Life in the Clouds–sirens, servers, God, and Lanier

Jaron Lanier's book Who Owns The Future? is (in the words of one of my beloved college professor's), "quite a read." (Lanier visits SHU on October 9, 2013.)  It's a wild, occasionally bumpy ride through simultaneous developments of technology, economy, and social thinking occasioned by the massive computing power ("big data") of arrays of servers.  When such an array achieves dominance in such a manner that it can aspire to omniscience, Lanier calls it a "siren server" –a software-mediated social vision that believes it's the only game in town, marked by radical information assymetry and outsources risk as much as possible.

There are so many elements of this book that I will pick out several for consideration, but one at a time. This piece concerns the religious elements of the social vision that advanced software engineers (called by synecdoche "Silicon Valley") seek to monetize and compell social acceptance.

Lanier does take this on in his fifth interlude, "The Wise Old Man in the Clouds," with the double meaning intact. Silicon Valley (or at least, many there) anticipate The Singularity, when software comes to write itself and computers outstrip human interaction, when the memories, emotions, and thoughts of an individual can be uploaded into "the cloud" and when the body died, the person lives on –when illness, death, scarcity (want), and human limitations of every kind are overcome (p. 325-331), when robots can provide satisfying sex.  (Really! –see pages 359-360)

As a technologist Lanier (who is both a technologist and a philosopher) wants to skitter away from religious questions.  Speaking for technologists, "We serve people best when we keep our religous ideas out of our work." (p. 194) –and yet this book is shot through with religious sensibility and ideas, including non-traditional human development ideas famous in the Bay area.  The questions of limits and Ultimate Concern, of human closed-in awareness and the unexpected in-breaking of The Other, keep returning again and again.  No one has yet successfully addressed these questions as regards technologists.  (And by "successfully," I don't mean that I would agree with that writer, but that such a writer both acknowledges these questions and moves discourse forward.)

Lanier's makes frequent reference to visionaries (H.G. Wells, Alan Turning, Ted Nelson), philosophers (Aristotle, Hobbes, Malthus, Marx) and science fiction writers or characters (Philip K. Dick, Dr. Strangelove, Star Trek the TV series, especially the original series).  All of these raised questions broadly classes as theological or religious –although apparently in the Silicon Valley "religious" means such Concern as narrowly defined by California-flavored evangelicalism, western Mormon sensibilities (whether orthodox LDS or not), and the spectre of fundamentalisms of every stripe.  ("Spiritual" is a very different word, suggesting all the happy feelings of Eastern philosophies mixed in with self-affirming slogans.) No wonder Lanier wants to restrict technologists to keep religious ideas out of their work.  

But does "religion" have to be defined that way?  (The fact that violence-prone religious fundamentalists share a small bit of thinking in common with "religion" makes other religious people guilty of crimes against humanity to the same but narrowly limited extent that chemists are guilty because they share a small amount of thinking with DKFarben, makers of the poisons used by the Nazis.)  The Silicon Valley amounts to being the paradigm of, among other things, "spiritual but not religious."  But that's a feint, simply deflecting attention.

On the one hand, "what does it mean to be human" (which Lanier re-phrases as, "whether people are 'special'", p. 196) is not a technological question and can't be answered in those terms and limitations.  On the other hand, those terms and limitations beg that question.  The adjustment of software and information to reality is imperfect –reality consistently outstrips human ability to encode it.  (For all the hype that information lies at the heart of the universe –such as DNA encoding for example– it takes humans to translate that reality into symbols or code.)  The religious and philosophical questions raised by massive "cloud" computing are inescapable, and only a resolute will to face them for what they are will sing a song over against the Sirens strong enough to modify their behavior.