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Jaron Lanier: The Web’s "Digital Maoism"


Jaron Lanier was there in the morning of the digital age, when everything was thrilling and new. He was a thinker and an artist and a programmer turned on by the Internet revolution.

Now, he’s not so sure. What looked liberating may be enslaving us, he says, to a kind of aggregated, collectivist “hive mind” online.

“Digital Maoism,” he’s called it, making digital peasants out of Googlers and Facebookers. Stealing individuality. Reducing us to mush.


This hour, On Point: a warning on the web.

You can join the conversation. Tell us what you think — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.


Jaron Lanier joins us in our studio. A computer scientist, composer, visual artist, and author, he’s a pioneer of “virtual reality,” and was a founding contributing editor of Wired magazine. His new book is “You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto.” You’ll find related materials on his website, and you can read an excerpt here.

Also in our studio is David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. He is a co-author of the 2000 bestseller “The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual.” More recent books include “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” and “Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder.”

Closing segment: Earthquake in Haiti

Later this hour, we turn to the situation in Haiti following the devastating earthquake there yesterday:

Joining us from Miami is Carol Rosenberg, foreign correspondent for The Miami Herald. She’s part of the team that’s been reporting on the earthquake since news of it first broke yesterday afternoon.  You can follow their latest coverage here.

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  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    I think Jaron is on to something. Crowds can be quite unwise at times:


    There’s a difference between “popular” and “good.”

  • Margaret

    Thank god for Jaron; he’s articulating everything that’s been on my mind. It’s very nice to hear someone refute the collectivist ‘hive mind’ propaganda.

  • S Shelton

    You know, I might take this more seriously if I didn’t hear someone laughing over Tom Ashbrook every time he utters the phrase “digital peasant.” Don’t you have a faux pas button for that? So the person laughing must really be dismissing this.

  • andreaa

    I’m on board with the web going in the wrong direction; but Jaron is not coming across clearly. The “singularity” by the way, is something totally different (i.e. The Singularity is Near”) than what I’m hearing from Jaron about the hive mind.
    This is far too abstract…blaming lost “souls” on our ability to google anything…totally unclear.

  • sixerjman

    I use the internet, the internet does not use me. I haven’t seen an online ad in two years. Linux + Adblock Plus = happy. :D

  • Margaret

    Another comment: I was a digital artist for years. Photoshop is just so easy! But I’ve put it aside in favor of traditional production… the messiness of paint, grappling with the mastery of the brush. Spending my work hours AND my free time on the computer was starting to drive me batty, and giving me physical pain.

  • http://ncpr stillin

    I am afraid although I am using a computer to write this, I don’t think for me, a computer enhances my life. I like everything real. My art, like the Margaret post, is real, brushes, paint, pencil etc. My cooking is real, doesn’t happen instantly, my relationships are real, come and see me if you want to talk. I just don’t see how it would improve anything in my life. I don’t own a computer, but I use them sometimes. I wouldn’t cry if I couldn’t. I like the outdoors, real people with real conversations, and although the internet can be informational, there are other ways to know what’s going on. I just feel nothing about computers, facebook, twitter, etc. I wonder if anybody else feels like this? I also think computers, internet is a huge minus for youth. HUGE. They spend too much time in a world that is not real.

  • John Bickelhaupt

    I agree with Jaron, he’s talking about the commodification of personal expression which is channeled into the mold provided by social networking sites like Facebook. It involves the creation of social interactions that have minimal benefit to the participants but provide a great deal of information to advertisers to enable them to target their markets. The religious analogy is a good one. I’m amazed at how much time some people put into Facebook, it’s clearly part of the design of the experience in much the way television is structured to keep viewers glued to their channels.

  • Gary

    I have already been censoring my writing online with the knowledge of the potentials of derivative disbursement in mind. I have actually at moments erased really good blog comments because I felt myself being chopped up, rewritten, and broadcast like so much mulch on a lawn of weeds.

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    What Jaron is describing is one part of the connected web. Tom, don’t characterize it in such stark terms, there’s an important idea here.

    Facebook, Flickr, twitter, and trackbacks and comments on the web (like this one with a link back to my blog) all use crowds, traffic and google Page rank to drive popularity. Popularity leads to advertising.

    Once people have a formula they tend to stick to it as it pays. Payment can be in the form of money (adsense, affiliate links) or popularity.

    Keep attempting to make the point Jaron, Tom and David don’t get it and are looking at it in “binary” terms. It’s not that stark, it’s an important observation that Tom should be embracing and he’s not.

  • Mari

    It can be quite a challenge for an individual to retain a strong sense of self-identity in any collective endeavor. Pressures to conform to the lowest common denominator often overwhelm critical and independent thinking. The internet presents this problem in google-spades.

    Artists and innovators who post original content are easily ripped off, copied and uncredited. Everybody and their uncle is now empowered to be a freelance critic. The net has become a virtual “hegdesh” (Yiddish for mob madness)that is impossible to resist, entirely.

