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READINGS

[Manifesto] have had the experience of Microsoft Word sud-


denly determining, at the wrong moment, that
THE SERFDOM you are creating an indented outline. The real
OF CROWDS function of this feature isn’t to make life easier
for you. Instead, it promotes a new philosophy:
that the computer is evolving into a life-form that
By Jaron Lanier, from You Are Not a Gadget, can understand people better than people can
published in January by Knopf. Lanier, a com- understand themselves. If you believe this, then
puter scientist, popularized the term “virtual real- working for the benefit of the computing cloud
ity.” His “Moving Beyond Muzak” was published over that of the individual puts you on the side
in the March 1998 issue of Harper’s Magazine. of the angels.
People degrade themselves all the time in

T he central faith embedded in Web tech-


nologies whereby users not only consume in-
order to make machines seem smart. Before
the 2008 stock-market crash, bankers believed
in supposedly intelligent algorithms that
formation but widely generate it is the idea could calculate credit risks before the bank
that the Internet as a whole is coming alive makes bad loans; we ask teachers to teach to
and turning into a superhuman creature. The standardized tests so a student will look good
designs guided by this perverse kind of faith to an algorithm. We have repeatedly demon-
leave people in the shadows. Computers will strated our species’s bottomless ability to low-
soon get so big and fast, and the Internet so er our standards to make information tech-
rich with information, that people will be ob- nology good, but every manifestation of
solete, either left behind like the characters in intelligence in a machine is ambiguous. The
Rapture novels or subsumed into some cyber- same ambiguity that motivated dubious aca-
superhuman something. Silicon Valley culture demic artificial intelligence projects in the
has taken to enshrining this vague idea and past has been repackaged as mass culture. Did
spreading it the only way technologists can: in that search engine really know what you
the design of software. want, or are you playing along, lowering your
If you believe the distinction between the roles standards to make it seem clever? The frag-
of people and of computers is starting to dissolve, ments of human effort that have flooded the
you might express that—as some friends of mine Internet are perceived by some to form a hive
at Microsoft once did—by designing features for mind or noosphere—terms used to describe
a word processor that are supposed to know what what is thought to be a new superintelligence.
you want—for example, when you want to start A significant number of AI enthusiasts, after
an outline within your document. You might a protracted period of failed experiments in

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tasks like understanding natural language, are now so many layers of abstraction between
eventually found consolation in the hive the elite investor and actual events that he no
mind, which yields better results because longer has any concept of what is actually be-
there are real people behind the curtain. ing done as a result of his investments.
Wikipedia, for instance, works through True believers in the hive mind seem to
what I call the “oracle illusion,” in which think that no number of layers of abstraction
knowledge of the human authorship of a text in a financial system can dull the system’s effi-
is suppressed in order to give the text super- cacy. The crowd works for free, and statistical
human validity. algorithms supposedly take the risk out of
From an engineering point of view, the dif- making bets if you are a lord of the cloud. But
ference between a social-networking site and who is that lord who owns the cloud that
the Web as it existed before such sites is a connects the crowd? Not just anybody. A
small detail. You could always create a list of lucky few (for luck is all that can possibly
links to your friends on your website, and you be involved) will ow n it. Entitlement
could always send emails to a circle of friends has achieved its singularity and
announcing whatever you cared to. All the become infinite.
social-networking services offer is a prod to
use the Web in a particular way, according to
a particular philosophy. If you read something
T he Facebook Kid and the Cloud Lord are
serf and king of the new order. In each case,
written by someone who used the term human creativity and understanding, especial-
“single” in a custom-composed, unique sen- ly one’s own creativity and understanding, are
tence, you will inevitably get a first whiff of treated as worthless. Instead, one trusts in the
the subtle experience of the author, something crowd, in the algorithms that remove the risks
you would not get from a multiple-choice da- of creativity in ways too sophisticated for any
tabase. The benefits of semi-automated self- mere person to understand. A hedge-fund
presentation are illusory. Enlightened design- manager might make money by using the com-
ers leave open the possibility of metaphysical putational power of the cloud to create fantas-
specialness either in humans or in the poten- tical financial instruments that make bets on
tial for unforeseen creative processes that we derivatives in such a way as to invent the pho-
can’t yet capture in software systems. That ny virtual collateral for stupendous risks. This
kind of modesty is the signature quality of be- is a subtle form of counterfeiting, and it is pre-
ing human-centered. cisely the same maneuver a socially competi-
An individual who is receiving a flow of re- tive teenager makes in accumulating fantasti-
ports about the romantic status of a group of cal numbers of “friends” through a service like
friends must learn to think in terms of the Facebook. But let’s suppose you disagree that
flow if it is to be perceived as worth reading at the idea of friendship is being reduced. Even
all. Am I accusing all those hundreds of mil- then one must remember that the customers
lions of users of social-networking sites of re- of social networks are not the members of
ducing themselves in order to be able to use those networks. The real customer is the ad-
the services? Well, yes, I am. I know quite a vertiser of the future, but this creature has yet
few people, most of them young adults, who to appear in any significant way. The whole
are proud to say that they have accumulated artifice, the whole idea of fake friendship, is
thousands of friends on Facebook. Obviously, just bait laid by the cloud lords to lure hypo-
their statements can be true only if thetical advertisers —we might call them
the idea of friendship is diminished. messianic advertisers —who could someday

