From: Jaron Lanier
I want nothing more right now than to have distance from the awful
events of Sept. 11th, but distance is not available to me. I live
five blocks from the poor World Trade Center and saw the attack from
an outdoor café at the corner. I saw many things that I am not ready
to describe. I was evacuated and returned almost a week later to find
my home damaged. It isn't yet clear if I'll have to move or not. And
yet, of course I feel lucky, even a little guilty, at my relatively
extreme good fortune.
Seeing the dreadful rescue site is an unbearably sad daily ritual. It
is beyond my mental capacity to register that I have seen with my own
eyes over 6000 civilians suddenly killed in front of me.
I struggle for something useful to say. I think I'll be wiser about
this at some point in the future, because some distance must surely
form with time.
Here is a scattering of ideas that might be of some small use:
I must first address some remarks to "Leftist" readers in Europe.
Many of you have suggested to varying degrees that we Americans
brought this attack on ourselves through our horrid foreign policy.
The claims vary from the mild- that we can't expect to extend our
will around the world without somebody striking back- to the insane,
as exemplified by the words of Karlheinz Stockhausen , who said the
attack was "the greatest work of art ever." I'm a composer, and I
fear these words will tarnish the tradition of Western music forever.
That someone could even think to say this is an indictment of our
esthetics. Could one of our most prominent artists really have lost
touch with all concerns other than the quest for extremity and public
To address the more mild slights: I don't think our recent foreign
policy has been as consistently bad as it's often portrayed. Somalia
really was a humanitarian effort; our Balkans policy was late and
confused, but not imperialistic, and was at least better than
Europe's; the Clinton mid-East peace proposal was enlightened,
respectful to all sides, and at least plausible; our man Mitchell is
roving around the world talking sense to all parties
There are a lot of kinds of power. There's an odd strategic parity
between post-industrial democracies and the new worldwide society of
suicide-cult terrorists. You really don't need to envy us now, ok?
Here is a historical framework that I have found useful in thinking
about the attack: The advantages of confederation have not been
constant. Rather, they've been on a constant track of modification
due to changing technologies. Technology has changed the degree to
which cooperation between people improves their fortunes.
If we go back far enough, say before the bronze age, there were
limits to the advantages individuals could gain from forming large
alliances, and indeed there were benefits to staying in small hunting
or scavenging parties instead of large ones.
But once a technology like the shield appeared, it created a
rationale for large scale cooperation. A line of men cold walk with
their shields overlapped to form a moving wall of metal which was
quite impenetrable. Similar observations could be made about
agricultural and many other technologies. This enabling of scaling
produced in its extremes the Roman Empire, and eventually the modern
By the time we come to the twentieth century, there was a new
problem: States had become TOO powerful, once again because of
changing technologies. Survival in a nuclear age depended on détente
and treaties, structures that superceded states.
Perhaps we are now entering a period when tiny groups of people, or
even individuals, routinely become powerful enough to be threats to
large numbers of people. If this is so, then the original advantages
of the state no longer apply. The technologies that are enabling this
transition are, disturbingly, ones that I have devoted much of my
life to improving; distributed communications networks, simulators,
and open education institutions and teaching tools.
As I think about the forms of defense that could protect us from
repeated intense threats from insane but powerful small groups of
people, I see few strategies that are appealing. We could try to live
in something like an immune system instead of a state with it's
attendant army. It's plain, after all, that a traditional army is
ill-matched to the present threat. The immune system metaphor is
revolting to us, however, because we've all struggled so hard to
cease to be racist or to otherwise divide the human family into the
similar and the foreign.
It's hard to be completely honest about whether an immune system
approach is what's really needed, or whether it's just the easiest
response for us to envision. Xenophobia seems to me to be a universal
human tendency, and that observation stands whatever mix of nature
and nurture might be responsible.
On the other hand, maybe ever more severe social structures that
resemble immune systems are inevitable, and as we learn to survive in
the new situation we will expose a new grim corner of the confines of
the human condition.
In the past, I was pro-privacy and most definitely against the notion
of a government spying on me. Now I think I was crazy to have that
position. Yes, the government poses a threat, but I wasn't willing to
believe before that there were other threats that are even worse.
I can see a few rays of hope that dimly illuminate how a society
might be pleasant and still protect itself from violent/suicidal
cults. Instead of surveillance, a high degree of transparency might
protect us from evil. An American supreme court justice famously
proclaimed that "Sunlight is the best disinfectant". While this trope
originally concerned censorship, it could just as easily be applied
to the balance between privacy and security. The Dutch came upon a
version of this. Theirs is a dense society of intense
interdependence, and in it one does not close one's curtains. Perhaps
we should make all our emails and phone calls freely available to
anyone who is interested. Almost no one will be. Once revealed, our
fascination with the private lives of other people will be so minimal
that our boredom could form the basis of a stable social order.
Another possibility is that we might retain privacy but imagine more
elaborate governmental structures than we have yet seen to reduce the
chances that intelligence agencies will abuse their powers or become
lost to their own ideological phantoms.
There is also a McLuhanesque thought that has occurred to me. In the
last few years, the Arab world has encountered its own mass media for
the first time, in the form of satellite television stations. I've
seen a little of the material, and it is inflammatory. It might be
the case that societies require some years to get sufficiently used
to mass media so as not to be driven insane by it. World War II might
have had something to do with the West's early experience of the
power of mass media and modern propaganda. Over time one grows
somewhat immune to it. In this light, cynicism is seen to be not only
a good thing, but a mental habit that is necessary if any society is
to survive in an age of potent media.
Finally, I must address a question to my colleagues on edge.org. In
the final decades of the twentieth century we've seen an
unprecedented rejection of the enlightenment. The assault on
rationality has come in many forms, from pricey astrologers for
coddled pet dogs, to the prominence after centuries of obscurity of
the most militant and strident variants of just about every world
religion. We have recently seen neo-Christian suicide cults (the
Branch Dividian), Jewish extremists not heard from since Roman times
(the "Settlers"), Hindu ultra-nationalists, and many others.
Is our way of marketing science and technology part of the problem? I
must emphasize that it's the marketing that I worry about, not the
technological capabilities or scientific theories. I'm thinking of
the way we market computers as living things and Darwinian
interpretation as an oracle. Some of this must play very strangely to
people who are poor and wonder what will happen to them as the elites
in the West soar into uncharted heavens on the wings of Moore's Law
and the genome, hoping to leave even the most basic rules of life as
it was known behind.
Is violent fundamentalism in part encouraged by a sense that science
and technology are ruining faith in the soul?
I'm not talking about any notion of an immortal soul. I just mean the
sense that a person is somehow really there, conscious, that when one
communicates with other people they are similarly really there. I
know many of the respondents on edge.org believe it's only a mental
confusion to feel alive, but I beg you in this instance to reconsider
your position. You can do so without harming science in any way, and
you'd be more honest for having done it.
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Sat May 11 2002 - 17:44:12 MDT