    Common sense, balance and moderation must be exercised, at the individual level, to bring some order to the cluttered, chaotic and intentionally distracting internet. The machine is just a tool, you are not. Remember that. I appreciate everything Jaron has said this morning. Thanks!

  • http://bruceguindon.com bruce guindon

    I think that the idea that the the internet/ facebook is esential to our social well being is a creation of those who want us to believe we are better off with it I use it, it dose not use me nor do i need it

  • andreaa

    Second comment:
    @Margaret: Bravo!

    @Jaron: THe aggregate is always in play, whether its a bus stop or a bathroom stall.
    As a web designer, with 9 years in the business, I see that a lot of sites RELY on the ignorance of internet users, people who are not willing to click around to learn about the security settings, as if it should just be a given.

    The idea of devaluation would require that we as users, we not process the information returned to us from google. I doubt that happens.

    Finally, I wish the guests would comment on the future of these applications. I am a strong believer in the stagnation of the web simply because we haven’t thought of better uses for our technology and the internet. Ecommerce is a huge example of this, what a waste of technology and talent!

    About Google: google rankings have become such a priority that your business may not be found (using google). But there are so many other ways to reach people. When will the google hype end?

    We each use the internet differently; my boyfriend spends his time in RC forums. I have not ever used a forum. I have built them, but I do not use them. Facebook, well what can I say, isn’t it a social requirement these days???

  • http://NA Mary

    I think the problem here, as with many new consuner technologies, is that in this country the basic ability to think critically about what you are doing and how you are doing it has completely devolved. I teach written and oral communication, as well as critical theory/cultural studies and my experience is that whether you are talking about writing an essay for a lit class, giving a speech, or posting on FB or elsewhere, there is a profound lack of critical thinking.

  • S Shelton

    Hear, hear, @ Mary and @ Margaret. I teach digital art. I try to stress a mix of traditional and new media to my students, having come into the industry at the birth of computer art and having attended a fine arts college. Sadly, I also encounter students lack of critical thinking and inability to express themselves. We’re still trying to find a happy medium. I keep in touch with far flung friends through social networking, but I spend a large portion of my time out experiencing life as well, music, museums, and interacting with people in general. Ultimately, I feel that it comes down to the individual to take responsibility and find their own balance.

  • gemli

    Finding knowledge and truth is hard. Finding misinformation, propaganda, petty snipes, and general ignorance is easy. People will pick easy over hard, given the opportunity.

    America is getting dumber, and the Internet ain’t helping. “Social” networking is anything but. The concept of a “friend” has been co-opted and devalued.

    I may be an old fuddy-duddy, but I know the encrapulation of society when I see it.

    Fight! Fight against the dying of the light!

  • Todd

    “I think the problem here…is a profound lack of critical thinking.”
    Posted by Mary

    Exactly right! Over the past 50 years or so, America’s system of public education has slowly devolved into teaching people WHAT to think, instead of HOW to think.

  • Mari McAvenia

    “Facebook, well what can I say, isn’t it a social requirement these days???”- Posted by andreaa

    So glad you asked this question. I use FB almost everyday and have been “a member” for about a year. It works, like a band-aid, for me when I want to connect with real people whom I know are my sincere and familiar friends. Nobody answers their phones anymore, including me, so FB has become our new “party-line”.

    Real-life social opportunities have diminished somewhat, mainly due to economic factors, but when we do all get together, it’s like we were never apart. “The virtual hive” nature of FB, when used like an early phone system, is cool with me. I’m just uncomfortable with all of FBs mercenary data-mining schemes.

  • Katie

    In response to Tom’s comment: “Exactly right! Over the past 50 years or so, America’s system of public education has slowly devolved into teaching people WHAT to think, instead of HOW to think.”

    I am a high school English teacher and my teaching style and methods all revolve around challenging students to think for themselves. I largely use the socratic method of asking questions, esp. those that ascend Bloom’s taxonomy. I think it is too simple to suggest that schools are the problem or that they either are or aren’t challenging students to become independent thinkers. There has to be a balance between teaching students how to think and what to think as well. I model a thinking process for my students. I think this is where things like facebook fall apart. It is difficult for genuine and critical responses. Nonetheless, I don’t think that is what these technologies were created for. To suggest that because someone uses facebook, he can’t think critically is to fall into a simplification of a complex situation – just the sort of simplification I try to warn my students against.

  • http://www.lit.org/author/fritzwilliam F. William Bracy

    I just love Millennial wisdom.

  • gene koo

    One place where it went wrong is that when I click on “listen now” there’s no option for me to download the audio file so I can listen on my phone. Sarcasm aside, helping your listeners access your content as we choose would really help!

  • Chris

    Gene Koo — I think you can do the podcast downloading thru iTunes, somehow. I’m the last one to ask, but I think so.

  • joshua

    I agree with gene koo

    –i enjoy many of these programs, although, so many don’t ask the right questions,or avoid asking the right questions (wouln’t want to offend the overlords, ie. warmongerers), and I would like to use it in the classroom or on the go, but I cannot download past shows, or it’s not easily accessible.

