As he lamely states in this article in WSJ.com, you might know know him as
‘the “father of Virtual Reality technology.” In the 1980s and 1990s, I was a young computer scientist and entrepreneur working on how to apply virtual reality to things like surgical simulation’
I did know him from his work then, and his work was impressive. Now he has a new book to promote, titled “You are Not A Gadget”, and it seems less than impressive. In the WSJ article, he states, “Here’s one problem with digital collectivism: We shouldn’t want the whole world to take on the quality of having been designed by a committee. When you have everyone collaborate on everything, you generate a dull, average outcome in all things. You don’t get innovation.” and “There’s a dominant dogma in the online culture of the moment that collectives make the best stuff, but it hasn’t proven to be true.”. Perhaps he hangs out at a different part of the Web than I do, but those statements are false. Where is “everyone” collaborating on “everything”? And who is stating “collectives make the best stuff”? Instead, what we are just as likely to see is individuals or small teams starting things and then others contribute feedback, ideas, and criticisms. Likewise, we also see companies and organizations spending less time dictating to people how to use technology and more time fostering collaboration and sharing with their technology.
Lanier sets up other straw men in this article, too, like this one: “If you suggested that, say, Google, Apple and Microsoft should be merged so that all their engineers would be aggregated into a giant wiki-like project—well you’d be laughed out of Silicon Valley so fast you wouldn’t have time to tweet about it.” I mean, who in their right mind would suggest that? What companies like Google are doing, though, is pushing out technologies and ideas — like Google Wave — faster to their clients and users and getting their feedback to build better services.
To sume it up, the entire article is poor. Sadly, it gets worse. Over here in the NYTimes is this: “In the book Mr. Lanier offers some general proposals for helping content providers, like the establishment of a universal system for micropayments administered by the government. He’d be glad to see the system run privately, he told me, but there are obstacles to PayPal or anyone else establishing a universal system, so it needs to be a government function akin to maintaining paper currency.” Again, who honestly can imagine this being an idea that is likely to be implemented? It sounds like something from a Science Fiction novel, not a serious idea. Even the idea of micropayments itself is old and terrible. In places where there are micropayments (e.g. costs / text message), both people and companies look for ways to get rid of them, either by offering “unlimited” plans or making them “free”. Technical people seem to like micropayments: I recall Nathan Myhrvold was a fan of them at one point, too. But to me they are just an annoyance and a source of contention between a business and their customers, and when I see technical people promoting them, I have a hard time taking their ideas seriously.
Perhaps Lanier’s book is excellent, and he is just doing a poor job of promoting it. When I came across Lanier and his ideas in the 80s, he appeared to be a brilliant guy. I hope that is still the case and his new book illustrates that. But these interviews are not looking promising.