T he wave of financial calamities that took


place in 2008 was cloud-based. No one in the
show up.
The hope of a thousand Silicon Valley start-
ups is that firms like Facebook are capturing
pre–digital-cloud era had the mental capacity extremely valuable information called the “so-
to lie to himself in the way we routinely are cial graph.” Using this information, an adver-
able to now. The limitations of organic hu- tiser might be able to target all the members of
man memory and calculation put a cap on the a peer group just as they are forming their hab-
intricacies of self-delusion. In finance, the rise its, opinions about brands, and so on. Peer pres-
of computer-assisted hedge funds and similar sure is the great power behind adolescent be-
operations has turned capitalism into a search havior, goes the reasoning, and adolescent
engine. You tend the engine in the comput- choices become life choices. So if someone
ing cloud, and it searches for money. In the could crack the mystery of how to make perfect
past, an investor had to be able to understand ads using the social graph, an advertiser would
at least something about what an investment be able to design peer-pressure biases in a popu-
would actually accomplish. No longer. There lation of real people who would then be primed

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COURTESY THE ARTIST AND FREY NORRIS GALLERY, SAN FRANCISCO

Lecture on Prolonging the Interim, a watercolor with collage by Mary Anne Kluth, whose work was on exhibit last fall at Frey Norris Gallery, in
San Francisco.

to buy whatever the advertiser is selling for motivation was to find a way to package peer
their whole lives. pressure as a service that could be sold to ad-
The situation with social networks is lay- vertisers. But it meant that, for example, there
ered with multiple absurdities. The advertis- was no longer a way to buy a surprise birthday
ing idea hasn’t made any money so far, be- present. The commercial lives of Facebook
cause ad dollars appear to be better spent on users were no longer their own.
search-specific placements and on relevant Personal reductionism has always been pres-
Web pages. If the revenue never appears, then ent in information systems. You have to declare
a weird imposition of a database-as-reality your status in reductive ways when you file a
ideology will have colored generations of teen tax return. Most people are aware of the differ-
peer group and romantic experiences for no ence between reality and database entries when
business or other purpose. If, on the other they file taxes, yet you perform the same kind
hand, the revenue does appear, evidence sug- of self-reduction in order to create a profile on a
gests that its impact will be negative. When social-networking site. You fill in the data: pro-
Facebook has attempted to turn the social fession, relationship status, and location. In this
graph into a profit center in the past, it has case digital reduction becomes a causal ele-
created ethical disasters. A famous example ment, mediating between new friends with
was 2007’s Beacon. This was a suddenly im- whom most information is exchanged online.
posed feature that was hard to opt out of. That is new.
When a Facebook user made an online pur- It might at first seem that the experience of
chase from a variety of participating retailers, youth is now sharply divided between the old
the event was broadcast to his friends. The world of school and parents and the new world of

