The following is a conversation with Jaron Lanier,
a computer scientist, visual artist, philosopher,
writer, futurist, musician,
and the founder of the field of virtual reality.
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As a side note,
you may know that Jaron is a staunch critic
of social media platforms.
Him and I agree on many aspects of this,
except perhaps I am more optimistic
about it being possible to build better platforms.
And better artificial intelligence systems
that put longterm interests
and happiness of human beings first.
Let me also say a general comment about these conversations.
I try to make sure I prepare well,
remove my ego from the picture,
and focus on making the other person shine
as we try to explore the most beautiful
and insightful ideas in their mind.
This can be challenging
when the ideas that are close to my heart
are being criticized.
In those cases, I do offer a little pushback,
but respectfully, and then move on,
trying to have the other person come out
looking wiser in the exchange.
I think there’s no such thing as winning in conversations,
nor in life.
My goal is to learn and to have fun.
I ask that you don’t see my approach
to these conversations as weakness.
It is not.
It is my attempt at showing respect
and love for the other person.
That said, I also often just do a bad job of talking,
but you probably already knew that.
So please give me a pass on that as well.
This is the Lex Friedman Podcast,
and here is my conversation with Jaron Lanier.
You’re considered the founding father of virtual reality.
Do you think we will one day spend most
or all of our lives in virtual reality worlds?
I have always found the very most valuable moment
in virtual reality to be the moment
when you take off the headset and your senses are refreshed
and you perceive physicality afresh,
as if you were a newborn baby,
but with a little more experience.
So you can really notice just how incredibly strange
and delicate and peculiar and impossible the real world is.
So the magic is, and perhaps forever will be
in the physical world.
Well, that’s my take on it.
That’s just me.
I mean, I think I don’t get to tell everybody else
how to think or how to experience virtual reality.
And at this point, there have been multiple generations
of younger people who’ve come along and liberated me
from having to worry about these things.
But I should say also even in what some,
well, I called it mixed reality,
back in the day, and these days it’s called
augmented reality, but with something like a HoloLens,
even then, like one of my favorite things
is to augment a forest, not because I think the forest
needs augmentation, but when you look at the augmentation
next to a real tree, the real tree just pops out
as being astounding, it’s interactive,
it’s changing slightly all the time if you pay attention,
and it’s hard to pay attention to that,
but when you compare it to virtual reality,
all of a sudden you do.
And even in practical applications,
my favorite early application of virtual reality,
which we prototyped going back to the 80s
when I was working with Dr. Joe Rosen at Stanford Med
near where we are now, we made the first surgical simulator.
And to go from the fake anatomy of the simulation,
which is incredibly valuable for many things,
for designing procedures, for training,
for all kinds of things, then to go to the real world
is then to go to the real person,
boy, it’s really something like surgeons
really get woken up by that transition, it’s very cool.
So I think the transition is actually more valuable
than the simulation.
That’s fascinating, I never really thought about that.
It’s almost, it’s like traveling elsewhere
in the physical space can help you appreciate
how much you value your home once you return.
Well, that’s how I take it.
I mean, once again, people have different attitudes
towards it, all are welcome.
What do you think is the difference
between the virtual world and the physical meat space world
that you are still drawn, for you personally,
still drawn to the physical world?
Like there clearly then is a distinction.
Is there some fundamental distinction
or is it the peculiarities of the current set of technology?
In terms of the kind of virtual reality that we have now,
it’s made of software and software is terrible stuff.
Software is always the slave of its own history,
its own legacy.
It’s always infinitely arbitrarily messy and arbitrary.
Working with it brings out a certain kind
of nerdy personality in people, or at least in me,
which I’m not that fond of.
And there are all kinds of things about software
I don’t like.
And so that’s different from the physical world.
It’s not something we understand, as you just pointed out.
On the other hand, I’m a little mystified
when people ask me, well,
do you think the universe is a computer?
And I have to say, well, I mean,
what on earth could you possibly mean
if you say it isn’t a computer?
If it isn’t a computer,
it wouldn’t follow principles consistently
and it wouldn’t be intelligible
because what else is a computer ultimately?
I mean, and we have physics, we have technology,
so we can do technology so we can program it.
So, I mean, of course it’s some kind of computer,
but I think trying to understand it as a Turing machine
is probably a foolish approach.
Right, that’s the question, whether it performs,
this computer we call the universe,
performs the kind of computation that can be modeled
as a universal Turing machine,
or is it something much more fancy,
so fancy, in fact, that it may be
beyond our cognitive capabilities to understand?
Turing machines are kind of,
I call them teases in a way,
because if you have an infinitely smart programmer
with an infinite amount of time,
an infinite amount of memory,
and an infinite clock speed, then they’re universal,
but that cannot exist.
So they’re not universal in practice.
And they actually are, in practice,
a very particular sort of machine within the constraints,
within the conservation principles of any reality
that’s worth being in, probably.
And so I think universality of a particular model
is probably a deceptive way to think,
even though at some sort of limit,
of course something like that’s gotta be true
at some sort of high enough limit,
but it’s just not accessible to us, so what’s the point?
Well, to me, the question of whether we’re living
inside a computer or a simulation
is interesting in the following way.
There’s a technical question that’s here.
How difficult is it to build a machine,
not that simulates the universe,
but that makes it sufficiently realistic
that we wouldn’t know the difference,
or better yet, sufficiently realistic
that we would kinda know the difference,
but we would prefer to stay in the virtual world anyway?
I wanna give you a few different answers.
I wanna give you the one that I think
has the most practical importance
to human beings right now,
which is that there’s a kind of an assertion
sort of built into the way the questions usually asked
that I think is false, which is a suggestion
that people have a fixed level of ability
to perceive reality in a given way.
And actually, people are always learning,
evolving, forming themselves.
We’re fluid, too.
We’re also programmable, self programmable,
And so my favorite way to get at this
is to talk about the history of other media.
So for instance, there was a peer review paper
that showed that an early wire recorder
playing back an opera singer behind a curtain
was indistinguishable from a real opera singer.
And so now, of course, to us,
it would not only be distinguishable,
but it would be very blatant
because the recording would be horrible.
But to the people at the time,
without the experience of it, it seemed plausible.
There was an early demonstration
of extremely crude video teleconferencing
between New York and DC in the 30s, I think so,
that people viewed as being absolutely realistic
and indistinguishable, which to us would be horrible.
And there are many other examples.
Another one, one of my favorite ones,
is in the Civil War era,
there were itinerant photographers
who collected photographs of people
who just looked kind of like a few archetypes.
So you could buy a photo of somebody
who looked kind of like your loved one
to remind you of that person
because actually photographing them was inconceivable
and hiring a painter was too expensive
and you didn’t have any way for the painter
to represent them remotely anyway.
How would they even know what they looked like?
So these are all great examples
of how in the early days of different media,
we perceived the media as being really great,
but then we evolved through the experience of the media.
This gets back to what I was saying.
Maybe the greatest gift of photography
is that we can see the flaws in a photograph
and appreciate reality more.
Maybe the greatest gift of audio recording
is that we can distinguish that opera singer now
from that recording of the opera singer
on the horrible wire recorder.
So we shouldn’t limit ourselves
by some assumption of stasis that’s incorrect.
So that’s the first thing, that’s my first answer,
which is I think the most important one.
Now, of course, somebody might come back and say,
oh, but you know, technology can go so far.
There must be some point at which it would surpass.
That’s a different question.
I think that’s also an interesting question,
but I think the answer I just gave you
is actually the more important answer
to the more important question.
That’s profound, yeah.
But can you, the second question,
which you’re now making me realize is way different.
Is it possible to create worlds
in which people would want to stay
instead of the real world?
Like, en masse, like large numbers of people.
What I hope is, you know, as I said before,
I hope that the experience of virtual worlds
helps people appreciate this physical world we have
and feel tender towards it
and keep it from getting too fucked up.
That’s my hope.
Do you see all technology in that way?
So basically technology helps us appreciate
the more sort of technology free aspect of life.
Well, media technology.
You know, I mean, you can stretch that.
I mean, you can, let me say,
I could definitely play McLuhan
and turn this into a general theory.
It’s totally doable.
The program you just described is totally doable.
In fact, I will psychically predict
that if you did the research,
you could find 20 PhD theses that do that already.
I don’t know, but they might exist.
But I don’t know how much value there is
in pushing a particular idea that far.
Claiming that reality isn’t a computer in some sense
seems incoherent to me because we can program it.
We have technology.
It seems to obey physical laws.
What more do you want from it to be a computer?
I mean, it’s a computer of some kind.
We don’t know exactly what kind.
We might not know how to think about it.
We’re working on it, but.
Sorry to interrupt, but you’re absolutely right.
Like, that’s my fascination with the AI as well,
is it helps, in the case of AI,
I see it as a set of techniques
that help us understand ourselves, understand us humans.
In the same way, virtual reality,
and you’re putting it brilliantly,
which it’s a way to help us understand reality,
appreciate and open our eyes more richly to reality.
That’s certainly how I see it.
And I wish people who become incredibly fascinated,
who go down the rabbit hole of the different fascinations
with whether we’re in a simulation or not,
or, you know, there’s a whole world of variations on that.
I wish they’d step back
and think about their own motivations
and exactly what they mean, you know?
And I think the danger with these things is,
so if you say, is the universe
some kind of computer broadly,
it has to be because it’s not coherent to say that it isn’t.
On the other hand, to say that that means
you know anything about what kind of computer,
that’s something very different.
And the same thing is true for the brain.
The same thing is true for anything
where you might use computational metaphors.
Like, we have to have a bit of modesty about where we stand.
And the problem I have with these framings of computation
is these ultimate cosmic questions
is that it has a way of getting people
to pretend they know more than they do.
Can you maybe, this is a therapy session,
psychoanalyze me for a second.
I really liked the Elder Scrolls series.
It’s a role playing game, Skyrim, for example.
Why do I enjoy so deeply just walking around that world?
And then there’s people and you could talk to
and you can just like, it’s an escape.
But you know, my life is awesome.
I’m truly happy, but I also am happy
with the music that’s playing in the mountains
and carrying around a sword and just that.
I don’t know what that is.
