Jaron Lanier and Postsymbolic Communication

Jaron Lanier (You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, 2010) thinks about post-literacy in terms similar to dance. For Lanier, however, it is about cephalopods (cuttlefish in particular). Cuttlefish have the extraordinary ability to “morph” in the sense that they can quickly change their skin colour and their shape so as to appear dramatically differently to their predators and their prey. More than camouflage, Lanier thinks of this as a “psychedelic performance,” a type of art or a means to express ideas. Morphing is a grammar:

“Suppose we had the ability to morph at will, as fast as we can think. What sort of language might that make possible? Would it be the same old conversation, or would we be able to ‘say’ new things to one another?”

The promise of post-literacy is all about “saying new things” to each other; having new capacities with which to explore ideas. Lanier call this possibility “postsymbolic communication” and imagines that “a fluid kind of concreteness might turn out to be more expressive than abstraction:””For instance, instead of saying ‘I’m hungry; let’s go crab hunting,’ you might simulate your own transparency so your friends could see your empty stomach, or you might turn into a video game about crab hunting so you and your compatriots could get in a little practices before the actual hunt.”

Lanier’s foray into post-literacy comes at the end of a book that is for the most part a rant against new technologies (particularly Web 2.0). As a result the concluding paragraph is revealing:

“The most important thing about postsymbolic communication is that I hope it demonstrates that a humanist softie like me can be as radical and ambitious as any cybernetic totalist in both science and technology, while still believing that people should be considered differently embodying a special category.”

Lanier, like Michael Chorost (World Wide Mind, 2011), is insistent that post-literacy (as I would call their concepts) be fully and naturally human. Neither follows Ray Kurzweil (The Singularity is Near, 2005) towards the singularity. Chorost hardly mentions him in his book (although they share many ideas) and Lanier calls the singularity a “construction” that is “boring.”

While neither denies the role of technology in an evolved human capacity, both imagine (hope?) it will be grounded in a belief that humans are somehow unique, special, and worthy of continuation. Neither is spiritual about this. However, Chorost approvingly quotes Anthony Bell, an artificial intelligence researcher, about the impact of AI and neuroscience (“Levels and Loops: The Future of Artificial Intelligence and Neuroscience”, 1999):

“Will it lead, ultimately, to some form of transhuman phase transition in the coming centuries? I believe that something like this may happen, and that science (and technology in some form, as with the Internet) will play a part in this. But I believe that at least part of this development will be a return to the past, a re-enchantment, to a vision of life that does not view humans or their minds as outside nature.”


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