The Case for Tech Luddites


By Tony Kontzer

Wonderful profile in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle about a technology legend many IT folks have probably never heard of. If you've ever tried out Second Life or any of the growing number of Avatar-based virtual worlds, you owe a tip of the cap to Jaron Lanier. The multi-talented Berkeley computer scientist, author and musical composer was one of the pioneers of virtual reality--the Chronicle piece suggests he even coined the phrase--back in the 1980s. He foresaw the emergence of an Internet that would allow people to display their individuality and find new ways to make a living.

Alas, in Lanier's eyes, things have gone very wrong. The Internet has instead evolved into a hysterical mob scene where creativity is not rewarded, it's merely shared. The article's author, Justin Berton, quotes Lanier from his book, You Are Not a Gadget: "When my friends and I built the first virtual reality machines, the whole point was to make this world more creative, expressive, empathetic, and interesting. It was not to escape it." (Strangely, the article was nowhere to be found on the Chronicle's site Sunday, but you can check out the L.A. Times' concurrent treatment of the subject matter here.)

Lanier's perspectives, Berton notes, are causing some in the tech world to label him a Luddite. I bring this up because the matter of those who question technology's effect on society has been a hot topic of late. Just check out the latest post in a war of words between New York Times Blogger Nick Bilton and New Yorker contributor George Packer over the role of Twitter. Such debates remind me that it's worth taking pause to consider how sites like Twitter and Second Life, Facebook and YouTube, or Google and Wikipedia, are changing not only how people are interacting with technology and each other, but with the world around them. Or, more to the point, how they're not interacting with the world around them.

What I'm getting at is this: "Luddite" is not a bad word. It may not be the label technologists typically are looking for, but it's a critical role. As society adopts technologies such as virtual reality and social networking and makes them its own, we need to be sure we have as clear an understanding of those technologies' potential impact as we can. If we don't at least try to cast that skeptical eye on the things we're forging ahead on, we'll have no one to blame when we wake up one day in a world in which the thoughts of the individual no longer are heard, and in which our self-worth is defined solely by the size of our audience.