• August 28, 2015

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?

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.


1. lost_angeleno - August 29, 2010 at 08:27 pm

I know my humanity is special because I can genuinely, consciously, heartily laugh at articles like this one.

2. antirobot - August 29, 2010 at 09:11 pm

Other than the fact that what the students write is visible for the world to see, what is the difference between, "students blogging, networking, or tweeting while listening to a speaker," and taking notes? Does the fact that they engage in those activities prevent the information from filtering through their brain and being in what they write later?

What of yourself? Do you think those students "reflecting" what you say increases your own existence? What of the people not present who now have a way of perceiving the world of the "reflectors"? Could they read those words, let them filter through their brain, and then put themselves in what they write later?

The purpose of this "reflecting" is to move information. It is to build one's personal node, so that one may accrue power. A personal node amplifies one's existence by providing a place for personal "reflection." It is the soul's mirror.

The defining idea of the coming era is that power accrues "to the proprietors of the central nodes on the global computer." The reflectors will catch their own reflection. They will form their own node. It will be the birth of a new social contract, the online nation.

3. zefelius - August 30, 2010 at 04:45 am

You Are Not A Gadget is a wonderful book. Just finished reading it, and I plan on doing so again later this year. Lanier is conversant in a number of fields, and writes in a very accessible manner.

I myself avoid the likes of Facebook. I have a few friends in life, and if they want to know what's going on in my life they can talk to me in person or via phone, by way of an extended conversation.

It does seem like a lot of people do some extraordinarly dumb things with modern communication systems. Texting while driving has to be one of them! I also see a good number of individuals playing with their smart phones while supposedly enjoying time with friends and family in the flesh. If technology is making us smarter, I definitely don't see it on a daily basis. In everyday conversation I hear people make logical fallacies (ad hominem, appeal to people, etc.) every 15 minutes or so. Listening to others in coffee shops, grocery stores, in parks, and so forth, it's also apparent that the predominant level of discourse in this nation is radically superficial. Apathy, ignorance, obesity, self-absorption, greed, superficial status-seeking, and mass delusion are the norm. With this in mind, I doubt very much that anything like the "singularity" will save us!

On the other hand, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with technology. Even Lanier himself reminds us in his book that he's not against the Internet. But despite his nuanced outlook, which is sometimes overshadowed by his admonishments, it does seem simplistic to say that Facebook is anti-human. How is it exactly that we think of information as free-standing? Wouldn't the defenders of Facebook, and all of these other "anti-human programs and interactions," respond by saying that the information stems from personal and social experience, and that it feeds back into it via others' comments and posts? I would think so. In which case, it is difficult to draw a perfectly straight line between the human and so-called anti-human.

4. honore - August 30, 2010 at 09:01 am

for the umpteenth time, i have deleted an e-mail request from a colleague who wants me to be "friend" on FaceBook. Perhaps if I were a teenager in the throes of popularity angst, I might be interested, but frankly, with all the identity theft that crashes into our lives these days, I really don't feel the need to send ANY personal information out to unknown kazillions of prospective "friends" in nigeria, malaysia, the philippines or any other hell-hole scam nest.

5. richardtaborgreene - August 30, 2010 at 09:03 am

This guy is one of those special elite professors that Paglia suggest should become carpenters---she is right, this guy is silly.

6. shalomfreedman - August 30, 2010 at 09:19 am

The threat to humanity from humanity and its own creative developments is one which comes from many directions. It is not from 'Facebook' culture alone. It is also from the new possibilities which genetic engineering will provide. It also comes from , or may come from the human effort to extend human civilization beyond the earth. It too can come in a way somewhat similar to that suggested in this article from the creation of 'artificial minds' detached from human biology.If mankind is however understood as the creative being created in the image of the Creator God, then all these developments may nonetheless have a positive future meaning we cannot yet understand now. Our present time and way of being may from the distance of future generations look to be simply another stage of transition in our ongoing development.

7. cfox53 - August 30, 2010 at 09:27 am

"This guy is one of those special elite professors that Paglia suggest should become carpenters---she is right, this guy is silly."