It’s very pleasant though to go there.
And I miss it sometimes.
I think it’s wonderful to love artistic creations.
It’s wonderful to love contact with other people.
It’s wonderful to love play and ongoing evolving
meaning and patterns with other people.
I think it’s a good thing.
I’m not like anti tech
and I’m certainly not anti digital tech.
I’m anti, as everybody knows by now,
I think the manipulative economy of social media
is making everybody nuts and all that.
So I’m anti that stuff.
But the core of it, of course, I worked for many, many years
on trying to make that stuff happen
because I think it can be beautiful.
Like I don’t like, why not?
And by the way, there’s a thing about humans,
which is we’re problematic.
Any kind of social interaction with other people
is gonna have its problems.
People are political and tricky.
And like, I love classical music,
but when you actually go to a classical music thing
and it turns out, oh, actually,
this is like a backroom power deal kind of place
and a big status ritual as well.
And that’s kind of not as fun.
That’s part of the package.
And the thing is, it’s always going to be,
there’s always gonna be a mix of things.
I don’t think the search for purity
is gonna get you anywhere.
So I’m not worried about that.
I worry about the really bad cases
where we’re making ourselves crazy or cruel enough
that we might not survive.
And I think the social media criticism rises to that level,
but I’m glad you enjoy it.
I think it’s great.
And I like that you basically say
that every experience has both beauty and darkness,
as in with classical music.
I also play classical piano, so I appreciate it very much.
But it’s interesting.
I mean, every, and even the darkness,
it’s a man’s search for meaning
with Viktor Frankl in the concentration camps.
Even there, there’s opportunity to discover beauty.
And so that’s the interesting thing about humans,
is the capacity to discover beautiful
in the darkest of moments,
but there’s always the dark parts too.
Well, I mean, it’s our situation is structurally difficult.
We are, no, it is, it’s true.
We perceive socially, we depend on each other
for our sense of place and perception of the world.
I mean, we’re dependent on each other.
And yet there’s also a degree in which we’re inevitably,
we never really let each other down.
We are set up to be competitive as well as supportive.
I mean, it’s just our fundamental situation
is complicated and challenging,
and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Okay, let’s talk about one of the most challenging things.
One of the things I unfortunately am very afraid of
being human, allegedly.
You wrote an essay on death and consciousness
in which you write a note.
Certainly the fear of death
has been one of the greatest driving forces
in the history of thought
and in the formation of the character of civilization.
And yet it is under acknowledged.
The great book on the subject,
The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker
deserves a reconsideration.
I’m Russian, so I have to ask you about this.
What’s the role of death in life?
See, you would have enjoyed coming to our house
because my wife is Russian and we also have,
we have a piano of such spectacular qualities,
you wouldn’t, you would have freaked out.
But anyway, we’ll let all that go.
So the context in which,
I remember that essay sort of,
this was from maybe the 90s or something.
And I used to publish in a journal
called the Journal of Consciousness Studies
because I was interested in these endless debates
about consciousness and science,
which certainly continue today.
And I was interested in how the fear of death
and the denial of death played into
different philosophical approaches to consciousness.
Because I think on the one hand,
the sort of sentimental school of dualism,
meaning the feeling that there’s something
apart from the physical brain,
some kind of soul or something else,
is obviously motivated in a sense
by a hope that whatever that is
will survive death and continue.
And that’s a very core aspect of a lot of the world religions,
not all of them, not really, but most of them.
The thing I noticed is that the opposite of those,
which might be the sort of hardcore,
no, the brain’s a computer and that’s it.
In a sense, we’re motivated in the same way
with a remarkably similar chain of arguments,
which is no, the brain’s a computer
and I’m gonna figure it out in my lifetime
and upload myself and I’ll live forever.
Yeah, that’s like the implied thought, right?
Yeah, and so it’s kind of this,
in a funny way, it’s the same thing.
It’s peculiar to notice that these people
who would appear to be opposites in character
and cultural references and in their ideas
actually are remarkably similar.
And to an incredible degree,
this sort of hardcore computationalist idea
about the brain has turned into medieval Christianity
with together, like there’s the people who are afraid
that if you have the wrong thought,
you’ll piss off the super AIs of the future
who will come back and zap you and all that stuff.
It’s really turned into medieval Christianity
all over again.
This is so the Ernest Becker’s idea that death,
the fear of death is the warm at the core,
which is like, that’s the core motivator
of everything we see humans have created.
The question is if that fear of mortality is somehow core,
is like a prerequisite to consciousness.
You just moved across this vast cultural chasm
that separates me from most of my colleagues in a way.
And I can’t answer what you just said on the level
without this huge deconstruction.
Should I do it?
Yes, what’s the chasm?
Let us travel across this vast chasm.
Okay, I don’t believe in AI.
I don’t think there’s any AI.
There’s just algorithms, we make them, we control them.
Now, they’re tools, they’re not creatures.
Now, this is something that robs a lot of people,
the wrong way, and don’t I know it.
When I was young, my main mentor was Marvin Minsky,
who’s the principal author of the computer
as creature rhetoric that we still use.
He was the first person to have the idea at all,
but he certainly populated AI culture
with most of its tropes, I would say,
because a lot of the people will say,
oh, did you hear this new idea about AI?
And I’m like, yeah, I heard it in 1978.
Sure, yeah, I remember that.
So Marvin was really the person.
And Marvin and I used to argue all the time about this stuff
because I always rejected it.
And of all of his,
of all of his, I wasn’t formally his student,
but I worked for him as a researcher,
but of all of his students and student like people
of his young adoptees,
I think I was the one who argued with him
about this stuff in particular, and he loved it.
Yeah, I would have loved to hear that conversation.
It was fun.
Did you ever converse to a place?
Oh, no, no.
So the very last time I saw him, he was quite frail.
And I was in Boston, and I was going to the old house
in Brookline, his amazing house.
And one of our mutual friends said,
hey, listen, Marvin’s so frail.
Don’t do the argument with him.
Don’t argue about AI, you know?
And so I said, but Marvin loves that.
And so I showed up, and he’s like, he was frail.
He looked up and he said, are you ready to argue?
He’s such an amazing person for that.
So it’s hard to summarize this
because it’s decades of stuff.
The first thing to say is that nobody can claim
absolute knowledge about whether somebody
or something else is conscious or not.
This is all a matter of faith.
And in fact, I think the whole idea of faith
needs to be updated.
So it’s not about God,
but it’s just about stuff in the universe.
We have faith in each other, being conscious.
And then I used to frame this
as a thing called the circle of empathy in my old papers.
And then it turned into a thing
for the animal rights movement too.
I noticed Peter Singer using it.
I don’t know if it was coincident or,
but anyway, there’s this idea
that you draw a circle around yourself
and the stuff inside is more like you,
might be conscious, might be deserving of your empathy,
of your consideration,
and the stuff outside the circle isn’t.
And outside the circle might be a rock or,
I don’t know.
And that circle is fundamentally based on faith.
Well, if you don’t know it.
Your faith in what is and what isn’t.
The thing about this circle is it can’t be pure faith.
It’s also a pragmatic decision
and this is where things get complicated.
If you try to make it too big,
you suffer from incompetence.
If you say, I don’t wanna kill a bacteria,
I will not brush my teeth.
I don’t know, like, what do you do?
Like, there’s a competence question
where you do have to draw the line.
People who make it too small become cruel.
People are so clannish and political
and so worried about themselves ending up
on the bottom of society
that they are always ready to gang up
on some designated group.
And so there’s always these people who are being,
we’re always trying to shove somebody out of the circle.
So aren’t you shoving AI outside the circle?
Well, give me a second.
So there’s a pragmatic consideration here.
And so, and the biggest questions
are probably fetuses and animals lately,
but AI is getting there.
Now with AI, I think,
and I’ve had this discussion so many times.
People say, but aren’t you afraid if you exclude AI,
you’d be cruel to some consciousness?
And then I would say, well, if you include AI,
you make yourself, you exclude yourself
from being able to be a good engineer or designer.
And so you’re facing incompetence immediately.
So like, I really think we need to subordinate algorithms
and be much more skeptical of them.
Your intuition, you speak about this brilliantly
with social media, how things can go wrong.
Isn’t it possible to design systems
that show compassion, not to manipulate you,
but give you control and make your life better
if you so choose to, like grow together with systems.
And the way we grow with dogs and cats, with pets,
with significant others in that way,
they grow to become better people.
I don’t understand why that’s fundamentally not possible.
You’re saying oftentimes you get into trouble
by thinking you know what’s good for people.
Well, look, there’s this question
of what framework we’re speaking in.
Do you know who Alan Watts was?
So Alan Watts once said, morality is like gravity
that in some absolute cosmic sense, there can’t be morality
because at some point it all becomes relative
and who are we anyway?
Like morality is relative to us tiny creatures.
But here on earth, we’re with each other,
this is our frame and morality is a very real thing.
Same thing with gravity.
At some point, you get into interstellar space
and you might not feel much of it, but here we are on earth.
And I think in the same sense,
I think this identification with a frame that’s quite remote
cannot be separated from a feeling of wanting to feel
sort of separate from and superior to other people
or something like that.
There’s an impulse behind it that I really have to reject.
And we’re just not competent yet
to talk about these kinds of absolutes.
Okay, so I agree with you that a lot of technologists
sort of lack this basic respect, understanding
and love for humanity.
There’s a separation there.
The thing I’d like to push back against,
it’s not that you disagree,
but I believe you can create technologies
and you can create a new kind of technologist engineer
that does build systems that respect humanity,
not just respect, but admire humanity,
that have empathy for common humans, have compassion.
I mean, no, no, no.
I think, yeah, I mean, I think musical instruments
are a great example of that.
Musical instruments are technologies
that help people connect in fantastic ways.
And that’s a great example.
My invention or design during the pandemic period
was this thing called together mode
where people see themselves seated sort of
in a classroom or a theater instead of in squares.
And it allows them to semi consciously perform to each other
as if they have proper eye contact,
as if they’re paying attention to each other nonverbally
and weirdly that turns out to work.
And so it promotes empathy so far as I can tell.
I hope it is of some use to somebody.
