Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Avatar Speaks, Says Nerds Are Cool

This post comes to you courtesy of the you-can't-be-in-two-places-at-once department.

Computer visionary Jaron Lanier speaks at The Hill School.
As some of you may have guessed, I spent Thursday evening in the company of the Pottstown School Board and a number of residents, most of whom were there to advocate for the continued operation of both Rupert and Edgewood Elementatry Schools.

This is the meat and potatoes of local news and we were all over it.

However, niggling at the edge of my concentration was the knowledge that at the same time, Jaron Lanier, an unconventional thinker if ever there was one, was dazzling the audience at The Hill School with deep thoughts on deep subjects.

(In case you haven't guessed, this is where the whole two places thing comes in.)

Unable to be there to cover it, I opened the Digital Notebook vault and combed our vast file of volunteer correspondents and selected the perfect person to ensure this event did not go uncovered.

A former Pottstown School Board member herself, Cathy Skitko understood my dilemma instantly and leaped into action.

She volunteered, as volunteer correspondents are known to do, to not only attend Mr. Lanier's speech, but to provide a write-up and photos as well.

(Some might suspect that Mrs. Skitko's day job, she is the communications director for The Hill School, might have played a role in her willingness to undertake this mission for the Digital Notebook's vast and hungry audience -- both of you -- but we know better. She's just a good egg.)

Anyway, motives aside, please find below, only slightly altered, the write-up she sent by way of proving that while the laws of physics, reasonableness and the universe prevent me from being in two places at the same time, that does not mean you have to suffer for it dear reader.

Jaron Lanier, Renaissance man and Microsoft computer scientist, speaks at The Hill School

POTTSTOWN, PA -  Jaron Lanier, (bio of Lanier) , introduced by Patrick Carmody,  Hill ’13, as a Renaissance man and as one of Time magazine’s “100 most influential people in the world” in 2010, spoke to Hill students, faculty, and community guests on Thursday, Feb. 16 in The Hill School’s Center For The Arts in a free-flowing presentation that touched upon world history, human rights, and contemporary culture – all with an emphasis on the impact of technology on the lives of ordinary people.
 (Blogger's Note: Wow! That was ONE long sentence, and take it from me, I KNOW a long sentence, having been the author of many.)

The event was free and open to the public.  

Lanier, 51, a computer architect for Microsoft and a self-described “nerd,” urged the audience not to be passive about their use of computer networks such as Facebook.  Even while encouraging caution regarding sharing information online, he noted, in a spirit of full disclosure, “The more you put on [Facebook], the more money I make.”  

A few of the observations and historical reflections shared by Lanier included the following: 
Lanier speaks to students at The Hill.

  •  Karl Marx, whose career including writing about the technology of the day, first raised concerns about what would happen to society when machines became so good at achieving key tasks that people could, in some cases, become obsolete.
  • A short story, “The Machine Stops,” written by E.M. Forster in 1907 (, in many ways describes the Internet as we know it today, including Facebook and its social networking phenomenon. 
  • Alan Turing (, a British mathematician and computer scientist, was the “hacker” who broke the Nazi’s secret code and “probably saved many, many lives and cities.”  He also, Lanier said, happened to be gay, during a time when it was illegal to be homosexual.  As an alternative to prison, he was forced to endure injections of massive doses of female hormones, as it was believed that this treatment would remedy his “condition.”  Turing became extremely depressed and committed suicide.  Lanier pointed out that Turing “was a hero” in Britain’s fight against the oppression of the Nazis – monsters who felt they were superior to people who were different from them – but Turing was, in turn, also persecuted for being different from other people.  
  Later in his talk, Lanier vaguely alluded to the awful irony of Turing’s situation, urging his audience not to be afraid to be different – whether that “difference” involves being a “nerd,” or having the fortitude to defy social pressure to do drugs.   “I don’t use drugs and I never have,” he said, noting, “I really felt that [doing drugs] was a dead end, in which people make themselves less powerful.”

Similarly, he continued, “I feel the same way about Facebook:  It’s scary to see everybody trying and wanting to do the same thing – which means that people are not thinking for themselves.  This really concerns me.” 

   Lanier urged the Hill students to shut off their computers and take a break – especially when they are feeling some bizarre compulsion to update their Facebook statuses or check on “friends.” 

nLanier also warned students about the reality of advertising that appears on Facebook – and how cyber information provided through searches and postings is collected by software gurus (like Lanier) in order to present targeted advertising to Facebook users.   “I want you to be skeptical,” he said. 

Lanier complemented the Hill students, with whom he had met throughout the day in smaller group sessions.  “Watching you makes me feel very optimistic,” he said.  

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