The arguments presented in the article are silly, unsupported and pretty sloppy thinking (as has been pointed out) - but I suggest this isn't because he is an 'elite professor' - there are lots of these elite professors who think & write strong arguments - this person just didn't (or perhaps couldn't) do the work.

8. zefelius - August 30, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Lanier's arguments are neither refined nor fleshed out, but I suspect that has something to do with this being such a brief article and his attempt to communicate with non-specialists. But as someone who helped shape computer science, invented Virtual Reality, and developed the first implementations of this technology for use in surgery simulations, I doubt very much that he needs a job as a carpenter. He doesn't speak or write exactly like an academic, but he at least draws his ideas from actual knowledge of the locked-in software designs (like MIDI) which currently influence internet culture.

9. tprovince - August 30, 2010 at 12:58 pm

As for the students not paying attention to you...I am more concerned that someone (that is you Jaron) could take what is possibly a serious issue and in less that 500 words completely destroy any chance that it can ever again be taken seriously. I find myself not listening to you either.

Maybe you should do some reflecting of your own. Try to focus that reflecting on why the students aren't listening to you. Maybe it is because you are not talking about something that is sensible, relevant, and interesting.

I suspect that the real problem here is that you are a control freak who is hung up on the fact (that's right it is a fact) that if you are boring then people won't pay attention to you. You want to deal with it by forcing the students to put their phones away, or by hypothesizing on the end of human "specialness".

Get interesting, relevant, and logical and the phones will disappear. Those students are talking to you when they "check out" on you. Listen to them because they are human and they are special.


10. kathden - August 30, 2010 at 01:35 pm

The majority of the comments here, shallow as shallow can be, are an embarrassment to academia. It looks to me as most commenters couldn't get past the rhetorical trope of Lanier's first paragraph; in response, they deployed the one trope they have mastered, ad hominem. As for arguments, if Lanier has the excuse of the brevity that was undoubtedly assigned, the rest of you have no argument at all. (By the way, please don't inform me that I am hoist with my own petard: there's ad hominem that pretends to be argument, and there's ad hominem that is descriptive of how things are.)

I suggest that you read some of the "literature" coming out of the intellectual circles to which Lanier refers (like the Singularity University). You'll see that he is describing things that people who are the eminences of computing and cybernetics are really saying. They are prophesying an imminent "singularity" that will transform the Web into a global sentient consciousness that will absorb/supersede/whatever human beings. They think their prophecy is the soberest scientific prediction rather than apocalypticism. Again, a problem of identifying tropes and genres....

11. saraid - August 30, 2010 at 01:53 pm

Lanier's point is that people ought to be able to generate original thought, and that this specially human capacity is threatened by the way we perceive and use technologies.


Spelled it out for the rest of you illiterate commentators.

12. kathden - August 30, 2010 at 02:28 pm

Nicely done, saraid: pointed, and unlike my contribution, short and to the point.

13. francishamit - August 30, 2010 at 03:39 pm

Let us be clear about one thing; Lanier did not "invent" Virtual Reality. He admitted as much during a Senate Hearing chaired by Al Gore on a panel with Tom Furness of the HIT Lab and Fred Brooks, Professor at UNC Chapel Hill. He popularized the term when he was promoting a technology that he had appropropriated from NASA Ames and which ultimately failed in the marketplace. My 1993 book "Virtual Reality and The Exploration of Cyberspace", which can now be had for a penny plus the shipping charges, detailed this.

That said, I think thta Lanier has some good, if somewhat incoherent thoughts here and should not be accused of being a Luddite simply because he has thought anew and turned away from the geek vision of the universe.

14. mdunawa - August 30, 2010 at 10:23 pm

Kathden, I applaud your prose. Lanier, well done sir. Thank you for this.

15. profjdc - August 31, 2010 at 07:55 am

Whilst I was in college, we lived through the Theatre of the Absurd, now we have The Academy of the Absurd.


16. 22228715 - August 31, 2010 at 08:34 am

There's a NERD RELIGION?! Awesome! How do I get in on that?!

17. cwinton - August 31, 2010 at 08:47 am

This is recycled prognostication we heard variations of in the 70's, then the 80's, then the 90's, and now again. He must be looking for funding.

18. amnirov - August 31, 2010 at 08:57 am

This article is so dumb that the moon just exploded.

