Jaron Lanier is one of America’s leading thinkers, famous as the father of artificial intelligence and as a critic of social media. Lanier featured in Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, delivering a powerful critique on how the drive to digital is reshaping – for worse, not better – society, democracy and our mental health.
Based in Berkeley, California, Lanier works for Microsoft’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer as its prime unifying scientist (Octopus). He’s the author of You Are Not A Gadget and Who Owns the Future. Outside work, he composes classical music and collects rare musical instruments
YOU’VE BEEN QUOTED COMPARING TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCE TO CLIMATE CHANGE AS FUTURE UNKNOWNS. DO YOU STILL FEEL BOTH ARE UNCERTAIN?
To not be concerned about climate change would be insanity; there’s a lot less uncertainty about it now. We’ve seen many climate models validated by events – unfortunately so. When you’re testing scientific theories, uncertainty decreases. That’s happening in this case.
IS TECHNOLOGY A PROBLEM FOR, OR A SOLUTION TO, CLIMATE CHANGE?
The priority has to be to reduce harm from my own profession, computer science. We must ensure that computing has a carbon budget and finds ways to reduce its carbon footprint to pay for that.
Computation can reduce the carbon footprint by improving how we co-ordinate and understand things. It can improve our efficiency.
To meet world demand for computation, we create large computer centres with very large battery capacity. We can use that capacity to create large-scale electrical storage for renewable energy. We can get dual use from large computer facilities.
Environmentalists will say that’s a marginal thing. And they’re correct. It is small, against the big picture. The bigger picture, where I have a duty to engage, is with how the culture of technology confronts climate change.
It’s humanly impossible for us not to bring our own peccadilloes or perspectives and concerns to the climate problem. Someone interested in climate justice may think social justice and climate change are the same problem. And there is a striking relationship – but you can’t conflate them to be the same problem.
Meanwhile an Ayn Rand-style worshipper of tech entrepreneurs – and there are many – will say we just need to unleash technologies to fix our climate, that it’s those bad government regulators and weird liberals that get in the way. That’s also wrong.
To address climate change requires an imperfect, awkward mix of different approaches – and the ability, to some degree, to step back from our idealisms.
HOW DO WE STEP BACK?
Some people feel there should be technological fixes – like carbon capture. Others say we all need to change our lifestyles, change the structure of society and everything else to survive. Others still believe everything is now hopeless. The answer has to be some combination in between.
The problem is, we live in a narcissistic age. We are driven by social media, by demographics, by power imbalances. In this narcissistic age, it’s hard to accept that others might have a point. I do think we need technological fixes – but to live by and count on them is also foolish.
That’s the least popular position – you’re displeasing everybody. But to me, it seems plainly the correct one.
ON A SCALE OF ONE TO TEN – ONE BEING TO MAKE BETTER PERSONAL CHOICES, TEN BEING TO PRESS BUSINESSES AND GOVERNMENT TO STEP UP – WHERE DO YOU STAND?
Wow – that’s difficult. Not everyone’s the same. But I’ve only been on a plane once, for a short flight, since the pandemic. I feel very strongly that I want to reduce my carbon footprint. That I can get by using this thing we call the internet.
There are many bad uses of the internet, but this is a very good one. Thirty years ago, one argument for developing the internet was that it would help us to travel less and to reduce our own carbon footprint.
Personal responsibility is great and it’s plausible for many of us. But if I was an engineer with a special talent for making windmills more efficient, I might need to fly around to do that, because, on balance, that would make things better.
I hesitate to say this – there’s so much narcissism in the world of tech culture that many people will say, “Oh I’m important enough; it must be worth it.” The formula should probably favour air travel for a small number of people. But then I don’t have a sick relative living in another city. Other circumstances can make that a difficult decision.
But if we recognise ways to reduce our carbon footprint, we should. Reducing your air travel is one obvious thing.
ARE YOU AN ENVIRONMENTALIST?
I’ve never made any public declaration. I’m a computer scientist and comment from that perspective. I think everyone should be an environmentalist if you care about the future of humanity. But I’d reserve that word for people who’ve devoted themselves to a level of study I haven’t achieved. So for now, I won’t make such a declaration.
IF SPENDING LESS TIME ON SOCIAL MEDIA CUTS OUR CARBON FOOTPRINT, SHOULD WE TUNE OUT AND TURN OFF OUR SOCIALS TO SAVE THE PLANET?
Social media isn’t all bad. I like the silly dances on Tik Tok. The bad part is the algorithm-driven cynicism and dread; countries’ psychological operations trying to destabilise other countries. That’s an ever-bigger problem.
But the business plan of social media is a general willingness to allow the worst of human nature. To carve out the part of social media that’s positive would account for a tiny, tiny portion of the carbon footprint of social media overall, compared to giant amounts of crap.
If you run YouTube recommendations with no prior knowledge of who you are – if the Cloud cannot identify you – the recommendations move towards the weird, paranoid, dark stuff.
There is excellent educational material on YouTube – fantastic information about climate science – but for every good video there’s a bunch of weird conspiracy theories. There’s a preponderance of the ugly stuff.
So in terms of Cloud energy and carbon footprint, the good stuff takes up a lot less than the bad stuff. And if there was some way to reduce the bad stuff, we’d vastly reduce social media’s carbon footprint.
WHICH TECH SUPPORTS A GREENER, MORE STUSTAINABLE FUTURE AND WHICH SHOULD WE QUESTION?
There are big issues with the carbon footprint of computation. Where did the materials come from? How are they mined? Will that still be tenable; are we running into limits that will be painful? Another is where we source the energy to run it. A third is, is computation improving our actions in the world?
All a computer can do is improve human actions. Can it help you to do things that make more sense, or that you enjoy more? And so the fourth question is, does computation on a global scale pay for itself in terms of carbon and future sustainability? But then with less computation, would the alternatives be worse? That’s where the example of my air travel comes in.
SO IS COMPUTING, REALLY, ONLY ITS POSSIBILITIES – OF BETTER DATA AND BETTER WAYS TO UNDERSTAND THAT DATA TO BETTER MANAGE OUR IMPACTS?
No question. If we didn’t have the internet, we’d know so much less about what’s going on with our climate, for example. But the carbon footprint linked to that aspect of the internet is tiny, compared to the whole.
I suspect, if we compared the online footprint of current climate data to that of online scams, we waste 1,000 times more carbon on inauthentic data.
Computation can more than pay for itself. But does it? That’s a harder question.
Interview by Karen Thomas
This story is published in the November 2023 issue of The Environment magazine
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