he has consulted for major institutions such as
Citibank, Kodak, and the U.S. Department of Defense. Today, Lanier is
lead scientist for the National Tele-Immersion Initiative (NTII), an
organization that aims to build virtual reality into the fabric of the
Internet. When the Internet goes broadband as is anticipated, Lanier
says, NTII will let "users in different places interact in real time in
a shared simulated environment, making them feel as if they were in the
same room."

Under no circumstances, then, could Lanier be mistaken for a Luddite
or a defector from the digital revolution he has helped to foment. To
clear away any possible confusion on this point, he pauses early in the
manifesto to declare himself "more delighted than ever to be working in
computer science" and to praise the "lovely global flowering of computer
culture already in place." He adds that a full manifesto, rather than
the half he has composed, would be sure to "describe and promote this
positive culture." Having affirmed his loyalty to the cause, he then
feels free to go after the villain of the piece: the technological
elite, or the "inner circle of Digerati," whose dogma of cybernetic
totalism "has the potential to transform human experience more
powerfully than any prior ideology, religion, or political system ever
has."

What Lanier goes on to say about cybernetic totalism may sound, at
first, much like other recent alarms against digital overreaching. The
best-known of these is no doubt Bill Joy's article "Why the Future
Doesn't Need Us" in the April 2000 issue of Wired magazine. Joy
is the co-founder of Sun Microsystems and an author of the Java
programming language. That such a legendary hacker could suddenly be
afflicted by severe doubts concerning the whole digital enterprise gives
his words extra weight. Joy worries that the worst thing about some of
our most outlandish digital dreams is that, unfortunately for us, they
can be realized. He fears, for example, that if we do not put limits on
the development of nanotechnology we will be overrun by lethal,
self-replicating mechanical viruses. Not long after Joy's piece was
published, the stock market began to deliver its own practical rebuke to
dreams of dot-communist utopia.

Lanier joins in this postmillennial mood of second thoughts about
computers and the Internet. But uniquely, above and beyond practical
concerns, he insists on a philosophical point: What he objects to most
about cybernetic totalism is the very fact that it is a totalism. He
reserves some of his strongest language to drive this point
home--writing, for example, that cybernetic totalism may well "catch on
in a big way, as big as Freud or Marx did in their times. Or bigger,
since these ideas might end up essentially built into the software that
runs our society and our lives."

Although it's what's most distinctive about his manifesto, Lanier's
determined anti-totalism has made little or no impression on respondents
and reviewers, who prefer to take him up piecemeal and haggle with him
over practical matters. It is as if postmodernism, with its suspicion of
all-consuming syntheses, has passed digital culture by. The result is
that totalism can propagate freely within the digital culture, which has
barely any immune response to it.

According to Lanier, the totalism to be most wary of these days is
built on Darwinism. Of the triumvirate of thinkers who rode astride so
much twentieth-century thought--Darwin, Marx, and Freud--only Darwin
survives into the new millennium with his reputation not just intact but
enhanced. While other grand narratives were being picked apart,
Darwinism mutated into a totalism that makes Marxism look like
minimalism.

Darwinism gives the new totalists what they take to be a bridge
between nature and technology, a way of translating between genetics and
cybernetics. Crucially, Darwinism offers the new totalists what any
theory must have to undo the constraints of reason: the sense of
mounting historical tension, the charged expectation of a watershed
event--in short, an eschatology. Cybernetic eschatology focuses on the
coming of an electronic species, an artificial intelligence that is
nearly ready to peck its way out of the human brain. Lanier defines the
new totalist creed by its "astonishing belief in an eschatological
cataclysm in our lifetimes, brought about when computers become the
ultraintelligent masters of physical matter and life."

The work of Richard Dawkins plays a key role in cybernetic totalism,
whether or not Dawkins himself subscribes to the full package. In books
like The Selfish Gene, Dawkins shows that organic beings are no
less coded entities than computer programs are. So what if one kind of
code takes evolution a billion years to assemble and the other can be
thrown together by a generation or two of programmers? Isn't it
possible--or so the thinking goes--that computer code and genetic code
differ more in their details (the time involved, the material employed)
than in their logic? We know that computer programs are governed by
algorithms--simple, unambiguous sets of instructions that in concert
allow for the complicated behavior of operating systems. Might not
evolution be algorithmic, too?

For the new totalists, the answer is a resounding yes. Nowhere is
this expressed more clearly than in the work of Daniel Dennett. In
Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life,
Dennett argues that evolution and software use similar strategies to
build complexity out of simplicity, intelligence out of mindless
routines. He writes: "The best reason for believing that robots might
some day become conscious is that we human beings are conscious, and we
are a sort of robot ourselves. That is, we are extraordinarily complex
self-controlling, self-sustaining physical mechanisms, designed over the
eons by natural selection." Dennett sets the stage for a possible
encounter between Charles Darwin and Charles Babbage, the founder of
computer science, in one or another of the Victorian drawing rooms they
frequented. Each man's work, in Dennett's view, completes the other's.
Babbage launched the study of computational algorithms while Darwin laid
bare the trade secrets of Nature, a mindless but famously successful
engineer. Whether or not Darwin and Babbage ever compared notes, their
followers have.

Dennett may be the closest thing to cybernetic totalism's
Marx--harmonizing its various intellectual sources--but as yet the
movement has no Lenin. "Some of the most dramatic renditions have not
come from scientists or engineers," Lanier observes, "but from writers
such as [Wired executive editor] Kevin Kelly and Robert Wright
[the author of Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny], who
have become entranced with broadened interpretations of Darwin. In their
works, reality is perceived as a big computer program running the Darwin
algorithm, perhaps headed towards some sort of Destiny." Lanier wants to
rescue Darwin from this destiny. He acknowledges that "the movement to
interpret Darwin more broadly, and in particular to bring him into
psychology and the humanities has offered some luminous insights." He
admits, further, that as a computer scientist it is impossible not to be
"flattered" by narratives that put "algorithmic computation at the
center of reality." At the same time, he prefers a more circumscribed
Darwinism, a Darwinism that hasn't gone nova. "While I love Darwin," he
writes, "I won't count on him to write code."