19. ksledge - August 31, 2010 at 09:00 am

I thought this would be a piece about how science is discovering the cognitive & emotional capacities of animals, and that maybe we're not so special afterall.

20. trendisnotdestiny - August 31, 2010 at 09:16 am

What will be the defining idea of the coming decade, and why?

Here are a few speculations

1) The move to one Global currency

2) Race for dwindling natural resources

3) Drinkable Worldwide Water

4) Environmental Tipping Point & Lived Consequences

5) Hyper-Suveillance of Personal Networks & Consumption Patterns

21. 11232247 - August 31, 2010 at 10:06 am

I predict the return of John Galt.

22. marka - August 31, 2010 at 12:37 pm

The Borg ... as singularity.

The Borg ... boring?

The Borg ... consumes individuality.

Multitasking ... inefficient & distracting ...

23. rsmulcahy - August 31, 2010 at 01:05 pm

Wow, Saraid, thanks for your insightful summary of the author's point, no one would be able to understand that without you stepping in to let us all know how to think. You are super, super smart and I am sure people gather at your feet to listen to you educate them. Back to the essay, Saraid, summary is the simplest and least analytical form of thought, you want congratulations because you can understand a main point? The other commentators are trying to go beyond the obvious argument (which apparently is all you are capable of understanding)and discuss and analyze what is being said. The other commentators are clearly not illiterate since they read the article and therefore your use of the word is incorrect. Look it up. There. Spelled out for a dimwit commentator.

24. maxbini - August 31, 2010 at 08:40 pm

"... be in what you say. This is what makes you exist. If you are only a reflector of information, are you really there?"

Negative: Is it not time that we realised Descartes' mistakes?

Positive: To learn, to live, to exist and not to merely subsist, require being involved, being engaged and caring about what actually matters.

25. bghansel - September 01, 2010 at 08:47 am

I thought this was going to be an article about a new view of human beings from a perspective either of the increasing awareness of animal's ability to use tools and communicate, or from the perspective in which humanity is such a small speck in the great universe.

So please tell me: In what way were humans more special before Facebook?

26. eelalien - September 01, 2010 at 09:03 am

I detect the distinct scent of religiosity in Lanier's lament; it is also rife with the faded aromas of wishful pining for non-existent (except in the nostalgic mind) "good ol' days". As a species we adapt; when we stop adapting, we die. There is no looking back, although a certain pseudo-religious popular cult figure would have you believe that you should. And by the way, if you really want to get "back to basics", move out of your sheltered life in the U.S. and move to northwest Pakistan. Or Afghanistan. Or Somalia. Or Sudan. Or Yemen. Or...

27. matthew_tiffany - September 01, 2010 at 11:14 am

I continue to be astonished at the pettiness, sarcasm, and outrage that are always part and parcel with these articles about the potential negative effects of technology. Looks like one negative effect can't be disputed: the enabling of trolls to post smarmy, smarter-than-thou "you'll pry my smartphone from my cold, dead hands" responses anonymously.

28. jerryfollowsj - September 01, 2010 at 12:06 pm

The end of human specialness has suddenly dawned? "Defining idea of the coming era is actually the loss of an idea we never had to worry about losing before." This is new? Really? Maybe Mr. Lanier ought to come out of his tech silo more often (as I regularly suggest college profs ought to leave their ivory towers of academia--first time I've used that cliche all year I swear). Read any philosphy lately? Any ethics? Any history or sociology? How far back should I go: Rwanda? Roe v. Wade? Holocaust?Slave labor-like conditions of tens of thousands who built U.S. railroads (not to mention the minions making our tech in Asia)? How about the Enlightenment? De-valuing humanity has gone on as long as Adam and Eve. Perhaps Mr. Lanier is shocked by the pace and casualness of it and thinks tech has contributed. I guess a father microwaving his infant instead of a long decade of abuse is an example of what the author means, but perhaps my examples or a read of any history of something outside the myopic utopia that is Silicon Valley might show Lanier and us all that the problem is deeper and longer than tech. I will read his book, but I hope he will read a few himself. Scientists, politicians and others have been predicting Nirvana or near disaster due to tech/education/capitalism/communism/terrorism/add your flavor here... ever since the industrial revolution and Darwin's theory of natural selection. Reading something besides tech (with its rapid moves from irrational exuberance to irrational fear) will reveal that what we really need to figure out is how "we extricate ourselves from the antihuman" designs within the human heart that have long--not "suddenly" tried to "run everything."

