Inspired by Shannon Vallor’s book “Technology and the virtues: A philosophical guide to a future worth wanting“, in which she discusses a range of technomoral virtues that we need to cultivate in order to flourish (2016, p. 118-155), I am writing a series of portraits of exemplars–people who embody these virtues.
Jaron Lanier embodies the technomoral virtues of perspective, justice and flexibility.
Lanier is a computer scientist, author and musician. He pioneered Virtual Reality; in the early 1980s he founded VPL Research, the first company to sell VR products, and in the late 1980s he led the team that developed the first multi-person virtual worlds, using head mounted displaysand “avatars”. He believes that VR can help people to experience their own consciousness and to meet and empathize with others. He “is known for charting a humanistic approach to technology appreciation and criticism“; he wrote award-winning and best-selling books like: You Are Not A Gadget (2010), Who Owns the Future? (2012), Dawn of the New Everything (2017), and Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018). As a musician, Lanier has been active in the world of new “classical” music since the late seventies. He is a specialist in unusual musical instruments, especially the wind and string instruments of Asia. He is also active as a visual artist.
Lanier is a visionary and in that sense he embodies the technomoral virtue of perspective–a virtue which Vallor defines as: “a reliable disposition to attend to, discern and understand moral phenomena as meaningful parts of a moral whole” (2016, p. 149). He has a holistic and humanistic vision that encompasses and critically connects tiny things, like a seemingly small detail in a user interface design, which supports or stifles a specific behavior, e.g., a civil conversation or toxic mob behavior, and huge things, like capitalism and its grip on tech companies’ business models, and their drive to grab people’s attention and steer their behavior, and in the process (probably unintentionally) corrode the social fabric of society.
- Jaron Lanier is interviewed by Ezra Klein in a 90-minutes podcast; a nice way to get to know him a little bit.
Furthermore, Lanier embodies the technomoral virtue of justice, which Vallor defines as a “reliable disposition to seek a fair and equitable distribution of the benefits and risks of emerging technologies” and a “characteristic concern for how emerging technologies impact the basic rights, dignity, or welfare of individuals and groups” (2016, p. 128).
Lanier worries about the inequalities that the Internet propagates and exacerbates. He explains that several beliefs and decisions made early on in the development of the Internet currently hound us: the belief that “information wants to be free” and the decision in favor of a capitalist model. This has resulted in free services, like Google and Facebook, which see people as data points that can be surveilled and manipulated. As a result, a very small number of people is getting very rich from the business of disrupting society. Lanier also points out that this evil outcome does not need any evil intentions. It’s the by-product of a series of choices.
Moreover, Lanier embodies the technomoral virtue of flexibility, which Vallor defines as “a reliable and skillful disposition to modulate action, belief, and feeling as called for by novel, unpredictable, frustrating, or unstable technosocial conditions” (2016, p. 145). Lanier’s biography, with his movements between action and reflection, and between knowledge domains, demonstrates his flexibility.
As a result of his flexibility, it’s not easy to put Lanier into neat categories. One could, e.g., also argue that he embodies virtues like civility (his disposition to want to foster dialogue and decency in cases of disagreement), courage (his disposition to express dissent in a milieu of which he’s part himself), and humility (his disposition to view technology as a tool, and to focus on ways in which it can promote human flourishing).
Possibly, you find that Jaron Lanier embodies other virtues as well. Or you may have other ideas about the virtues discussed above. Please post them below or contact me at: marc.steen-at-tno.nl