The AI idea isn’t really new.
I would say it was born with Adam Smith’s invisible hand
with this idea that we build this algorithmic thing
and it gets a bit beyond us
and then we think it must be smarter than us.
And the thing about the invisible hand
is absolutely everybody has some line they draw
where they say, no, no, no,
we’re gonna take control of this thing.
They might have different lines,
they might care about different things,
but everybody ultimately became a Keynesian
because it just didn’t work.
It really wasn’t that smart.
It was sometimes smart and sometimes it failed, you know?
And so if you really, you know,
people who really, really, really wanna believe
in the invisible hand is infinitely smart,
screw up their economies terribly.
You have to recognize the economy as a subservient tool.
Everybody does when it’s to their advantage.
They might not when it’s not to their advantage.
That’s kind of an interesting game that happens.
But the thing is, it’s just like that with our algorithms,
you know, like, you can have a sort of a Chicago,
you know, economic philosophy about your computer.
Say, no, no, no, my things come alive,
it’s smarter than anything.
I think that there is a deep loneliness within all of us.
This is what we seek, we seek love from each other.
I think AI can help us connect deeper.
Like this is what you criticize social media for.
I think there’s much better ways of doing social media
than doing social media that doesn’t lead to manipulation,
but instead leads to deeper connection between humans,
leads to you becoming a better human being.
And what that requires is some agency on the part of AI
to be almost like a therapist, I mean, a companion.
It’s not telling you what’s right.
It’s not guiding you as if it’s an all knowing thing.
It’s just another companion that you can leave at any time.
You have complete transparency control over.
There’s a lot of mechanisms that you can have
that are counter to how current social media operates
that I think is subservient to humans,
or no, deeply respects human beings
and is empathetic to their experience
and all those kinds of things.
I think it’s possible to create AI systems like that.
And I think they, I mean, that’s a technical discussion
of whether they need to have something that looks like more,
something that looks like more like AI versus algorithms,
something that has a identity,
something that has a personality, all those kinds of things.
AI systems, and you’ve spoken extensively
how AI systems manipulate you within social networks.
And that’s the biggest problem,
isn’t necessarily that there’s advertisement
that social networks present you with advertisements
that then get you to buy stuff.
That’s not the biggest problem.
The biggest problem is they then manipulate you.
They alter your human nature to get you to buy stuff
or to get you to do whatever the advertiser wants.
Or maybe you can correct me.
Yeah, I don’t see it quite that way,
but we can work with that as an approximation.
Sure, so my…
I think the actual thing is even sort of more ridiculous
and stupider than that, but that’s okay, let’s…
So my question is, let’s not use the word AI,
but how do we fix it?
Oh, fixing social media,
that diverts us into this whole other field in my view,
which is economics,
which I always thought was really boring,
but we have no choice but to turn into economists
if we wanna fix this problem,
because it’s all about incentives.
But I’ve been around this thing since it started,
and I’ve been in the meetings
where the social media companies sell themselves
to the people who put the most money into them,
which are usually the big advertising holding companies
And there’s this idea that I think is kind of a fiction,
and maybe it’s even been recognized as that by everybody,
that the algorithm will get really good
at getting people to buy something.
Because I think people have looked at their returns
and looked at what happens,
and everybody recognizes it’s not exactly right.
It’s more like a cognitive access blackmail payment
at this point.
Like just to be connected, you’re paying the money.
It’s not so much that the persuasion algorithms…
So Stanford renamed its program,
but it used to be called Engage Persuade.
The engage part works, the persuade part is iffy,
but the thing is that once people are engaged,
in order for you to exist as a business,
in order for you to be known at all,
you have to put money into the…
Oh, that’s dark.
Oh, no, that’s not…
It doesn’t work, but they have to…
But they’re still…
It’s a giant cognitive access blackmail scheme
at this point.
So because the science behind the persuade part,
it’s not entirely a failure,
but it’s not what…
We play make believe that it works more than it does.
The damage doesn’t come…
Honestly, as I’ve said in my books,
I’m not anti advertising.
I actually think advertising can be demeaning
and annoying and banal and ridiculous
and take up a lot of our time with stupid stuff.
Like there’s a lot of ways to criticize advertising
that’s accurate and it can also lie and all kinds of things.
However, if I look at the biggest picture,
I think advertising, at least as it was understood
before social media, helped bring people into modernity
in a way that overall actually did benefit people overall.
And you might say, am I contradicting myself
because I was saying you shouldn’t manipulate people?
Yeah, I am, probably here.
I mean, I’m not pretending to have
this perfect airtight worldview without some contradictions.
I think there’s a bit of a contradiction there, so.
Well, looking at the long arc of history,
advertisement has, in some parts, benefited society
because it funded some efforts that perhaps…
Yeah, I mean, I think like there’s a thing
where sometimes I think it’s actually been of some use.
Now, where the damage comes is a different thing though.
Social media, algorithms on social media
have to work on feedback loops
where they present you with stimulus
and they have to see if you respond to the stimulus.
Now, the problem is that the measurement mechanism
for telling if you respond in the engagement feedback loop
is very, very crude.
It’s things like whether you click more
or occasionally if you’re staring at the screen more
if there’s a forward facing camera that’s activated,
but typically there isn’t.
So you have this incredibly crude back channel of information
and so it’s crude enough that it only catches
sort of the more dramatic responses from you
and those are the fight or flight responses.
Those are the things where you get scared or pissed off
or aggressive or horny.
These are these ancient,
the sort of what are sometimes called the lizard brain
circuits or whatever, these fast response,
old, old, old evolutionary business circuits that we have
that are helpful in survival once in a while
but are not us at our best.
They’re not who we wanna be.
They’re not how we relate to each other.
They’re this old business.
So then just when you’re engaged using those intrinsically
totally aside from whatever the topic is,
you start to get incrementally just a little bit
more paranoid, xenophobic, aggressive.
You get a little stupid and you become a jerk
and it happens slowly.
It’s not like everybody’s instantly transformed,
but it does kind of happen progressively
where people who get hooked kind of get drawn
more and more into this pattern of being at their worst.
Would you say that people are able to,
when they get hooked in this way,
look back at themselves from 30 days ago
and say, I am less happy with who I am now
or I’m not happy with who I am now
versus who I was 30 days ago.
Are they able to self reflect
when you take yourself outside of the lizard brain?
I wrote a book about people suggesting people take a break
from their social media to see what happens
and maybe even, actually the title of the book
was just the arguments to delete your account.
Yeah, 10 arguments.
Although I always said, I don’t know that you should.
I can give you the arguments.
It’s up to you.
I’m always very clear about that.
But you know, I get like,
I don’t have a social media account obviously
and it’s not that easy for people to reach me.
They have to search out an old fashioned email address
on a super crappy antiquated website.
Like it’s actually a bit, I don’t make it easy.
And even with that, I get this huge flood of mail
from people who say, oh, I quit my social media.
I’m doing so much better.
I can’t believe how bad it was.
But the thing is, what’s for me a huge flood of mail
would be an imperceptible trickle
from the perspective of Facebook, right?
And so I think it’s rare for somebody
to look at themselves and say,
oh boy, I sure screwed myself over.
It’s a really hard thing to ask of somebody.
None of us find that easy, right?
It’s just hard.
The reason I asked this is,
is it possible to design social media systems
that optimize for some longer term metrics
of you being happy with yourself?
Well see, I don’t think you should try
to engineer personal growth or happiness.
I think what you should do is design a system
that’s just respectful of the people
and subordinates itself to the people
and doesn’t have perverse incentives.
And then at least there’s a chance
of something decent happening.
You have to recommend stuff, right?
So you’re saying like, be respectful.
What does that actually mean engineering wise?
People have to be responsible.
Algorithms shouldn’t be recommending.
Algorithms don’t understand enough to recommend.
Algorithms are crap in this era.
I mean, I’m sorry, they are.
And I’m not saying this as somebody
as a critic from the outside.
I’m in the middle of it.
I know what they can do.
I know the math.
I know what the corpora are.
I know the best ones.
Our office is funding GPT3 and all these things
that are at the edge of what’s possible.
And they do not have yet.
I mean, it still is statistical emergent pseudo semantics.
It doesn’t actually have deep representation
emerging of anything.
It’s just not like, I mean that I’m speaking the truth here
and you know it.
Well, let me push back on this.
This, there’s several truths here.
So one, you’re speaking to the way
certain companies operate currently.
I don’t think it’s outside the realm
of what’s technically feasible to do.
There’s just not incentive,
like companies are not, why fix this thing?
I am aware that, for example, the YouTube search
and discovery has been very helpful to me.
And there’s a huge number of, there’s so many videos
that it’s nice to have a little bit of help.
But I’m still in control.
Let me ask you something.
Have you done the experiment of letting YouTube
recommend videos to you either starting
from a absolutely anonymous random place
where it doesn’t know who you are
or from knowing who you or somebody else is
and then going 15 or 20 hops?
Have you ever done that and just let it go
top video recommend and then just go 20 hops?
No, I’ve not.
I’ve done that many times now.
I have, because of how large YouTube is
and how widely it’s used,
it’s very hard to get to enough scale
to get a statistically solid result on this.
I’ve done it with high school kids,
with dozens of kids doing it at a time.
Every time I’ve done an experiment,
the majority of times after about 17 or 18 hops,
you end up in really weird, paranoid, bizarre territory.
Because ultimately, that is the stuff
the algorithm rewards the most
because of the feedback crudeness I was just talking about.
So I’m not saying that the video
never recommends something cool.
I’m saying that its fundamental core
is one that promotes a paranoid style
that promotes increasing irritability,
that promotes xenophobia, promotes fear, anger,
promotes selfishness, promotes separation between people.
And the thing is, it’s very hard to do this work solidly.
Many have repeated this experiment
and yet it still is kind of anecdotal.
I’d like to do a large citizen science thing sometime
and do it, but then I think the problem with that
is YouTube would detect it and then change it.
Yes, I love that kind of stuff on Twitter.
So Jack Dorsey has spoken about doing healthy conversations
on Twitter or optimizing for healthy conversations.