Still, Lanier recognizes that today it is Darwinism rather than
philosophy or theology that hosts the key debates about human nature. In
London several years ago, for example, a public discussion led by
evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins reportedly
drew 2,300 people and was sold out weeks in advance. Pinker and Dawkins
are in basic agreement on the big questions of evolution. It is
interesting to speculate about how many seats would be filled by a
no-holds-barred debate between Dawkins, say, and Stephen Jay Gould, the
chief opponent of the totalists in the quarrel over Darwin's legacy.

In such a face-off, Lanier would be in Gould's corner. He sees Gould
as providing evolutionary support for a belief in free will, whereas
Pinker, Dawkins, and Dennett would hem us in with determinism. After
all, if evolution is as algorithmic as the totalists--Gould calls them
"Darwinian fundamentalists"--would suppose, then a big-brained beast
like Homo sapiens is well-nigh inevitable, with artificial
intelligence inevitably to follow. Lanier prefers Gould's view (as
argued in Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to
Darwin
) that evolution is more familiar with contingency than with
inevitability. Summarizing Gould, Lanier writes: "If there's an arrow in
evolution, it's towards greater diversity over time, and we unlikely
creatures known as humans, having arisen as one tiny manifestation of a
massive, blind exploration of possible creatures, only imagine that the
whole process was designed to lead to us." That such a basic issue as
free will versus determinism is now being fought out on the grounds of
Darwinian logic helps explain why the Darwin wars have been and will
continue to be so venomous.

Lanier takes exception to the entire "cultural temperament" of
totalists, who have become so "intoxicated" by their system that they
"seem to not have been educated in the tradition of scientific
skepticism." They grow reckless when they "meme"-splice Darwin to
Babbage, and giddy when they add "Moore's Law" to the mix. They take
Moore's Law--according to which computer power doubles every 18 months
or so--to guarantee that tomorrow's machines will have a million times
the speed and memory of today's computers. With that kind of computing
power driving them, machines will hardly be able to avoid being jarred
into sentience, or so the theory goes. But Lanier has some bad news for
totalists: Moore's Law applies only to hardware. Software can be counted
on to drag the whole thing down.

With tongue only somewhat in cheek, he suggests that "if anything,
there's a reverse Moore's Law observable in software: As processors
become faster and memory becomes cheaper, software becomes
correspondingly slower and more bloated." The sad state of software, he
continues, may turn out to be humanity's best defense against the coming
of any cyberspecies. "Just as some newborn race of superintelligent
robots are about to consume all humanity," he writes, "our dear old
species will likely be saved by a Windows crash. The poor robots will
linger pathetically, begging us to reboot them, even though they'll know
it would do no good."

Bad software gives Lanier a novel spin on the "Turing Test," which
attempts to gauge whether machine intelligence has evolved to the point
that it is indistinguishable from human intelligence. Lanier suggests
that there is another way for computers to get a passing grade other
than by becoming smarter, and that is by making people more stupid. In
his view, that is just what's going on. He thinks that the Turing Test
won't be decided in a single big event; instead, "miniature Turing Tests
are happening all the time, every day, whenever a person puts up with
stupid computer software."

Why does software improve so slowly, if at all? Lanier blames
cybernetic totalism, with its peculiar mix of outsize ambition and
downright complacency. If computers are rapidly advancing to the point
that they can write their own code, why bother about software elegance?
Computers will soon be debugging each other as naturally as monkeys
groom one another's fur. Until that day, pile on the features; bring on
the bloat. Moore's Law is coming to the rescue.

Still, none of this would seem commensurate with the direst warnings
of "One Half of a Manifesto." It's true that if machines pass--or people
fail--the Turing Test, and human beings and computers shake hands on the
common ground of the algorithm, there may be little for a humanist to
celebrate. But that's no reason to raise a hue and cry about the
"suffering ... [of] millions of people" or to compare cybernetic
totalism to "history's worst ideologies," as Lanier does. For Lanier,
however, the problems we have with software today give but the barest
hint of the horrors in store when the computer becomes instrumental in
human genetic engineering.

He predicts "that the hardware/software dichotomy will reappear in
biotechnology, and indeed in other 21st century technologies." When
genetic code becomes "more manipulatable, more like a computer's memory,
then the limiting factor will be the quality of the software that
governs the manipulation." With software snarled by Moore's Law in
reverse, it will be expensive to rewrite DNA. Only the rich will be able
to afford the really good hacks, such as longevity; only they will have
access to the indisputable killer app, as it were: a genetically
engineered elixir of immortality. Here Lanier joins a number of other
thinkers--including some, like E.O. Wilson, on the fringes of cybernetic
totalism--in fearing that we'll know the real meaning of binding Babbage
and Darwin together with Moore's Law when the human race splits, roughly
along the lines of rich and poor, into different species.

Will this occur? It's, of course, impossible to say. But "One Half of
a Manifesto" has value well beyond this or any other particular
prediction. It is the warning against totalism per se that stands out in
the piece, all the more so because techies and others have so adroitly
overlooked it. You can't know in advance all the specific dangers that
will issue from a grand synthesis; you can't forecast how much of the
scenery it will devour as it gains force. But you can be alert, as
Lanier urges. And you can take the implication of "One Half of a
Manifesto" seriously--namely, that postmodernism has been only a lull
before the gathering of another totalist storm.

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