29. nancy_a_norman - September 01, 2010 at 04:08 pm

Mr Lanier is lamenting the fact that the image of the human being is increasingly framed either in terms of the technology we use, or in terms of socially constructed influences in our life. Neither approach provides a satisfactory view of what is uniquely human.

The problem is bigger then the antihuman software designs that he distains. I recommend to you the work of Joseph F. Rychlak (Artifical Intelligence and Human Reason, 1991) who has been fighting this battle for well over 30 years. Dr Rychlak Logical Learning Theory (1994) provides a framework that is logically sound and empirically supported.

While Mr Lanier is not particularly articulate in expressing his concerns, it is at least refreshing to see that a technologist such as Lanier is beginning to see the light!

30. wryeforyou - September 01, 2010 at 04:49 pm

Judging from the scorn/scan of many of these comments, it does seem like Chronicle audiences are slow on the uptake of the evolving debate over techno-human interaction and its implications on things like identity, cognition, and individuality.

As a primer, I recommend educating oneself among these (and then blogging or tweeting about it):




Wrye Sententia, Director, Center for Cognitive Liberty & Ethics

31. surazeus - September 02, 2010 at 12:49 am

I FaceBook, therefore I am.
OriLibro, ergo sum.

32. mattlane - September 02, 2010 at 03:45 am

"The End of Human Specialness"? You've heard of these right? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heliocentrism http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution

Socrates argued writing was anti-human, and yet writing enabled most of modern human knowledge.

33. consciousobserver - September 02, 2010 at 01:57 pm

Oh, we are just approaching The Beginning of Human Specialness:


34. suviswan - September 03, 2010 at 01:55 pm

My $.02: Facebook enables me to connect with people I'd lost touch with, share ideas in various media formats with them easily and to express my emotions to a set of friends. There's no reason for me to stop thinking, reading, learning on my own just because I use Facebook to CONNECT.

All of us who use search engines, social media sites and shop on the web have shared an inordinate amount of personal habits and information with corporations who use this information to target-market goods and services to us. There's an upside and a downside to this, obviously. But laws exist and will continue to emerge, to prevent "power accruing to the proprietors of the central nodes..."

I doubt the future predicted by Ray Kurzweil and others will come to pass, purely because we, as a species are far more individualistic than Mr. Lanier gives us credit for.

Those students who multi-task during his lectures miss out on valuable ideas and experience gathered over decades - they are the losers, in my humble opinion.

35. trendisnotdestiny - September 05, 2010 at 09:19 am


Did you mention the privilege of having all your friends, family and relational connections in one place for data mining specialists to sift through as a means to sell you more product, get to know you better and get access to information they would have never been in a position to get from millions?

There are inidividualized goods that come from social networking,but do not be fooled, the collective good of this information is being used against us.... one more reason not to resist future policies when the various groups have access to who is important in your life so accessibly...

36. eyeswide - September 09, 2010 at 05:32 pm


37. eyeswide - September 09, 2010 at 06:29 pm


Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

T.S. Eliot wrote these line in 1934, long before the computer age. I am certain he had no idea of the coming Facebook boom. But he was already seeing the erosion of self in our speeding world.

All too commonly, we conflate INFORMATION with KNOWLEDGE. Information is an external medium which does not become knowledge until it has been digested and absorbed into the blood stream, the cells, in our brain and body.

So Twittering is like a big jolly food fight where food is being tossed about in the air - not ingested, even less digested by the person.

There is an excellent discussion to argue for a distinction between information and knowledge, by Peter Gardenfors, professor of Cognitive Science in Lund University in Sweden, published in Art Bulletin of National Museum, Stockhom, vol. 5, 1998 (I can't seem to find it online). I have also written about the possible biological basis for such a distinction, in my essay Information = Knowledge? on my website, Eyes-wide.com

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

  • 1255 Twenty-Third St., N.W.
  • Washington, D.C. 20037
subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.