What that requires within Twitter
are most likely citizen experiments
of what does healthy conversation actually look like
and how do you incentivize those healthy conversations
you’re describing what often happens
and what is currently happening.
What I’d like to argue is it’s possible
to strive for healthy conversations,
not in a dogmatic way of saying,
I know what healthy conversations are and I will tell you.
I think one way to do this is to try to look around
at social, maybe not things that are officially social media,
but things where people are together online
and see which ones have more healthy conversations,
even if it’s hard to be completely objective
in that measurement, you can kind of, at least crudely.
You could do subjective annotation
like have a large crowd source annotation.
One that I’ve been really interested in is GitHub
because it could change.
I’m not saying it’ll always be, but for the most part,
GitHub has had a relatively quite low poison quotient.
And I think there’s a few things about GitHub
that are interesting.
One thing about it is that people have a stake in it.
It’s not just empty status games.
There’s actual code or there’s actual stuff being done.
And I think as soon as you have a real world stake
in something, you have a motivation
to not screw up that thing.
And I think that that’s often missing
that there’s no incentive for the person
to really preserve something.
If they get a little bit of attention
from dumping on somebody’s TikTok or something,
they don’t pay any price for it.
But you have to kind of get decent with people
when you have a shared stake, a little secret.
So GitHub does a bit of that.
GitHub is wonderful, yes.
But I’m tempted to play the Jaren Becker at you,
which is that, so GitHub is currently is amazing.
But the thing is, if you have a stake,
then if it’s a social media platform,
they can use the fact that you have a stake
to manipulate you because you want to preserve the stake.
So like, so like.
Right, well, this is why,
all right, this gets us into the economics.
So there’s this thing called data dignity
that I’ve been studying for a long time.
I wrote a book about an earlier version of it
called Who Owns the Future?
And the basic idea of it is that,
once again, this is a 30 year conversation.
It’s a fascinating topic.
Let me do the fastest version of this I can do.
The fastest way I know how to do this
is to compare two futures, all right?
So future one is then the normative one,
the one we’re building right now.
And future two is gonna be data dignity, okay?
And I’m gonna use a particular population.
I live on the hill in Berkeley.
And one of the features about the hill
is that as the climate changes,
we might burn down and I’ll lose our houses
or die or something.
Like it’s dangerous, you know, and it didn’t used to be.
And so who keeps us alive?
Well, the city does.
The city does some things.
The electric company kind of sort of,
maybe hopefully better.
Individual people who own property
take care of their property.
That’s all nice.
But there’s this other middle layer,
which is fascinating to me,
which is that the groundskeepers
who work up and down that hill,
many of whom are not legally here,
many of whom don’t speak English,
cooperate with each other
to make sure trees don’t touch
to transfer fire easily from lot to lot.
They have this whole little web
that’s keeping us safe.
I didn’t know about this at first.
I just started talking to them
because they were out there during the pandemic.
And so I try to just see who are these people?
Who are these people who are keeping us alive?
Now, I want to talk about the two different phases
for those people in your future one and future two.
Future one, some weird like kindergarten paint job van
with all these like cameras and weird things,
drives up, observes what the gardeners
and groundskeepers are doing.
A few years later, some amazing robots
that can shimmy up trees and all this show up.
All those people are out of work
and there are these robots doing the thing
and the robots are good.
And they can scale to more land
and they’re actually good.
But then there are all these people out of work
and these people have lost dignity.
They don’t know what they’re going to do.
And then somebody will say,
well, they go on basic income, whatever.
They become wards of the state.
My problem with that solution is every time in history
that you’ve had some centralized thing
that’s doling out the benefits,
that things get seized by people
because it’s too centralized and it gets seized.
This happened to every communist experiment I can find.
So I think that turns into a poor future
that will be unstable.
I don’t think people will feel good in it.
I think it’ll be a political disaster
with a sequence of people seizing this central source
of the basic income.
And you’ll say, oh no, an algorithm can do it.
Then people will seize the algorithm.
They’ll seize control.
Unless the algorithm is decentralized
and it’s impossible to seize the control.
Yeah, but 60 something people
own a quarter of all the Bitcoin.
Like the things that we think are decentralized
are not decentralized.
So let’s go to future two.
Future two, the gardeners see that van with all the cameras
and the kindergarten paint job,
and they say, the groundskeepers,
and they say, hey, the robots are coming.
We’re going to form a data union.
And amazingly, California has a little baby data union law
emerging in the books.
And so they say, we’re going to form a data union
and we’re going to,
not only are we going to sell our data to this place,
but we’re going to make it better than it would have been
if they were just grabbing it without our cooperation.
And we’re going to improve it.
We’re going to make the robots more effective.
We’re going to make them better
and we’re going to be proud of it.
We’re going to become a new class of experts
that are respected.
And then here’s the interesting,
there’s two things that are different about that world
from future one.
One thing, of course, the people have more pride.
They have more sense of ownership, of agency,
but what the robots do changes.
Instead of just like this functional,
like we’ll figure out how to keep the neighborhood
from burning down,
you have this whole creative community
that wasn’t there before thinking,
well, how can we make these robots better
so we can keep on earning money?
There’ll be waves of creative groundskeeping
with spiral pumping, pumpkin patches
and waves of cultural things.
There’ll be new ideas like,
wow, I wonder if we could do something
about climate change mitigation with how we do this.
What about, what about fresh water?
Can we, what about, can we make the food healthier?
What about, what about all of a sudden
there’ll be this whole creative community on the case?
And isn’t it nicer to have a high tech future
with more creative classes
than one with more dependent classes?
Isn’t that a better future?
But, but, but, but, future one and future two
have the same robots and the same algorithms.
There’s no technological difference.
There’s only a human difference.
And that second future two, that’s data dignity.
The economy that you’re, I mean,
the game theory here is on the humans
and then the technology is just the tools
that enable both possibilities.
I mean, I think you can believe in AI
and be in future two.
I just think it’s a little harder.
You have to do more contortions, it’s possible.
So in the case of social media,
what does data dignity look like?
Is it people getting paid for their data?
Yeah, I think what should happen is in the future
there should be massive data unions
for people putting content into the system
and those data unions should smooth out
the results a little bit.
So it’s not winner take all, but at the same time,
and people have to pay for it too.
They have to pay for Facebook
the way they pay for Netflix
with an allowance for the poor.
There has to be a way out too.
But the thing is people do pay for Netflix.
It’s a going concern.
People pay for Xbox and PlayStation.
Like people, there’s enough people
to pay for stuff they want.
This could happen too.
It’s just that this precedent started
that moved it in the wrong direction.
And then what has to happen,
the economy is a measuring device.
If it’s an honest measuring device,
the outcomes for people form a normal distribution,
a bell curve.
And then, so there should be a few people
who do really well, a lot of people who do okay.
And then we should have an expanding economy
reflecting more and more creativity and expertise
flowing through the network.
And that expanding economy moves the result
just a bit forward.
So more people are getting money out of it
than are putting money into it.
So it gradually expands the economy
and lifts all boats.
And the society has to support the lower wing
of the bell curve too, but not universal basic income.
It has to be for the,
cause if it’s an honest economy,
there will be that lower wing
and we have to support those people.
There has to be a safety net.
But see what I believe, I’m not gonna talk about AI,
but I will say that I think there’ll be more
and more algorithms that are useful.
And so I don’t think everybody’s gonna be supplying data
to grounds keeping robots,
nor do I think everybody’s gonna make their living
with TikTok videos.
I think in both cases,
there’ll be a rather small contingent
that do well enough at either of those things.
But I think there might be many, many, many,
many of those niches that start to evolve
as there are more and more algorithms,
more and more robots.
And it’s that large number that will create
the economic potential for a very large part of society
to become members of new creative classes.
Do you think it’s possible to create a social network
that competes with Twitter and Facebook
that’s large and centralized in this way?
Not centralized, sort of large, large.
How to get, all right, so I gotta tell you
how to get from where we are
to anything kind of in the zone
of what I’m talking about is challenging.
I know some of the people who run,
like I know Jack Dorsey at H1N1,
and I view Jack as somebody who’s actually,
I think he’s really striving and searching
and trying to find a way to make it better,
but is kind of like,
it’s very hard to do it while in flight
and he’s under enormous business pressure too.
So Jack Dorsey to me is a fascinating study
because I think his mind is in a lot of good places.
He’s a good human being,
but there’s a big Titanic ship
that’s already moving in one direction.
It’s hard to know what to do with it.
I think that’s the story of Twitter.
One of the things that I observed is that
if you just wanna look at the human side,
meaning like how are people being changed?
How do they feel?
What does the culture like?
Almost all of the social media platforms that get big
have an initial sort of honeymoon period
where they’re actually kind of sweet and cute.
Like if you look at the early years of Twitter,
it was really sweet and cute,
but also look at Snap, TikTok.
And then what happens is as they scale
and the algorithms become more influential
instead of just the early people,
when it gets big enough that it’s the algorithm running it,
then you start to see the rise of the paranoid style
and then they start to get dark.
And we’ve seen that shift in TikTok rather recently.
But I feel like that scaling reveals the flaws
within the incentives.
I feel like I’m torturing you.
It’s not torture.
No, because I have hope for the world with humans
and I have hope for a lot of things that humans create,
And I just, I feel it is possible to create
social media platforms that incentivize
different things than the current.
I think the current incentivization is around
like the dumbest possible thing that was invented
like 20 years ago, however long.
And it just works and so nobody’s changing it.
I just think that there could be a lot of innovation
for more, see, you kind of push back this idea
that we can’t know what longterm growth or happiness is.
If you give control to people to define
what their longterm happiness and goals are,
then that optimization can happen
for each of those individual people.
Well, I mean, imagine a future where
probably a lot of people would love to make their living
doing TikTok dance videos, but people recognize generally
that’s kind of hard to get into.
Nonetheless, dance crews have an experience
that’s very similar to programmers working together on GitHub.
So the future is like a cross between TikTok and GitHub
and they get together and they have rights.
They’re negotiating for returns.
They join different artists societies
in order to soften the blow of the randomness
of who gets the network effect benefit
because nobody can know that.
And I think an individual person
might join a thousand different data unions
in the course of their lives, or maybe even 10,000.
