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Lanier Warns F&M Audience to be Skeptical of Technology

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  • Jaron Lanier, author of the international bestseller "You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto" warned against dependence on computers, during a Common Hour talk Sept. 20 at F&M. (Photo by Eric Forberger)

Few would dispute that "big money" matters in presidential elections. But what does that money pay for?

"What big money pays for is big computers analyzing voters, and that is great computation," pioneering computer scientist Jaron Lanier told an audience at Franklin & Marshall College Thursday, Sept. 20. "It's a process that's fundamentally immoral."

During a talk titled "The Internet and the Transformation of the Human," the author of the international bestseller "You are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto" argued that just as elections have become ruled by data, the nation has progressively relied on information produced by computers—to its detriment. Lanier said computers have an "inherent seductive power" that is difficult to control.

"I don't think we've learned to use computers well," he said. "One thing computers create is a false sense of truth and precision. When you see data, it feeds this part of your mind that is looking for answers. It makes the world more simple and comprehensible. It's so easy, so human, to be seduced by it."

Lanier addressed a crowd of several hundred students, faculty, staff and community members as part of F&M's Common Hour series, held midday on Thursdays during the academic year, when no classes are in session. The series is intended to bring the entire F&M community together for culturally and academically enriching events and to promote dialogue on vital international, national, local and institutional issues.

After his lecture, Lanier, a 2012-13 Miller Humanities Fellow at F&M, participated in an informal session with students. He also joined four F&M faculty members for a panel discussion that touched on religion, economics, computer science and music.

As a pioneer in the field of virtual reality, Lanier created the first company to sell virtual reality products and has led teams creating applications in medicine and numerous other fields. He also is a musician, a composer, a performer and a visual artist. His paintings and drawings have been exhibited in museums and galleries in the United States and Europe.

"Gadget" established Lanier as a prominent voice in bridging technology, natural science, the social sciences, the arts and the humanities. The book is a critique of the second generation of the World Wide Web, responding to people's desires to collaborate and share information online.

Annette Aronowicz, a professor of Judaic and religious studies, introduced Lanier at Common Hour as "practically a liberal arts college in one person," who can offer perspective on issues ranging from economics to evolutional theory, and from birds to Facebook.

Lanier, who rejects the idea that computers one day will take over the world, said in his lecture that it's important to understand the technology that is changing us.

"I think there's something special about humans that's different from computers. Others say we are getting close, and there is not a fundamental difference between computers and a person," he said. "The nature of what machines can do is changing. We have to ask: What is the purpose of technology, and what are we after?"

He cautioned against believing that computers are "real" and that what computers say about us is true. That applies to social media, too.

"Use (Facebook) if you want, but use it skeptically. Ask yourself: Am I starting to live my life to look popular on this thing?" he said. "Rebel against programs that tell you what kind of music you might like. Be aware. Make decisions about what you really think, not based on what a computer tells you."

Brittany Cole, a senior anthropology major, said Lanier's talk made her think about her own use of computers and Facebook.

"I play the ukulele, so I get these photos of ukuleles on the side of my Facebook page," Cole said. "Before, I just thought, 'Oh, they are gearing ads to me, and someone else gets something completely different.' But they're also forcing you into these things and almost defining you. You should be skeptical."

Ryan Thomas, a junior considering philosophy as a major, said he found Lanier's thoughts on the relationship between computers and human behavior to be provocative.

"People have this understanding that computers define us," he said. "It's important to interact with people on different levels to understand some of their complexity and to appreciate it."