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social networking on the
Internet, but actually school
now belongs on the new
side of the ledger. Education [Poem]
has gone through a parallel
transformation, and for THEIR FACES SHALL
similar reasons. Information
systems need to have infor-
BE AS FLAMES
mation in order to run, but
information underrepre- By G. C. Waldrep. Published in 2009 in the New England Review.
sents reality. Demand more
from information than it
That was the spring the bees disappeared, we didn’t know
can give and you end up
with monstrous designs. where they went, where they’d gone, where they were going, it was a
Under the No Child Left rapture of the bees, only the weak, the young, the freshly dead
Behind Act of 2002, for ex- left behind, a rapture of bees, my neighbor with the ducks had begun to walk
ample, U.S. teachers are like a duck, Follow follow follow Sam he sang as he walked, and they followed,
forced to choose between it was that simple, of course I thought of the Piper, although
teaching general knowledge this procession was more benign, my neighbor’s I mean, though he intended
and “teaching the test.” The to have each for dinner, eventually, and he did not name them,
best teachers are thereby as we don’t name bees, because we don’t see clearly enough
often disenfranchised by to distinguish them as persons, person in the grammatical sense, first second
the improper use of educa- or third, which is why we refer to them in the collective, usually,
tional-information systems. they breed, they swarm, they milk their honey for us
W hat computer i zed in the collective, and they vanish collectively, is this then the true
analysis of all the country’s rapture, was the one true God after all a god of bees, and now she is taking
school tests has done to them home, is this any more comforting than all the other proposed explanations,
education is exactly what
pesticide, fungus, mites, electromagnetism, even the infrasound the giant
Facebook has done to
friendships. In both cases, windmills make, that sends the bats and raptors
life is turned into a data- to their deaths, all invention gone awry, hive after hive
base. Both degradations suddenly empty, as if they’d all flown out less than purposefully, casually,
are based on the same and somehow forgotten to come back, held up at the doctor’s or the U-Haul
philosophical mistake, dealer’s, swarms of them, hundreds, thousands vagabond
which is the belief that in some other landscape, or rising, we shall meet them in the air,
computers can presently at the post office to mail a letter to a woman who might or might not be my love
represent human thought because a rate change had caught me with insufficient postage
or human relationships. I had to wait, the clerk was preoccupied with a sort of crate
These are things comput- made of wire mesh, through which I could see bees, Resistant the clerk said
ers cannot currently do. as she filled out the forms and sent them, registered parcel post, somewhere
Whether one expects com- else, only then did she sell me the stamp I needed,
puters to improve in the
future is a different issue.
In a less idealistic atmo-
sphere it would go without
saying that software should
be designed only to perform tasks that can be sphere. At the end of the rainbow of open cul-
successfully carried out at a given time. That is ture lies an eternal spring of advertisements.
not the atmosphere in which Internet software Advertising is elevated by open culture from
is designed, however. When technologists de- its previous role as an accelerant and placed at
ploy a computer model of something like learn- the center of the human universe. Advertising
ing or friendship in a way that has an effect on is now singled out as the only form of expres-
real lives, they are relying on faith. When they sion meriting genuine commercial protection
ask people to live their lives through their in the new world to come. Any other form of
models, they are potentially reducing expression is to be remashed, anonymized, and
life itself. decontextualized to the point of meaningless-

T here is, unfortunately, only one entity


that can maintain its value as everything else
ness. Ads, however, are to be made ever more
contextual, and the content of the ad is abso-
lutely sacrosanct. No one dares to mash up ads
is devalued under the banner of the noo- served in the margins of their website by