I don’t know, but the point is that we’ll have
like these very hedge distributed portfolios
of different data unions we’re part of.
And some of them might just trickle in a little money
for nonsense stuff where we’re contributing
to health studies or something.
But I think people will find their way.
They’ll find their way to the right GitHub like community
in which they find their value in the context
of supplying inputs and data and taste
and correctives and all of this into the algorithms
and the robots of the future.
And that is a way to resist
the lizard brain based funding system mechanisms.
It’s an alternate economic system
that rewards productivity, creativity,
value as perceived by others.
It’s a genuine market.
It’s not doled out from a center.
There’s not some communist person deciding who’s valuable.
It’s actual market.
And the money is made by supporting that
instead of just grabbing people’s attention
in the cheapest possible way,
which is definitely how you get the lizard brain.
So we’re finally at the agreement.
But I just think that…
So yeah, I’ll tell you how I think to fix social media.
There’s a few things.
So one, I think people should have complete control
over their data and transparency of what that data is
and how it’s being used if they do hand over the control.
Another thing they should be able to delete,
walk away with their data at any moment, easy.
Like with a single click of a button, maybe two buttons,
I don’t know, just easily walk away with their data.
The other is control of the algorithm,
individualized control of the algorithm for them.
So each one has their own algorithm.
Each person has their own algorithm.
They get to be the decider of what they see in this world.
And to me, that’s, I guess, fundamentally decentralized
in terms of the key decisions being made.
But if that’s made transparent,
I feel like people will choose that system
over Twitter of today, over Facebook of today,
when they have the ability to walk away,
to control their data
and to control the kinds of things they see.
Now, let’s walk away from the term AI.
In this case, you have full control
of the algorithms that help you
if you want to use their help.
But you can also say a few to those algorithms
and just consume the raw, beautiful waterfall
of the internet.
I think that, to me, that’s not only fixes social media,
but I think it would make a lot more money.
So I would like to challenge the idea.
I know you’re not presenting that,
but that the only way to make a ton of money
is to operate like Facebook is.
I think you can make more money by giving people control.
Yeah, I mean, I certainly believe that.
We’re definitely in the territory
of a wholehearted agreement here.
I do want to caution against one thing,
which is making a future that benefits programmers
versus this idea that people are in control of their data.
So years ago, I cofounded an advisory board for the EU
with a guy named Jay.
Giovanni Bottarelli, who passed away.
It’s one of the reasons I wanted to mention it.
A remarkable guy who’d been,
he was originally a prosecutor
who was throwing mafioso in jail in Sicily.
So he was like this intense guy who was like,
I’ve dealt with death threats.
Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t scare me or whatever.
So we worked on this path of saying,
let’s make it all about transparency and consent.
And it was one of the feeders that led to this huge data
privacy and protection framework in Europe called the GDPR.
And so therefore we’ve been able to have empirical feedback
on how that goes.
And the problem is that most people actually get stymied
by the complexity of that kind of management.
They have trouble and reasonably so.
I don’t, I’m like a techie.
I can go in and I can figure out what’s going on.
But most people really do.
And so there’s a problem that it differentially benefits
those who kind of have a technical mindset
and can go in and sort of have a feeling
for how this stuff works.
I kind of still want to come back to incentives.
And so if the incentive for whoever is,
if the commercial incentive is to help the creative people
of the future make more money,
because you get a cut of it,
that’s how you grow an economy.
Not the programmers.
Well, some of them will be programmers.
It’s not anti programmer.
I’m just saying that it’s not only programmers, you know?
So, yeah, you have to make sure the incentives are right.
I mean, I like control is an interface problem
to where you have to create something that’s compelling
to everybody, to the creatives, to the public.
I mean, there’s, I don’t know, Creative Commons,
like the licensing, there’s a bunch of legal speak
just in general, the whole legal profession.
It’s nice when it can be simplified
in the way that you can truly simply understand.
Everybody can simply understand the basics.
In the same way, it should be very simple to understand
how the data is being used
and what data is being used for people.
But then you’re arguing that in order for that to happen,
you have to have the incentives alike.
I mean, a lot of the reason that money works
is actually information hiding and information loss.
Like one of the things about money
is a particular dollar you get
might have passed through your enemy’s hands
and you don’t know it.
But also, I mean, this is what Adam Smith,
if you wanna give the most charitable interpretation possible
to the invisible hand is what he was saying,
is that like there’s this whole complicated thing
and not only do you not need to know about it,
the truth is you’d never be able to follow it if you tried
and just like let the economic incentives
solve for this whole thing.
And that in a sense, every transaction
is like a neuron and a neural net.
If he’d had that metaphor, he would have used it
and let the whole thing settle to a solution
and don’t worry about it.
I think this idea of having incentives
that reduce complexity for people
can be made to work.
And that’s an example of an algorithm
that could be manipulative or not,
going back to your question before
about can you do it in a way that’s not manipulative?
And I would say a GitHub like,
if you just have this vision,
GitHub plus TikTok combined, is it possible?
I think it is.
I really think it is.
I’m not gonna be able to unsee that idea
of creatives on TikTok collaborating
in the same way that people on GitHub collaborate.
I like that kind of version.
I like it, I love it.
I just like, right now when people use,
by the way, father of teenage daughter.
It’s all about TikTok, right?
So, when people use TikTok,
there’s a lot of, it’s kind of funny,
I was gonna say cattiness,
but I was just using the cat
as this exemplar of what we’re talking about.
I contradict myself.
But anyway, there’s all this cattiness
where people are like,
ee, this person’s ee.
And I just, what about people getting together
and kind of saying,
okay, we’re gonna work on this move.
We’re gonna get a better,
can we get a better musician?
Like, and they do that,
but that’s the part
that’s kind of off the books right now.
That should be like right there.
That should be the center.
That’s where the, that’s the really best part.
Well, that’s where the invention of Git period,
the versioning is brilliant.
And so some of the things
you’re talking about,
technology, algorithms, tools can empower.
And that’s the thing for humans to connect,
to collaborate and so on.
Can we upset more people a little bit?
Maybe we’d have to try.
Can we, can I ask you to elaborate?
Cause I, my intuition was that
you would be a supporter of something
like cryptocurrency and Bitcoin
because it is fundamentally emphasizes decentralization.
What do you, so can you elaborate?
Your thoughts on Bitcoin.
I, it’s kind of funny.
Um, I, I wrote, I, I’ve been advocating
some kind of digital currency for a long time.
And when the, the, uh, when, when Bitcoin came out
and the original paper on, on blockchain,
um, my heart kind of sank because I thought,
Oh my God, we’re applying all of this fancy thought
and all these very careful distributed security
measures to recreate the gold standard.
Like it’s just so retro.
It’s so dysfunctional.
It’s so useless from an economic point of view.
So it’s always, and then the other thing
is using computational inefficiency
at a boundless scale as your form of security
is a crime against this atmosphere.
Obviously a lot of people know that now,
but we knew that at the start.
Like the thing is when the first paper came out,
I remember a lot of people saying,
Oh my God, I think this thing scales.
It’s a carbon disaster, you know?
And, and, um, I, I just like, I’m just mystified,
but that’s a different question than when you asked,
can you have, um, a cryptographic currency
or at least some kind of digital currency
that’s of a benefit?
Like I’m, and there are people who are trying
to be thoughtful about this.
You should, uh, if you haven’t,
you should interview, uh, Vitalik Buterin sometime.
Yeah, I’ve interviewed him twice.
So like there are people in the community
who are trying to be thoughtful
and trying to figure out how to do this better.
It has nice properties though, right?
So the, one of the nice properties is that
like government centralized, it’s hard to control.
Uh, and then the other one to fix some of the issues
that you’re referring to,
I’m sort of playing devil’s advocate here is,
you know, there’s lightning network.
There’s ideas how to, how you, uh, build stuff
on top of Bitcoin, similar with gold
that allow you to have this kind of vibrant economy
that operates not on the blockchain,
but outside the blockchain.
And you use this, uh, Bitcoin for, uh, for like
checking the security of those transactions.
So Bitcoin’s not new.
It’s been around for a while.
I’ve been watching it closely.
I’ve not, I’ve not seen one example of it
creating economic growth.
There was this obsession with the idea
that government was the problem,
that idea that government’s the problem.
Let’s say government earned that wrath, honestly,
because if you look at some of the things
that governments have done in recent decades,
it’s not a pretty story.
Like, uh, after, uh, after a very small number
of people in the US government decided to bomb
in landmine Southeast Asia, it’s hard to come back
and say, oh, government’s this great thing.
But, uh, then the problem is that this resistance
to government is basically resistance to politics.
It’s a way of saying, if I can get rich,
nobody should bother me.
It’s a way of not, of not having obligations to others.
And that ultimately is a very suspect motivation.
But does that mean that the impulse that the government, um,
should not overreach its power is flawed?
Well, I mean, what I want to ask you to do
is to replace the word government with politics.
Like our politics is people having to deal with each other.
My theory about freedom is that the only authentic form
of freedom is perpetual annoyance.
So annoyance means you’re actually dealing with people
because people are annoying.
Perpetual means that that annoyance is survivable
so it doesn’t destroy us all.
So if you have perpetual annoyance,
then you have freedom.
And that’s politics.
If you don’t have perpetual annoyance,
something’s gone very wrong and you’ve suppressed those people
that it’s only temporary.
It’s going to come back and be horrible.
You should seek perpetual annoyance.
I’ll invite you to a Berkeley city council meeting
so you can know what that feels like.
What perpetual annoyance feels like.
But anyway, so freedom is being…
The test of freedom is that you’re annoyed by other people.
If you’re not, you’re not free.
If you’re not, you’re trapped in some temporary illusion
that’s going to fall apart.
Now, this quest to avoid government
is really a quest to avoid that political feeling,
but you have to have it.
You have to deal with it.
And it sucks, but that’s the human situation.
That’s the human condition.
And this idea that we’re going to have this abstract thing
that protects us from having to deal with each other
is always an illusion.
The idea, and I apologize,
I overstretched the use of the word government.
