On Jaron Lanier: Is our Reality Binary?

Yes or no? Right or wrong.

Depending upon your viewpoint, the world is either black and white or a varying shade of gray. As I watch great thinkers like noted futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil apply themselves to endeavors that attempt to expand what we think of as reality, I can’t help but wonder if there’s an alternative way to look at these possibilities. Maybe I’m just not hip enough, but when people start talking about resurrection in a digital medium, I put my hand on my wallet. If I told you I was bringing my dead grandfather back to life, you’d look at me like I was crazy, perhaps rightfully so. However, when Ray Kurzweil says he’s going to bring his dead father back to life on ABC news, many listen with rapt attention. Are we just a collection of memories, and can we reduce humanity to a series of flickering lights and nodes? Maybe, but, at least for the sake of argument, let’s consider another viewpoint.

In Kurzweil’s world, talking to your dead ancestors is as simple as loading as much information as you can about their life into a computer and querying a database as thought. Maybe that’s all we do as humans, collecting records as memories to file those views away in an archive we call our minds. On the other hand, this black and white view of the world isn’t the only one. Whereas one view of the world is decidedly boolean, there is another, perhaps, more nuanced view championed by Jaron Lanier of virtual reality fame. As one of the very early pioneers of cyberspace, Jaron has a special position similar to Richard Stallman and no less avant garde. If Ray Kurzweil views the world through binary lenses then it would be fair to say that Jaron is looking through a kaleidoscope. Kurzweil’s fundamental premise is that the world can be broken down into 0′s and 1′s, whereas Jaron Lanier isn’t so certain. I’d argue that this is the crux of the debate in the futurist set at the moment: is our world reducible into a series of yes or no questions? Let’s briefly examine these two positions:

The case for dichotomy

The world can be broken up into an increasingly complex series of yes or no questions. The roundness of a circle is a set of numbers which can be determined and expressed by gates that are either on or off. The color of a sunset is a shade that looks like #800080 or maybe #FFA500, depending on the angle. The world is so much easier to think of, so much easier to conceive of, if it is in fact a series of binary equations. Certainty, or assumed certainty, is all that is necessary to move forward.

The case for ambiguity

The world cannot be broken up into an increasingly complex series of yes or no questions. The round circles we create, how ever accurate they might be when compared with their physical relatives, are just that: creations. The opposing viewpoint is that music is not binary, that a sunset is not simply an array of switches, and that a sparrow beating against the wind is not an algorithm. Which is the more romanticized viewpoint I wonder?

The Singularity

When I reread my two cases for the approaches to these problems, I’m left with the feeling that the latter case, the one for ambiguity is the one less anchored to reason. Yet, it is the former case that preaches the eventual catastrophic event our cadre has named “the singularity”. According to some folks (most notably Mr. Kurzweil), the world will change in a messianic fashion when computers learn to write recursively improving programs. That is to say, if reality is reducible to 0′s and 1′s, then at some point the computing technology we develop will learn to write those 0′s and 1′s itself. At the point these computers become self-improving, the world will change so quickly and so fundamentally that we should not know what the world was like before it. The gist is that a self-improving computer will improve faster than humans could improve it once it is freed from the limitations of the human mind. The best part of this idea is that all of this change will happen in our lifetimes, either 2020 or 2045, depending on who you ask.

*WHEW*, glad to have gotten through that. It’s quite a thought to chew on. If reality is 0′s and 1′s, or, rather, if reality is approximate to 0′s and 1′s, then some day computers may comprehend and manipulate the threads of fate. Others argue that not everything is simply an on or off switch. Jaron Lanier gives the example of MIDI when discussing this topic recently. Just listen to his prose on the subject:

“MIDI,” Lanier wrote, of the digitizing program that chops up music into one-zero binaries for transmission, “was conceived from a keyboard player’s point of view…digital patterns that represented keyboard events like ‘key-down’ and ‘key-up.’ That meant it could not describe the curvy, transient expressions a singer or a saxophone note could produce. It could only describe the tile mosaic world of the keyboardist, not the watercolor world of the violin.”

MIDI represents music from the position of the keyboard player, a binary view of musicality. Keys are either raised, or depressed, never in-between. Contrasting this with the violin, where many musicians will debate the quality of a particular note incessantly (not that the note was hit correctly, but the way it was hit). One can argue that the approximation is enough, but that’s just it: all we’re left with is an approximation and however accurate they become, we’re still not replacing reality.

My point is not that either of these viewpoints are necessarily wrong. Rather, we don’t know which one is correct yet and it would be a shame to make a broad assumption which negatively impacts research into alternative methods of computing, alternative views of culture. To believe that reality is only 0′s and 1′s is scary, and it might be correct, but assuming it’s correct at this early juncture is hubris at best.

Besides, does anyone really want to surrender to Skynet at this early date?