His hair twisted in dreadlocks down to his waist, dressed in over-sized black shirt and trousers, and wearing flip-flops, Jaron Lanier cuts an unlikely figure on stage, says Yeoh Siew Hoon.
Speaking at Beyond 2005: The Creative Summit for Global Industries, held this month in Singapore, Lanier comes across clearly as a man who doesn’t give two hoots about conventionality.
In fact, he says, “the world would be a scary place if it were just made up of people like me”.
People like him means a high-school dropout – the last line in his bio says “Jaron has no academic degrees” – who’s now regarded as one of the best minds in the business of technology and future thinking.
Futurist Paul Saffo, director for the Institute For The Future, describes Lanier as ““one of the most prominent, deep thinkers”.
“As brilliant as Jaron is, we only have a vague glimpse that there's somebody very special in our midst. This is an intelligence that comes once in a generation. It's not an exaggeration to say it's a little bit like meeting a Mozart,” writes Saffo.
According to Lanier, if we want to foster a more creative society, we need to look harder at how we are engaging with adolescents – “the period in life when people are forming values and creating their own strategies for living – when you become who you will be”.
‘If the status system for adolescents is one that rewards conformity and rejects eccentricity and weirdness and idiosyncrasies, then people are unlikely to grow up to become creative,” he said.
In other words, there must be many ways for people to feel successful. “If you live in a society in which there is only one criteria for success – your place in the hierarchy – it’s not going to be a creative society.
“Creativity means sometimes taking stupid risks and failing sometimes – there is an element of risk and irrationality. That means if you do something stupid, there should be some people who think you’re cool.
“And if you fail, you will survive – society must allow that.”
Lanier also spoke of the two types of technology – the good that fosters creativity and the bad for eg, the package video game which, within its own simulated world, sets a single criteria for success and hence a narrow definition of success.
In contrast, there are the online virtual games such as Second Life where designers have created an empty platter and people are invited to come in and build their own worlds. “People are now trading virtual elements in this world and a new form of currency exists, and people are making real money from this virtual world.”
He said that in the history of digital technology, there is a conflict between two ideologies – whether you see your computer as an intelligent robot or a lifeless tool that helps you do your work – and any product design can be traced back to these two schools.
Lanier is of the belief that computers should foster creativity in humans and not dumb us down.
He cites the chess game when the IBM computer, Deep Blue, defeated Gary Kasparov. “That was the turning point in chess – it changed the social perceptions of chess champions. Chess was as much about the mind games between competitors as it was about the moves. With Deep Blue, chess was redefined and it became all about the moves.
“We made ourselves look stupid to make machines look smart.”
Lanier also spoke of the role of creativity in saving the world.
“Some ancient civilizations died out when they became victims of their own successes. In every case, both technological creativity and cultural creativity weren’t just fashionable but necessary to survival. This process continues today.”
He spoke of the six perils that are facing our world – nuclear weapons, new diseases, bio-terrorism, fresh water supply, climate change and fossil fuel.
“The perils have always been there but what’s changed is the power is in the hands of a few people to wreak maximum damage. That’s new and we have to work harder and faster to survive.
“In the past, the role of both the engineers and scientists was clearly defined while the role of the artists was not as easy to define.
“Now the three roles are newly united. The new mission is for us to be sufficiently inspiring, to create sufficient beauty and sufficient possibilities, to seduce people away from mass suicide.”
There was no doubt that Lanier was “sufficiently inspiring”. He had the audience in his hand for a full 60 minutes. That’s worthy of a Mozart indeed.
Yeoh Siew Hoon's column, Mile High Thoughts, and more appear on “Mile High” at www.shy-connection.com
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About Yeoh Siew Hoon
SHY may be her initials, but YSH is not SHY by nature.
Siew Hoon is one of Asia’s most respected travel editors and commentators. She’s covered the travel industry for more than two decades and knows the ins and outs of the travel business, probably better than anyone else. In fact, chances are if you work in the travel business, she probably knows more about you than you yourself.
She’s lived and loved in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore, where she now resides. After a 25-year career in travel trade publishing, during which she edited, launched and relaunched several publications, she decided to become a solo warrior.