The idea is there should be some punishment from the people
when a bureaucracy, when a set of people
or a particular leader, like in an authoritarian regime,
which more than half the world currently lives under,
if they become, they stop representing the people,
it stops being like a Berkeley meeting
and starts being more like a dictatorial kind of situation.
And so the point is, it’s nice to give people,
the populace in a decentralized way,
power to resist that kind of government becoming over authoritarian.
Yeah, but people see this idea that the problem
is always the government being powerful is false.
The problem can also be criminal gangs.
The problem can also be weird cults.
The problem can be abusive clergy.
The problem can be infrastructure that fails.
The problem can be poisoned water.
The problem can be failed electric grids.
The problem can be a crappy education system
that makes the whole society less and less able to create value.
There are all these other problems
that are different from an overbearing government.
Like you have to keep some sense of perspective
and not be obsessed with only one kind of problem
because then the others will pop up.
But empirically speaking, some problems are bigger than others.
So like some groups of people,
like governments or gangs or companies lead to problems.
Are you a US citizen?
Has the government ever really been a problem for you?
So first of all, I grew up in the Soviet Union.
Yeah, my wife did too.
So I have seen, and has the government bothered me?
I would say that that’s a really complicated question,
especially because the United States is such,
it’s a special place like a lot of other countries.
My wife’s family were refused NICs.
And so we have like a very,
and her dad was sent to the Gulag.
For what it’s worth on my father’s side,
all but a few were killed by a pogrom
in a post Soviet pogrom in Ukraine.
So I would say because you did a little trick
of eloquent trick of language
that you switched to the United States
to talk about government.
So I believe unlike my friend,
Michael Malus, who’s an anarchist,
I believe government can do a lot of good in the world.
That is exactly what you’re saying,
which is it’s politics.
The thing that Bitcoin folks and cryptocurrency folks argue
is that one of the big ways that government
can control the populace is centralized bank,
like control the money.
That was the case in the Soviet Union too.
There’s inflation can really make poor people suffer.
And so what they argue is this is one way to go around
that power that government has
of controlling the monetary system.
So that’s a way to resist.
That’s not actually saying government bad.
That’s saying some of the ways
that central banks get into trouble
can be resisted through centralized.
So let me ask you on balance today in the real world
in terms of actual facts,
do you think cryptocurrencies are doing more
to prop up corrupt, murderous, horrible regimes
or to resist those regimes?
Where do you think the balance is right now?
I know exactly having talked to a lot of cryptocurrency folks
what they would tell me, right?
I, it’s hard, it’s, I don’t, no, no.
I’m asking it as a real question.
There’s no way to know the answer perfectly.
However, I gotta say, if you look at people
who’ve been able to decode blockchains
and they do leak a lot of data.
They’re not as secure as this widely thought.
There are a lot of unknown Bitcoin whales
from pretty early and they’re huge.
And if you ask, who are these people?
There’s evidence that a lot of them are quite
not the people you’d wanna support, let’s say.
And I just don’t, like, I think empirically
this idea that there’s some intrinsic way
that bad governments will be disempowered
and people will be able to resist them more
than new villains or even villainous governments
will be empowered.
There’s no basis for that assertion.
It just is kind of circumstantial.
And I think in general, Bitcoin ownership is one thing,
but Bitcoin transactions have tended
to support criminality more than productivity.
Of course, they would argue that was the story
of its early days, that now more and more Bitcoin
is being used for legitimate transactions, but…
That’s the difference.
I didn’t say for legitimate transactions.
I said for economic growth, for creativity.
Like, I think what’s happening is people are using it
a little bit for buying, I don’t know,
maybe some of these companies make it available
for this and that, they buy a Tesla with it or something.
Investing in a startup hard, it might’ve happened
a little bit, but it’s not an engine of productivity,
creativity, and economic growth,
whereas old fashioned currency still is.
And anyway, look, I think something…
I’m pro the idea of digital currencies.
I am anti the idea of economics wiping out politics
as a result.
I think they have to exist in some balance
to avoid the worst dysfunctions of each.
In some ways, there’s parallels to our discussion
of algorithms and cryptocurrency is you’re pro the idea,
but it can be used to manipulate,
you can be used poorly by aforementioned humans.
Well, I think that you can make better designs
and worse designs.
And the thing about cryptocurrency that’s so interesting
is how many of us are responsible for the poor designs
because we’re all so hooked on that Horatio Alger story
on like, I’m gonna be the one who gets the viral benefit.
Way back when all this stuff was starting,
I remember it would have been in the 80s,
somebody had the idea of using viral
as a metaphor for network effect.
And the whole point was to talk about
how bad network effect was,
that it always created distortions
that ruined the usefulness of economic incentives
that created dangerous distortions.
Like, but then somehow, even after the pandemic,
we think of viral as this good thing
because we imagine ourselves as the virus, right?
We wanna be on the beneficiary side of it.
But of course, you’re not likely to be.
There is a sense because money is involved,
people are not reasoning clearly always
because they want to be part of that first viral wave
that makes them rich.
And that blinds people from their basic morality.
I had an interesting conversation.
I sort of feel like I should respect some people’s privacy,
but some of the initial people who started Bitcoin,
I remember having an argument about like,
it’s intrinsically a Ponzi scheme,
like the early people have more than the later people.
And the further down the chain you get,
the more you’re subject to gambling like dynamics
where it’s more and more random
and more and more subject to weird network effects
and whatnot unless you’re a very small player perhaps
and you’re just buying something,
but even then you’ll be subject to fluctuations
because the whole thing is just kind of,
as it fluctuates,
it’s gonna wave around the little people more.
And I remember the conversation turned to gambling
because gambling is a pretty large economic sector.
And it’s always struck me as being nonproductive.
Like somebody goes to Las Vegas and they lose money.
And so one argument is, well, they got entertainment.
They paid for entertainment as they lost money.
So that’s fine.
And Las Vegas does up the losing of money
in an entertaining way.
So why not?
It’s like going to a show.
So that’s one argument.
The argument that was made to me was different from that.
It’s that, no, what they’re doing
is they’re getting a chance to experience hope.
And a lot of people don’t get that chance.
And so that’s really worth it.
Even if they’re gonna lose,
they have that moment of hope
and they need to be able to experience that.
And it was a very interesting argument.
That’s so heartbreaking, but I’ve seen that.
I have that a little bit of a sense.
I’ve talked to some young people
who invest in cryptocurrency.
And what I see is this hope.
This is the first thing that gave them hope.
And that’s so heartbreaking to me
that you’ve gotten hope from that.
So much is invested.
It’s like hope from somehow becoming rich
as opposed to something to me.
I apologize, but money is in the longterm
not going to be a source of that deep meaning.
It’s good to have enough money,
but it should not be the source of hope.
And it’s heartbreaking to me
how many people is the source of hope.
Yeah, you’ve just described the psychology of virality
or the psychology of trying to base a civilization
on semi random occurrences of network effect peaks.
Yeah, and it doesn’t really work.
I mean, I think we need to get away from that.
We need to soften those peaks
and accept Microsoft, which deserves every penny,
but in every other case.
Well, you mentioned GitHub.
I think what Microsoft did with GitHub was brilliant.
I was very happy.
Okay, if I can give a, not a critical,
but on Microsoft because they recently purchased Bethesda.
So Elder Scrolls is in their hands.
I’m watching you, Microsoft,
do not screw up my favorite game.
Yeah, well, look, I’m not speaking for Microsoft.
I have an explicit arrangement with them
where I don’t speak for them, obviously,
like that should be very clear.
I do not speak for them.
I am not saying I like them.
I think such is amazing.
The term data dignity was coined by Sacha.
Like, so, you know, we have, it’s kind of extraordinary,
but, you know, Microsoft’s this giant thing.
It’s going to screw up this or that.
You know, it’s not, I don’t know.
It’s kind of interesting.
I’ve had a few occasions in my life
to see how things work from the inside of some big thing.
And, you know, it’s always just people kind of,
I don’t know, there’s always like coordination problems.
There’s always human problems.
Oh God, there’s some good people.
There’s some bad people.
It’s always, I hope Microsoft doesn’t screw up your game.
And I hope they bring Clippy back.
You should never kill Clippy.
Bring Clippy back.
But Clippy promotes the myth of AI.
Well, that’s why, this is why I think you’re wrong.
How about if we, all right.
Could we bring back Bob instead of Clippy?
Which one was Bob?
Oh, Bob was another thing.
Bob was this other screen character
who was supposed to be the voice of AI.
Would Cortana do it for you?
Cortana is too corporate.
I like it, Cortana’s fine.
There’s a woman in Seattle who’s like the model for Cortana,
did Cortana’s voice.
There was like,
No, the voice is great.
We had her as a, she used to walk around
if you were wearing Hollands for a bit.
I don’t think that’s happening anymore.
I think, I don’t think you should turn a software
into a creature.
Well, you and I,
Get a cat, just get a cat.
You and I, you and I.
Well, get a dog.
Get a dog.
Or a dog, yeah.
Or a hedgehog.
You coauthored a paper, you mentioned Lee Smolin,
titled The Autodidactic Universe,
which describes our universe as one that learns its own physical laws.
That’s a trippy and beautiful and powerful idea.
What are, what would you say are the key ideas in this paper?
Well, I should say that paper reflected work from last year
and the project, the program has moved quite a lot.
So it’s a little, there’s a lot of stuff that’s not published
that I’m quite excited about.
So I have to kind of keep my frame in that,
in that last year’s thing.
So I have to try to be a little careful about that.
We can think about it in a few different ways.
The core of the paper, the technical core of it
is a triple correspondence.
One part of it was already established
and then another part is in the process.
The part that was established was, of course,
understanding different theories of physics as matrix models.
The part that was fresher is understanding those
as machine learning systems so that we could move fluidly
between these different ways of describing systems.
And the reason to want to do that is to just have more tools
and more options because, well,
theoretical physics is really hard
and a lot of programs have kind of run into a state
where they feel a little stalled, I guess.
I want to be delicate about this
because I’m not a physicist,
I’m the computer scientist collaborating.
So I don’t mean to diss anybody’s.
So this is almost like gives a framework
for generating new ideas in physics.
As we start to publish more about where it’s gone,
I think you’ll start to see there’s tools
and ways of thinking about theories
that I think open up some new paths
that will be of interest.
