UX Week: Jaron Lanier Keynote

by Luke Wroblewski August 23, 2011

In his keynote presentation at UX Week 2011 in San Francisco CA Jaron Lanier explained how user interfaces can help us explore our potential and the issues stemming form the biggest business models on computer networks today. Here are my notes from his talk:

Avatars & User Interfaces

  • If you can present different user interfaces to people, you can perhaps open up different parts of the brain when these avatars are used. Are there fundamental capacities of the brain that user interfaces can activate up the way language did many years ago?
  • When you make virtual worlds social, you need avatars to represent the people within the system.
  • Even simple motion of basic avatars can communicate a lot: gender, emotion, etc. But avatars can also be distorted and exaggerated to open up new ways of thinking.
  • People can learn to control extra limbs, extended body parts, etc. in virtual worlds. This came as quite a shock. The explanation why is "you are exploring the history of the brain". The brain also retains a trace of the forms it had before and it is capable of adapting to future adaptations. Every trait in biology is pre-adaptive to anything that could come up.
  • Avatars give people a time travel capability to go backwards to traits they had before and traits we might finally evolve to. It's a way of exploring our potential.
  • One way of exploring concepts is to "turn" people into them within a virtual world. The emotion of turning people into concepts makes them more interesting because of narcism. Things are naturally more interesting when we become them.
  • When someone learns to improvise on the piano their limbs can solve harmonic problems faster than they can think about them. Their body is performing extraordinary calculations and actually engaged in complex abstract problem solving. This isn't just physical response/athleticism.
  • Somatic intelligence is likely an existing capacity in our brain but it has not been activated yet.
  • A user interface is a voyage of discovery about what people can do and who they can be.
  • There are parts of the brain (human potential) that are under-utilized and user interfaces can help us explore them.

Networks & Economics

  • As a society, we expected a vast creation of wealth and liberty for people with the advent of computer networks.
  • In finance, computer networks were expected to reduce risk but the exact opposite has happened. There is such a strong belief that we must be reducing risk that people can't let go of the idea the exact opposite is happening.
  • In Silicon Valley we seem to have fallen into a similar situation. We are certain we're doing great things for the World but the results have been mixed. Wherever there is a middle class, they have been hurt since the advent of computer networks. That shouldn't be happening we should be creating more wealth for the middle class.
  • Personal computers originally did create new wealth for people by giving them access to data and new ways to manage it.
  • At some point we made a choice to give people computing power but hold on to their data. We then use that data now to serve "advertising" to people.
  • If you don't have advertising to romanticize things, the market does not grow fast enough. But this isn't the kind of advertising that's taking over computer networks today.
  • Silicon Valley's version of advertising is an allocator of information. It's not romanticizing products & services. It's really gate keeping.
  • Paying people get privileged access to connections. Everything else is given away but the core data used to run the gates is locked away. That's were the value is: in the giant Web of secret correlations.
  • When you use computer networking to empower yourself like this, it is so powerful you end up negatively impacting the ultimate wealth you could create.
  • Walmart was the real innovator of this model. They used computer networking to see data from around the World about their suppliers, stores, etc. to reduce prices. But saving people money is not the same as making them money. Walmart saves people money in the short term but long term they impact wealth making opportunities.
  • As the middle class dips, you start to see a U shape. Companies all want to be in the upper right of that shape as that's where the margins are highest. Even Walmart is moving there with an increased focus on higher end goods.
  • When people use computer networking to gain information and make things cheap, this is a losing game fro everybody. It is not sustainable.
  • Google did the same thing Walmart did. They pushed the costs of video, music, content, etc. down to zero. As you monetize less and less, you trade revenues off for intangibles (like reputation). In exchange Google uses all the data they collect to sell information to their paying customers.
  • Google and Facebook should be causing their own customers to get richer and pushing more things to be monetized. Instead, they are fighting for the same advertising dollars.
  • The first articulation of the Internet's architecture was from ted Nelson 50 years ago. He proposed a universal store that allowed people to pay into the Internet because they thought they would be payed out. If people expect to get money out, they'll put money in.
  • A whole bunch of jobs are going to go away as things become digital. The old argument was that as we lose these jobs, we'll create more cerebral jobs (engineering & design). This was fine until we got into the business of de-monetizing everything in exchange for access to data.