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Jaron Lanier

playing a `game’ with technology that has to end, then we’ll end. The quest for more power goes in only one direction, so it doesn’t cycle, it must end. If not in nuclear war, then in biological war, or something else. This is basic logic. You have to have something that cycles around in an infinite dance of some sort in order to have something that survives. If people find an `infinite game’ for technology it will be based on aesthetics, not power, and it’ll involve some sort of massive cultural adventure with technology; Virtual Reality, nano-technology, God knows what.

To address the cosmic long-term, I have this ultimate creation myth I made up as a way to think about people and technology. Once a long, long time ago, our ancestors were very highly technological people. They even built time-machines that worked and transporter booths like they use in Star Trek. So, what happened is, this certain point came where they had all this great technology, and they suddenly stopped experiencing anything. They already had the future at hand, because of their time machines, so there were no surprises, and everything just kind of stopped. So they had a meeting, as they knew they were about to, (laughter) in which they said, “Well, this sucks! Let’s create a situation in which we drop all this technology, forget all of it and we’ll become cave men and women and fight saber-toothed tigers and then we’ll just gradually build it up again. They knew that they and their descendants would go through tremendous pain, but it sort of didn’t matter to them because they could see the whole future and see that they would just come back to the same place eventually. And we descended from them.

Rebecca: What are your thoughts on the relation of technology to Gaia?

Jaron: Well, right now, it’s somewhat antagonistic.(laughter)

Rebecca: Terence McKenna had a thought about technology being the earth’s way of becoming sentient, that the fear of machines was just the male ego’s fear of relinquishing control to the Gaia matrix.

Jaron: I think that’s exactly, perfectly wrong. I think technology is the male’s defense against the wilds of nature. I think men are kind of scared of nature in general and overwhelmed by it. Technology always looks as unnatural as possible, that’s the aesthetic of technological design. All the rhetoric about technology is always about overcoming nature, one way or another. The ultimate fantasy of most computer scientists is backing themselves up onto a tape, so they don’t have to deal with biology any more, or of course, with death. So I think that Terence McKenna’s idea is just about completely opposite to my point of view on the ultimate meaning of technology to “men”.

Rebecca: A lot of people talk about the importance of `value-free’ science, having no regulation on the use of a scientific discovery. Do you agree with this or do you think that scientists should have some say in how their discoveries are used?

Jaron: I wish that scientists would apply the standards of scientific method to understanding their own motives so that they would be honest about them. You have to understand, it’s irrational and impossible to do science without an agenda. Science requires resources. The universe is so large and multi-faceted that there are enormous choices to be made in what’s to be studied. Furthermore, by it’s very nature, a lot of science is wrong at any given time and waiting to be destroyed by the next generation of results.

So the choice of what to study next is not based on some kind of magical value-free overview perspective - that’s a complete illusion; it’s not available. The engine of science is rigor, but the ignition is emotion. On the other hand, the reason scientists have to pretend there’s a rigorous ignition is that they have to protect themselves from counter-forces which are even worse, such as these moralists, who don’t even understand science, going in and telling them, for instance, that they can’t use fetal tissue for research, which is completely lunatic. [Note: Since this interview was conducted, Clinton was elected and the fetal tissue controversy was resolved in the favor of the researchers.]

Scientists must develop a cultural agenda to have meaning in the future. When you do science, that means somebody else is not using resources for some other research, or for their survival or pleasure or whatever, so it’s really a social decision. It has to have some meaning for the rest of the culture outside of science.

In a market environment, it seems increasingly necessary to market scientific agendas to the public with clever campaigns, because there aren’t necessarily going to be products to buy for a long time, if ever. That is, after all, why the concept of “virtual reality” came to be.

Rebecca: Who determines the benefit to the culture, the scientist?

Jaron: I think it has to be pretty broadly based. I do believe there’s a grand adventure in getting to know the universe better, so science has an adventure value, just like post-sym might someday. But adventure, including science for science’s sake, is like sex; increasing the pace doesn’t necessarily make it better. It’s not like we have this manifest destiny to go into as much science as possible, in every direction as fast as possible at all times. (laughter) I really feel that scientists have to share some responsibility with the rest of the society in setting the agenda, and I think they do. Most of the problems that I notice aren’t coming from the scientific community; they’re coming from the religious community, from a James Bond-like fantasy life in the defense community, and from politicians and businesses with excessively short term agendas.

Rebecca: Do you think that science and mysticism can ever be reconciled?

Jaron: They’ve never been separated, and the best scientists are often mystics, as a matter of fact. There’s this awe at the fundamental mysteriousness of the universe that drives both science and mysticism. There’s a great book of the writings of the founders of modern physics called Quantum Questions, and all of these guys wrote beautiful mystical essays. That’s not as true for computer science because it’s not a study of nature, but a creation of a sort of a man-made world, and it doesn’t usually inspire that kind of awe.

Rebecca: But many scientists in seeking to keep up a determinable, repeatable objectivity in their experiment, have tried to keep the mind well out of their experiments.

Jaron: What do you expect them to do? Mysticism can be part of one’s personal understanding of the universe revealed by science, and it can be the `ignition’ for science, but it can’t be part of the conduct of science. Science is a specific, philosophically narrow, discipline. The limitations can be viewed as making it irrelevant to many kinds of understanding, but they are at the very least beautiful.

I was around Richard Feynman - the Nobel prize winning physicist - one time when he was on acid. Before he started to come on I asked him, “What do you really think about the mind-body problem? Now come on, don’t just shove it under the rug. You probably experience yourself existing on the inside; how do you think that reconciles with the matter of the brain? Do you think there’s any problem there?” He said, “I’ve thought about that a lot, and I really just don’t understand it.” That was just an example of the immense honesty and integrity that he had.

Rebecca: It was proof that he’d really thought about it.(laughter)

Jaron: Exactly. I asked him again when he was on acid and he said, with this most wonderful smile and this effervescent glee, “I don’t understand it.” That sort of glee at the fundamental mysteriousness of the universe is just the motivational core of science and you always run into that with a great scientist. Just to be clear, though, Feynman didn’t state any mystical ideas, he just was rigorous about what he did and didn’t know, which I think is one of the hardest mental disciplines.

David: Around seven years ago, you asked me a question that I’ve spent years puzzling over. If you could, through nano-technology, replicate every single atom in your nervous system, would that structure be you? Would you care to venture an answer to your own question?

Jaron: That’s a trick question. The answer to the question doesn’t matter and the intention does. (laughter) It’s really a variation of the virtual sex question. Do you treat the glaring mysticism of your experience of every moment as the center of your life, or do you treat some kind of measurable phenomenon as being the important thing?

I don’t know what would happen if you made a copy of somebody’s head. Presumably you’d have two heads that talked, but you wouldn’t know if they were both conscious or not because that’s not a measurable, scientific thing. So, it would be just sort of a confusing result. But I don’t think the result of the question matters nearly as much as the intention with which it’s asked. The key is, are you in touch with the mystical sense of experience you have, or do you suppress it by the way you categorize and think about the world?

By the way, I consider my position to not be `dualist’, which is the dirty word used by these new `information positivists’ to talk about anyone who acknowledges the existence of experience. I’m not claiming some second track of reality for souls or something, I’m just demanding that we show some humility in assessing our understanding of things. You have to walk the razor’s edge between reductionism and superstition, and you find your way through humility.

The dominant idea about people in the information world comes from Alan Turing. He saved England during W.W.II by breaking a Nazi secret code; he was a really brilliant mathematician and a

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