There’s the technical core of it,
which is this idea of a correspondence
to give you more facility.
But then there’s also the storytelling part of it.
And this is something Lee loves stories and I do.
And the idea here is that a typical way
of thinking about physics is that there’s some kind
of starting condition and then there’s some principle
by which the starting condition evolves.
And the question is like, why the starting condition?
The starting condition has to be fine tuned
and all these things about it have to be kind of perfect.
And so we were thinking, well, look,
what if we could push the storytelling
about where the universe comes from much further back
by starting with really simple things that evolve
and then through that evolution,
explain how things got to be how they are
through very simple principles, right?
And so we’ve been exploring a variety of ways
to push the start of the storytelling
further and further back,
and it’s really kind of interesting
because like for all of his,
Lee is sometimes considered to be,
to have a radical quality in the physics world.
But he still is like, no, this is gonna be like,
the kind of time we’re talking about
in which evolution happens is the same time we’re now
and we’re talking about something that starts and continues.
And I’m like, well, what if there’s some other kind
of time that’s time like, and it sounds like metaphysics,
but there’s an ambiguity, you know, like,
it has to start from something
and it’s kind of interesting.
So there’s this, a lot of the math
can be thought of either way, which is kind of interesting.
So push this so far back that basically
all the things that we take for granted in physics
start becoming emergent, it’s emergent.
I really wanna emphasize this is all super baby steps.
I don’t wanna over claim.
It’s like, I think a lot of the things we’re doing,
we’re approaching some old problems
in a pretty fresh way, informed.
There’s been a zillion papers about how you can think
of the universe as a big neural net
or how you can think of different ideas in physics
as being quite similar to, or even equivalent
to some of the ideas in machine learning.
And that actually works out crazy well.
Like, I mean, that is actually kind of eerie
when you look at it, like there’s probably
two or three dozen papers that have this quality
and some of them are just crazy good.
And it’s very interesting.
What we’re trying to do is take those kinds
of observations and turn them into an actionable framework
where you can then start to do things
with landscapes or theories that you couldn’t do before
and that sort of thing.
So in that context, or maybe beyond,
how do you explain us humans?
How unlikely are we, this intelligent civilization
or is there a lot of others or are we alone in this universe?
You seem to appreciate humans very much.
I’ve grown fond of us.
We have our nice qualities.
I like that.
I mean, we’re kind of weird.
We sprout this hair on our heads and then we’re,
I don’t know, we’re sort of weird animals.
That’s the feature, not a bug, I think.
I hope so.
I think if I’m just going to answer you in terms of truth,
the first thing I’d say is we’re not in a privileged enough
position, at least as yet, to really know much about who we
are, how we are, what we’re really like in the context
of something larger, what that context is,
like all that stuff.
We might learn more in the future.
Our descendants might learn more, but we don’t really know
very much, which you can either view as frustrating or charming
like that first year of TikTok or something.
All roads lead back to TikTok.
I like it.
But in terms of, there’s another level at which I can think
about it where I sometimes think that if you are just quiet
and you do something that gets you in touch with the way
reality happens, and for me it’s playing music, sometimes it
seems like you can feel a bit of how the universe is.
And it feels like there’s a lot more going on in it and there
is a lot more life and a lot more stuff happening and a lot
more stuff flowing through it.
I’m not speaking as a scientist now.
This is kind of a more my artist side talking and I feel like
I’m suddenly in multiple personalities with you.
Jack Kerouac said that music is the only truth.
It sounds like you might be at least in part.
There’s a passage in Kerouac’s book, Dr.
Sacks, where somebody tries to just explain the whole
situation with reality and people in like a paragraph.
And I couldn’t reproduce it for you here, but it’s like, yeah,
like there are these bulbous things that walk around and
they make these sounds, you can sort of understand them, but
only kind of, and then there’s like this, and it’s just like
this amazing, like just really quick, like if some spirit
being or something was going to show up in our reality and
hadn’t knew nothing about it, it’s like a little basic intro
of like, okay, here’s what’s going on here.
It’s an incredible passage.
It’s like a one or two sentence summary in H.
Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, right?
Of what this…
Do you think there’s truth to that, that music somehow
connects to something that words cannot?
Music is something that just towers above me.
I don’t feel like I have an overview of it.
It’s just the reverse.
I don’t fully understand it because on one level it’s simple.
Like you can say, oh, it’s a thing people evolved to
coordinate our brains on a pattern level or something like that.
There’s all these things you can say about music, which are,
you know, some of that’s probably true.
It’s also, there’s kind of like this, this is the mystery of
Like there’s a way that just instead of just being pure
abstraction, music can have like this kind of substantiality
to it that is philosophically impossible.
I don’t know what to do with it.
The amount of understanding I feel I have when I hear the
right song at the right time is not comparable to anything I
can read on Wikipedia.
Anything I can understand, read through in language.
The music does connect us to something.
There’s this thing there.
Yeah, there’s some kind of a thing in it.
And I’ve never ever, I’ve read across a lot of explanations
from all kinds of interesting people like that it’s some kind
of a flow language between people or between people and how
they perceive and that kind of thing.
And that sort of explanation is fine, but it’s not quite it
There’s something about music that makes me believe that
panpsychism could possibly be true, which is that everything
in the universe is conscious.
It makes me think, makes me be humble in how much or how
little I understand about the functions of our universe that
everything might be conscious.
Most people interested in theoretical physics eventually
land in panpsychism, but I’m not one of them.
I still think there’s this pragmatic imperative to treat
people as special.
So I will proudly be a dualist without people and cats.
Yeah, I’m not quite sure where to draw the line or why the
line’s there or anything like that.
But I don’t think I should be required to all the same
questions are equally mysterious for no line.
So I don’t feel disadvantaged by that.
So I shall remain a dualist.
But if you listen to anyone trying to explain where
consciousness is in a dualistic sense, either believing in
souls or some special thing in the brain or something, you
pretty much say, screw this.
I’m going to be a panpsychist.
Is there moments in your life that happened that we’re
defining in the way that you hope others your daughter?
Well, listen, I got to say the moments that defined me were
not the good ones.
The moments that defined me were often horrible.
I’ve had successes, you know, but if you ask what defined
me, my mother’s death, being under the World Trade Center
and the attack, the things that have had an effect on me
were the most were sort of real world, terrible things,
which I don’t wish on young people at all.
And this is the thing that’s hard about giving advice to
young people that they have to learn their own lessons.
And lessons don’t come easily.
And a world which avoids hard lessons will be a stupid
world, you know, and I don’t know what to do with it.
That’s a little bundle of truth that has a bit of a fatalistic
quality to it, but I don’t—this is like when I’m saying
that, you know, freedom equals eternal annoyance.
Like, you can’t—like, there’s a degree to which honest
advice is not that pleasant to give.
And I don’t want young people to have to know about
You don’t want to wish hardship on them.
Yeah, I think they deserve to have a little grace period
of naiveté that’s pleasant.
I mean, I do, you know, if it’s possible, if it’s—these
things are—this is like—this is tricky stuff.
I mean, if you—okay, so let me try a little bit on this
I think one thing—and any serious, broad advice will
have been given a thousand times before for a thousand
years, so I’m not going to claim originality, but I think
trying to find a way to really pay attention to what you’re
feeling fundamentally, what your sense of the world is, what
your intuition is, if you feel like an intuitive person, what
you’re—like, to try to escape the constant sway of social
perception or manipulation, whatever you wish—not to
escape it entirely, that would be horrible, but to find cover
from it once in a while, to find a sense of being anchored
in that, to believe in experience as a real thing.
Believing in experience as a real thing is very dualistic.
That goes with my philosophy of dualism.
I believe there’s something magical, and instead of squirting
the magic dust on the programs, I think experience is something
real and something apart, something mystical and something—
Your own personal experience that you just have, and then
you’re saying silence the rest of the world enough to hear
that—like, whatever that magic dust is in that experience.
Find what is there, and I think that’s one thing.
Another thing is to recognize that kindness requires genius,
that it’s actually really hard, that facile kindness is not
kindness, and that it’ll take you a while to have the skills
to have kind impulses to want to be kind you can have right
away. To be effectively kind is hard.
To be effectively kind, yeah.
It takes skill. It takes hard lessons.
You’ll never be perfect at it. To the degree you get anywhere
with it, it’s the most rewarding thing ever.
Let’s see, what else would I say?
I would say when you’re young, you can be very overwhelmed
by social and interpersonal emotions. You’ll have broken hearts and
jealousies. You’ll feel socially down the ladder instead of up the
ladder. It feels horrible when that happens. All of these things.
And you have to remember what a fragile crust all that stuff is,
and it’s hard because right when it’s happening, it’s just so intense.
If I was actually giving this advice to my daughter, she’d already
be out of the room. This is for some hypothetical teenager that
doesn’t really exist that really wants to sit and listen to my
voice for your daughter 10 years from now. Maybe.
Can I ask you a difficult question?
You talked about losing your mom.
Do you miss her?
Yeah, I mean, I still connected her through music. She was a
a young prodigy piano player in Vienna, and she survived the
concentration camp and then died in a car accident here in the US.
What music makes you think of her? Is there a song that connects?
Well, she was in Vienna, so she had the whole Viennese music thing
going, which is this incredible school of absolute skill and
romance bundled together and wonderful on the piano, especially.
I learned to play some of the Beethoven sonatas for her, and I
played them in this exaggerated, drippy way I remember when I was
Exaggerated meaning too full of emotion?
Yeah, just like…
Isn’t that the only way to play Beethoven? I mean, I didn’t know
there’s any other way.
That’s a reasonable question. I mean, the fashion these days is to
be slightly Apollonian even with Beethoven, but one imagines that
actual Beethoven playing might have been different. I don’t
know. I’ve gotten to play a few instruments he played and tried
to see if I could feel anything about how it might have been for
him. I don’t know, really.
I was always against the clinical precision of classical music.
I thought a great piano player should be, like, in pain, like,
you know, emotionally, like, truly feel the music and make it
messy, sort of maybe play classical music the way, I don’t
know, blues pianist plays blues.
