Summary of Jaron Lanier’s, “One Half A Manifesto”

Lanier blowing into a woodwind instrument with several chambers

Jaron Lanier (1960 – ) is a pioneer in the field of virtual reality who left Atari in 1985 to found VPL Research, Inc., the first company to sell VR goggles and gloves. In the late 1990s Lanier worked on applications for Internet2, and in the 2000s he was a visiting scholar at Silicon Graphics and various universities. More recently he has acted as an advisor to Linden Lab on their virtual world product Second Life, and as “scholar-at-large” at Microsoft Research where he has worked on the Kinect device for Xbox 360.

Lanier’s “One Half A Manifesto” opposes what he calls “cybernetic totalism,” the view of Kurzweil and others which proposes to transform the human condition more than any previous ideology. The following beliefs characterize cybernetic totalism.

  1. That cybernetic patterns of information provide the ultimate and best way to understand reality.
  2. That people are no more than cybernetic patterns.
  3. That subjective experience either doesn’t exist, or is unimportant because it is some sort of peripheral effect.
  4. That what Darwin described in biology, or something like it, is in fact also the singular, superior description of all creativity and culture.
  5. That qualitative, as well as quantitative aspects of information systems, will be accelerated by Moore’s Law. And
  6. That biology and physics will merge with computer science (becoming biotechnology and nanotechnology), resulting in life and the physical universe becoming mercurial; achieving the supposed nature of computer software. Furthermore, all of this will happen very soon! Since computers are improving so quickly they will overwhelm all the other cybernetic processes, like people, and fundamentally change the nature of what’s going on in the familiar neighborhood of Earth at some moment when a new “criticality” is achieved—maybe in about the year 2020. To be a human after that moment will be either impossible or something very different from we now can know.[i]

Lanier responds to each belief in detail. A summary of those responses are as follows:

  1. Culture cannot be reduced to memes, and people cannot be reduced to cybernetic patterns.
  2. Artificial intelligence is a belief system, not a technology.
  3. Subjective experience exists, and it separates humans from machines.
  4. Darwin provides the “algorithm for creativity” which explains how computers will become smarter than humans. However, that nature didn’t require anything “extra” to create people doesn’t mean that computers will evolve on their own.
  5. There is little reason to think that software is getting better, and no reason at all to think it will get better at a rate like hardware.

The sixth belief, the heart of cybernetic totalism, terrifies Lanier. Yes, computers might kill us, preserve us in a matrix, or be used by evil humans to do harm to the rest of us. It is deviations of this latter scenario that most frightens Lanier for it is easy to imagine that a wealthy few would become a near godlike species, while the rest of us remain relatively the same. And Lanier expects immortality to be very expensive, unless software gets much better. For example, if you were to use biotechnology to try to make your flesh into a computer, you would need excellent software without glitches to achieve such a thing. But this would be extraordinarily costly.

Lanier grants that there will indeed be changes in the future, but they should be brought about by humans not by machines. To do otherwise is to abdicate our responsibility. Cybernetic totalism, if left unchecked, may cause suffering like so many other eschatological visions have in the past. We ought to remain humble about implementing our visions.

Summary – Cybernetic totalism is philosophically and technologically problematic.


[i] Jaron Lanier, “One Half A Manifesto”

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One thought on “Summary of Jaron Lanier’s, “One Half A Manifesto”

  1. The more cybernetically independent of human concerns an “early adopter” becomes, the less influence they should be allowed to have in our lowly plane. It’s bad enough having to deal with egoists merely financially isolated from their actions, like Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers, and Martin Shkreli.
    That’s why I would give them the sky. “We’ll send up repair parts, and you send down cheap platinum, helium-4 and solar energy. See you again when we all move to the Matrioshka brain.”

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