The Chronicle Review

The End of Human Specialness

For the 10th-anniversary issue of The Chronicle Review, we asked scholars and illustrators to answer this question: What will be the defining idea of the coming decade, and why?

August 29, 2010

The defining idea of the coming era is actually the loss of an idea we never had to worry about losing before. It is the decay of belief in the specialness of being human.

As an example of what that would mean, consider the common practice of students blogging, networking, or tweeting while listening to a speaker. At a recent lecture, I said: "The most important reason to stop multitasking so much isn't to make me feel respected, but to make you exist. If you listen first, and write later, then whatever you write will have had time to filter through your brain, and you'll be in what you say. This is what makes you exist. If you are only a reflector of information, are you really there?"

Decay in the belief in self is driven not by technology, but by the culture of technologists, especially the recent designs of antihuman software like Facebook, which almost everyone is suddenly living their lives through. Such designs suggest that information is a free-standing substance, independent of human experience or perspective. As a result, the role of each human shifts from being a "special" entity to being a component of an emerging global computer.

This shift has palpable consequences. For one thing, power accrues to the proprietors of the central nodes on the global computer. There are various types of central nodes, including the servers of Silicon Valley companies devoted to searching or social-networking, computers that empower impenetrable high finance (like hedge funds and high-frequency trading), and state-security computers. Those who are not themselves close to a central node find their own cognition gradually turning into a commodity. Someone who used to be able to sell commercial illustrations now must give them away, for instance, so that a third party can make money from advertising. Students turn to Wikipedia, and often don't notice that the acceptance of a single, collective version of reality has the effect of eroding their personhood.

This shift in human culture is borne by software designs, and is driven by a new sort of "nerd" religion based around a core belief that a global brain is not only emerging but will replace humanity. It is often claimed, in the vicinity of institutions like Silicon Valley's Singularity University, that the giant global computer will upload the contents of human brains to grant them everlasting life in the computing cloud.

There is right now a lot of talk about whether to believe in God or not, but I suspect that religious arguments are gradually incorporating coded debates about whether to even believe in people anymore.

There is hope. Only a few years ago, to challenge the supremacy of the new nerd religion was to invite scorn from most undergraduates. This is no longer so. A post-Facebook generation is appearing, and its members are questioning the legacy of their predecessors. Recently, when I asked students not to tweet or blog during a lecture, so that they might exist, they stood and cheered.

The new question will be how we extricate ourselves from the antihuman software designs that suddenly run everything.

Jaron Lanier is a partner architect at Microsoft Research and an innovator in residence at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.