It seems like they actually got happier, and I’m not sure if
Beethoven got happier. I think it’s a different kind of concept
of the place of music. I think the blues, the whole African
American tradition was initially surviving awful, awful
circumstances. So you could say, you know, there was some of
that in the concentration camps and all that too. And it’s not
that Beethoven’s circumstances were brilliant, but he kind of
also, I don’t know, this is hard. Like, I mean, it would
seem to be his misery was somewhat self imposed, maybe
through, I don’t know. It’s kind of interesting, like, I’ve
known some people who loathed Beethoven, like the composer,
late composer, Pauline Oliveros, this wonderful modernist
composer. I played in her band for a while, and she was like,
oh, Beethoven, like, that’s the worst music ever. It’s like,
all ego. It completely, it turns information, I mean, it
turns emotion into your enemy. And it’s ultimately all about
your own self importance, which has to be at the expense of
others. What else could it be? And blah, blah, blah. So she
had, I shouldn’t say, I don’t mean to be dismissive, but I’m
just saying, like, her position on Beethoven was very negative
and very unimpressed, which is really interesting because
the manner of the music. I think, I don’t know. I mean,
she’s not here to speak for herself. So it’s a little hard
for me to answer that question. But it was interesting because
I’d always thought of Beethoven as like, whoa, you know, this
is like Beethoven is like really the dude, you know, and it’s
just like, Beethoven, Schmadovan, you know, it’s like
not really happening. Yeah, I still, even though it’s cliche,
I like playing personally, just for myself, Moonlight Sonata.
I mean, I just, Moonlight’s amazing. I mean, it’s like,
Moonlight’s amazing. You know, I, you know, you’re talking
about comparing the blues and that sensibility from Europe
is so different in so many ways. One of the musicians I
play with is John Batiste, who has the band on Colbert Show,
and he’ll sit there playing jazz and suddenly go into
Moonlight. He loves Moonlight. And what’s kind of interesting
is he’s found a way to do Beethoven. And he, by the way,
he can really do Beethoven. Like, he went through Juilliard
and one time he was at my house, he’s saying, hey, do you
have the book of Beethoven’s Sonatas? I say, yeah, I want to
find one I haven’t played. And then he sight read through the
whole damn thing perfectly. And I’m like, oh, God, I just
get out of here. I can’t even deal with this. But anyway,
but anyway, the thing is he has this way of with the same
persona and the same philosophy moving from the blues into
Beethoven that’s really, really fascinating to me. It’s like,
I don’t want to say he plays it as if it were jazz, but he
kind of does. It’s kind of really, and he talks, well, he
was sight reading, he talks like Beethoven’s talking to him.
Like he’s like, oh yeah, here, he’s doing this. I can’t do
John, but you know, it’s like, it’s really interesting. Like
it’s very different. Like for me, I was introduced to
Beethoven as like almost like this godlike figure, and I
presume Pauline was too, that was really kind of a press
for an art to deal with. And for him, it’s just like the
conversation. He’s playing James P. Johnson or something. It’s
like another musician who did something and they’re talking
and it’s very cool to be around. It’s very kind of freeing
to see someone have that relationship. I would love to
hear him play Beethoven. That sounds amazing. He’s great. We
talked about Ernest Becker and how much value he puts on our
mortality and our denial of our mortality. Do you think about
your mortality? Do you think about your own death? You know
what’s funny is I used to not be able to, but as you get older,
you just know people who die and there’s all these things
that just becomes familiar and and more of a more ordinary,
which is what it is. But are you afraid? Sure, although less
so. And it’s not like I didn’t have some kind of insight or
revelation to become less afraid. I think I just, like I
say, it’s kind of familiarity. It’s just knowing people who’ve
died and I really believe in the future. I have this optimism
that people or this whole thing of life on Earth, this whole
thing we’re part of, I don’t know where to draw that circle,
but this thing is going somewhere and has some kind of
value and you can’t both believe in the future and want
to live forever. You have to make room for it. You know, like
you have to, that optimism has to also come with its own like
humility. You have to make yourself small to believe in
the future and so it actually in a funny way comforts me.
Wow, that’s powerful. And optimism requires you to kind
of step down after a time. Yeah, I mean, that said, life
seems kind of short, but you know, whatever. Do you think
there’s I’ve tried to find I can’t find the complaint
department. You know, I really want to I want to bring this
up, but the customer service number never answers and like
the email bounces one way. So yeah, do you think there’s
meaning to it to life? We’ll see. Meaning is a funny word
like we say all these things as if we know what they mean, but
meaning we don’t know what we mean when we say meaning like
we obviously do not and it’s a it’s it’s a funny little
mystical thing. I think it ultimately connects to that
sense of experience that dualists tend to believe in.
I guess there are why like if you look up to the stars and
you experience that awe inspiring like joy at whatever
when you look up to the stars that I don’t know why for me
that’s kind of makes me feel joyful, maybe a little bit
melancholy, just some weird soup of feelings and ultimately
the question is like why are we here in this vast universe?
That question why?
Have you been able in some way maybe through music answer it
My impulse is to feel like it’s not quite the right question
to ask, but I feel like going down that path is just too
tedious for the moment and I don’t want to do it, but
the wrong question. Well, just because you know, I don’t know
what meaning is and I think I do know that sense of awe. I
grew up in southern New Mexico and the stars were so vivid.
I’ve had some weird misfortunes, but I’ve had some
weird luck also. One of our near neighbors was the head of
optics research at White Sands and when he was young he
discovered Pluto. His name was Clyde Tombaugh and he taught me
how to make telescopes, grinding mirrors and stuff. My dad
had also made telescopes when he was a kid, but Clyde had like
backyard telescopes that would put to shame a lot of like
I mean he really he did his telescopes you know and so
I remember he’d let me go and play with him and just like looking at a
globular cluster and you’re seeing the actual photons and with a good
telescope it’s really like this object like you can really tell
this isn’t coming through some intervening information structure this
is like the actual photons and it’s really a three dimensional object
and you have even a feeling for the vastness of it
and it’s it’s it’s I don’t know I so I definitely I was
very very fortunate to have a connection to the sky that way
when I was a kid. To have had that experience
again the emphasis on experience.
It’s kind of funny like I feel like sometimes
like I’ve taken when she was younger I took my daughter and her friends to
to like a telescope there are a few around here that are
kids can go and use and they would like look at Jupiter’s moons or something
I think like Galilean moons and I don’t know if they quite
had that because it’s like too
it’s been just too normalized and I think maybe
when I was growing up screens weren’t that common yet and maybe it’s like too
confusable with the screen I don’t know you know somebody uh
brought up in conversation to me somewhere I don’t remember who
but they they kind of posited this idea that
if humans early humans weren’t able to see the stars like if
earth atmosphere was such there was cloudy
that we would not develop human civilization there’s something about
being able to look up and see a vast universe is like
that’s fundamental to the development of human civilization
I thought that was a curious kind of thought that reminds me of that
old Isaac Asimov story where the you know there’s this planet where they
finally get to see what’s in the sky once in a while and it turns out they’re in
the middle of a globular cluster and they’re all these stars and
I forget what happens exactly god that’s that’s from when I was the same age as a
kid I don’t really remember yeah uh but um yeah I don’t know it’s uh
it’s it might be right I’m just thinking of all the
civilizations that grew up under clouds I mean like
the the vikings needed a special uh diffracting piece of mica to navigate
because they could never see the sun they had this thing called a sunstone
that they found from this this one cave you know about that
so they were in this like uh they were trying to navigate
boats you know in the north atlantic with without being able to see the sun
because it was cloudy and so they they used uh of a uh
a chunk of mica to diffract it in order to be able to align where the sun really
was because they couldn’t tell by eye and navigate so
I’m just saying there are a lot of civilizations that are pretty impressive
that had to deal with a lot of clouds uh
the amazonians invented our agriculture and they they were probably under
clouds a lot I don’t know I don’t know to me personally the the question of the
meaning of life becomes most um
vibrant most apparent when you look up at the stars
because it makes me feel very small uh that we’re not small
but then you ask it it still feels that we’re special and then the natural
question is like well if we are special as I think we
are why the heck are we here in this vast
universe that ultimately is the question of um
right well the meaning of life I mean look
there’s a confusion sometimes in trying to use uh
to set up a question or a thought experiment or something
that’s defined in terms of a context to explain something
where there is no larger context and that’s a category error
um if we want to do it in physics um or well or in computer science um
it’s hard to talk about the universe as a Turing machine because a Turing
machine has an external clock and an observer and a
input and output there’s a larger context implied in order for it to be
defined at all and so if you’re talking about the
universe you can’t talk about it coherently as a Turing machine uh
quantum mechanics is like that quantum mechanics has an external clock and has
some kind of external context depending on your interpretation
um that’s either you know the observer or whatever
uh and there’s a they’re they’re similar that way so maybe
maybe Turing machines and quantum mechanics can be
better friends or something because they have a similar setup but the thing is if
you have something that’s defined in terms of an outer context you can’t
talk about ultimates with it because obviously it doesn’t
it’s not suited for that so there’s some ideas that
are their own context general relativity is its own context
it’s different that’s why it’s hard to unify and
um i think the same thing is true when we talk about
these types of questions like uh meaning is in a context and
to talk about ultimate meaning is therefore a category error it’s not
it’s not a um it’s not a resolvable way of thinking
it might be a way of thinking that is experientially
um or aesthetically valuable because it is awesome in the sense of
you know awe inspiring um but to try to treat it analytically is not
sensible maybe that’s what music can poetry for
yeah maybe i think so i think music actually does
escape any particular context that’s how it feels to me but i’m not sure about
that that’s once again crazy artist talking not scientist
well you did uh you do both masterfully uh jaron i’m like i said i’m a big fan
of everything you’ve done of you as a human being
um i appreciate the the fun argument we had today that will i’m sure
continue for 30 years as it did with mark mitski um honestly
i i deeply appreciate that you spend your really valuable time with me today
it was a really great conversation thank you so much
thanks for listening to this conversation with jaron lanier
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and now let me leave you with some words from jaron lanier himself
a real friendship ought to introduce each person
to unexpected weirdness in the other thank you for listening i hope to see
you next time