    While the Internet has improved mass comunication–top down, and grassroots, it needs improvement. In the cyberage its a bit domineering and facist to deny web content–let us download (and not just by using ipod as TED now does, or just one program–i dont have an Apple computer and Ipod software is a bit retarded in a Windows format.)

    The word ‘program’ is ironic. Radio and TV shows were once called programs, and totalitarian software in our computer refered to as a program, as are totalitarian regimes, or highly organized structures. And in a way that’s what these shows do, it is their purpose as designed by the producers–to program our minds into a hive mentality, and like amorl drones we wave our idol-flag and march off to war in Iran, Yemen, and so on. And the nations that need disciplinary action get rewarded for bad behaviour–hmm, just like our corporate-aristocracy.

  • Liz B.

    The internet is valuable tool but I find it more and more difficult to use it intelligently and prudently.
    Over the years I’ve found that various programs have built-in applications that I have no control over or don’t even have a knowledge of, so my computer’s security can be easily compromised, and the data on my computer including personal information can be accessed by anyone who has sufficient knowledge about these programs and the need or want to tinker with personal information.
    Also, various websites have many user options but they are not relevant and many times redundant and stupid. Mostly, smart options don’t even exist which would be relevant to the various new technologies available for use. (See gene knoo’s comment above about On-point’s listening option.)
    On the legal side of internet usage, just read any of the service agreements to internet applications and you’ll find that these companies and faceless government officials have absolute control over your data and personal information and you have none, unless you don’t sign up for the application but then you are denied utilizing it.

  • Jacob

    If I understand correctly, Jaron is suggesting a disintegration of individuality and creativity under the collectivity of the web. Perhaps this is a hive mentality speaking, but I think the key point he’s missing is that the aforementioned disintegration is an inherent quality of overpopulation. It doesn’t take the internet to distance one from his or her neighbors–there are cell phones for that. It doesn’t take the internet to spread mindless garbage to other people–we’ve been doing it since Adam met Eve (or Harry met Lucy, whatever your existential persuasion be.) This, in other words is all an inherent and persistent characteristic of human interaction. Perhaps the web catalyzes and expands this characteristic but it also catalyzes and expands beneficial qualities of humanity (nullifying forum posts like this, global interaction, expansion of groups and disintegration of certain social barriers such as race or gender (i.e. seeing on facebook who’s friends with who), another environment for creativity, and so and so forth). Q: Why not attack globalization? Q: Why not attack overpopulation? A: Because you are, always have been, and always will be, at least in some respects, a part of the hive. The majority rules.

  • Rennie

    The last post demonizing a guy who “sounds like a homosexual” is simply nutty. I hate to even bother with such stupidity, but I feel someone needs to respond to such homophobic blather. The post said nothing about the content of the guest’s ideas, the post had not critical thinking about the topic, the post was a rant that offered nothing to the show’s discussion. Certainly, a kind of hive mentality that Mr. Lanier warns against.

  • http://www.expertsystem.net Brooke Aker

    What I did not hear from either guest was where the internet is headed and how that is likely to solve both of their concerns. It is called the Semantic Web or Web 3.0 and is Tim Berners-Lee brain child. Web 1.0 had few producers and mass consumption. Web 2.0 has mass producers and mass consumption and democratized the web (as I understand your guests the good of this is my ability to be heard, the bad is whether anyone hears me or my voice sounds the same as everyone else). But we in the Web 3.0 community can right both problems with semantic technology which embeds meaning into indexes on the web rather than simple keywords. This contextual understanding of content gives clarity and context to my contributions on the web. Thus Web 3.0 is mass production but with pin-point consumption – the exact reverse of Web 1.0.

  • C Vigneron

    I’m listening to the podcast and the woman who struck my nerve is the woman who discovered her ancestors. I found the same.

    I took a 421 page book to Staples this morning collated almost entirely from books.google.com. I’d never read of Gov Samuel Jennings or William Lawrence of Flushing.

    Maybe have a guest from NEGHS and inquire how their game has changed.

    I believe the woman was trying to articulate the profound buy-in her ancestry provided. They stood in the public square in their time and left a record. Now we stand.

  • Luke Ashley

    The web and FB , IMHO, is the peoples gateway to freedom from the greed and corruption of the powers that be and a way to bring the people together to form a new beginning.

    The Venus Project

  • Anonymous

    Tom likes hearing himself say “Collective Hive Mind” a lot.

  • Anonymous

    For 30 years, I’ve been part of our push towards collective productivity increases realized through computer systems. Computer systesm and the internet have unemployed a lot of people.
    Unless we move to a highly socialist system, when robots do everything there will be few jobs for human beings and we will become impoverished. Humans don’t prosper in a socialist society, they stagnate and atrophy, so I am not advocating that. In the next few years, I predict that there will be a movement against robots as they begin to drive up unemployment of physical laboreres demonstrably.This is an extremely serious socioeconomic problem and I don’t see how to balance the needs of people and our economic system.

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