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whitening of yellow teeth,
and the search for a lover.
All that paid persuasion
or thought I needed, or hoped to need (there is a season ought to be mooted. Every
when one hopes to need), and I thought about what it would be like penny Google earns sug-
to mail a crate of bees, Resistant, to my love, if I had a love, and have them gests a failure of the
vanish en route, the mesh crate arriving dusty, empty, one or two crowd—and Google is
broken, desiccated bodies rattling lightly around inside, like seeds in a gourd, earning a lot of pennies.
or like a child you’ll never have, that is, the possibility of that child, the rattling If you want to know
blood of it, a different sort of vanishing, we would all like to believe what’s really going on in a
in the act, that Houdini was a man, only a man, as he proved in the moment
society or ideology, follow
the money. If money is
and by the precise circumstance of his death, and the fact of his body,
flowing to advertising in-
lifeless but extant, rattling around the arcade, the park, the amusement pier
stead of to musicians, jour-
of disturbing coincidences, while in Missouri another hobbyist beekeeper nalists, and artists, then a
walks out to her tomblike hives on a spring morning society is more concerned
to find nothing there, just boxes, empty boxes, a sort of game with manipulation than
a child might invent, this rapture, same sort of funny story with truth or beauty. If
a child will invent, when shown a photograph, This is the policeman, content is worthless, then
and this is the woman with two heads, and this, which looks like a modest people will start to become
red house in a suburb, this is really the ghost of the bees, empty-headed and content-
a small ghost, a modest ghost, like the ghosts of the locusts and the elms, less. The combination of
not a ghost to trouble us, until (in the photograph) the house spreads its wings hive mind and advertising
and vanishes, as houses do, or as houses will when the rapture extends has resulted in a new kind
to architecture, the god of small houses having, first, existed, and then wed of social contract. The ba-
the bee god, so that we are left sleeping alone again, and out of doors, in spring, sic idea of this contract is
as one more source of sweetness is subtracted from this world
that authors, journalists,
musicians, and artists are
and added to another, perhaps, as we would like to think, one of the
encouraged to treat the
more comforting ideas, a sort of economics, a grand
fruits of their intellects and
accounting, until what angel of houses or of bees blows what trumpet, imaginations as fragments
and we fall as mountains upon the insects, devour them as seas, to be given without pay
scorch the houses as with fire, we become the ground that hollows beneath to the hive mind. Reciproc-
them and the air they fly through, their wormwood star, as all the bees of heaven ity takes the form of self-
watch from heaven and all the houses of heaven lean down promotion. Culture is to
for a closer look, and the smoke drifts upward, and we are the smoke, we are become precisely nothing
only the smoke, inside of which my neighbor walks, with his ducks, and sings, but advertising.
and they follow, and my hive lazes, drowses as if they or it were dreaming At the time the Web
us, as if they or us were touchable, simple as a story, an explanation, was born, in the early
any fiction, as if they thought of us, or were praying, or were dancing, 1990s, a popular trope was
or were lonely, as if they could be, or would be touched. that a new generation of
teenagers, reared in the
conservative Reagan years,
had turned out to be ex-
ceptionally bland. The
members of “Generation
Google. The centrality of advertising to the X” were characterized as blank and inert. The
new digital hive economy is absurd, and it is anthropologist Steve Barnett saw in them the
even more absurd that this isn’t more widely phenomenon of pattern exhaustion, in which
recognized. The most tiresome claim of the a culture runs out of variations of traditional
reigning digital philosophy is that crowds designs in their pottery and becomes less cre-
working for free do a better job at some things ative. A common rationalization in the fledg-
than antediluvian paid experts. Wikipedia is ling world of digital culture back then was
often given as an example. If that is so, why that we were entering a transitional lull before
doesn’t the principle dissolve the persistence a creative storm—or were already in the eye
of advertising as a business? of one. But we were not passing through a
A functioning, honest crowd-wisdom system momentary calm. We had, rather, entered a
ought to trump paid persuasion. If the crowd is persistent somnolence, and I have come to
so wise, it should be directing each person opti- believe that we will escape it only when we
mally in choices related to home finance, the kill the hive.

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