Jaron Lanier, a Microsoft Research architect and scholar, wrote in the 10th anniversary issue of The Chronicle Review, as follows:

“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.”

As if that were not bad enough, he goes on to say: “This shift has palpable consequences. For one thing, power accrues to the proprietors of the central nodes on the global computer.”

This requires a response.

First, I belong to Facebook. I communicate with persons I have met in reality and persons I have never met and may never meet in real life. I imagine that this is the experience of millions of Facebookers. I do not feel that this experience is anti-human. It might be that Mr. Lanier himself has experienced device exhaustion. Clearly, he is annoyed by students who text during his lectures. When he asked them to stop, they cheered. That is a matter of protocol and discipline, just like turning off your cell phone inside a theater during a performance.

The incessant global communication of the young might be addictive, an electronic drug, like people listening to music everywhere they go, but it is not dehumanizing. It is probably less dangerous than actual drug use.

The idea that information is a “free-standing” substance also needs to be challenged. In 1950, the English mathematician Alan Turing proposed a test, in which a human judge engages in a text-screen conversation with one human and one machine, each of which tries to appear human. All participants are placed in isolated locations. If the judge cannot reliably tell the machine from the human, the machine is said to have passed the test. According to Wikipedia, no machine has convincingly passed the test. This does not mean we cannot be fooled by artificial voices, that many of us are accustomed to dealing with. Computer programs can defeat humans at games like chess or checkers. So can animals. One casino features hens that play checkers with their beaks. The casino offers a prize of $10,000 to a human that can beat the fowl, which never seems to happen.

The more we use computers, the less mysterious they seem; not because we necessarily understand them in any great detail, but because we work with them all the time and we experience their failures, such as when they crash.

The idea that we are being sucked into a global computer might furrow some eyebrows. There is no question that programmers who design the software establish to parameters of content use. In a sense, we work for them and they become very rich. Still, we are aware that we are using a program. We are delighted when it works, and frustrated when it does not and we require technical support at 2AM.

From the beginning of the machine age men have feared the machine, their own invention. Remember William Blake’s phrase “dark Satanic mills”? Or the fundamentalist preachers who railed that if “God had meant men to fly, he would have given him wings? Or HAL, the central computer threatening the space ship’s human crew in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey? Remember the great dystopian novels of the 20th Century, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World being a prime example.

We fear our inventions because of their power and because we fear they might come from a dark side of our being—such as the Roman god Vulcan, who forged weapons deep beneath a mountain. Not so much labor-saving devices like the washing machine, but the big stuff like supercomputers and weapons systems that can annihilate us. We might despair over the amount of information gathered about our activities and choices on the Internet. Such information does not dehumanize us; it might embarrass us. We might despair the number of fraudulent or deceptive emails that get sorted into our junk folders—I do. But crime is all too human, is it not?

We accumulate toys, tools, devices. They don’t always make us happy. They make us productive and keep us busy. We could live without them but choose not to. We might approve of retro designs, still, we would not willingly surrender our fancy toys with computer chips for older models. A few photographers might still work in film for artistic purposes, but even they own digital cameras for everyday use.

I will point out two things that dehumanize us: rejection by society, and dull, repetitive labor. Humans are social animals, and when we are shunned, ostracized or ignored, we shrink within ourselves. We feel less than human. We have so much to give, but who wants it? In Facebook, we might accumulate many so-called “friends.” They might not be real friends, but as human contacts, they are no further away then an email “Hello.” Rejection is painful, no question about it. Unplugging from the world of online socializing, however, cannot solve our social problems in real life apart from the Net.

Repetitive labor wears us out, wears us down, whether at the keyboard or with a pick and shovel. It dulls and confines our imagination; we become extensions of our tools. At the end of the working day, we are too tired to do much of anything creative or interesting. We eat, sleep, make love maybe, are roused by the alarm in the morning to face another day. People often act like robots, talk like robots, are mistaken for recorded messages in the office world. But we are not robots, and opening a creative channel to someone somewhere, even for five minutes, revives us.

I will mention one thing that annoys me about social sites like Facebook and Linkedin: When people you have known previously, notably via the Web, ask you to join their network or ask to join yours, and once you comply, your prior communication with them is now renewed. You send them a friendly email, and receive silence in return. That person wanted you as a link in their chain, and that’s it.

Frankly, I don’t think Jaron Lanier has suffered enough to write convincingly about human degradation. Maybe he has glimpsed computer hell, lived there awhile. He is writing in a minor key about too much of a good thing, too much computer “cream pie.” Too many “tasty” toys. He is not laboring down there with Vulcan. He is not talking about men working like ants, toiling in a mine, carrying out treasure on their backs. Or filling out the same computer form day after day, week after week….I could tell you about that.

By Hudson Owen. All Rights Reserved.