Lex Fridman Podcast - #218 - Jaron Lanier: Virtual Reality, Social Media & the Future of Humans and AI

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.

To support this podcast,

please check out our sponsors in the description.

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,

changing, adapting.

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.

That’s interesting.

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.

And so.

So aren’t you shoving AI outside the circle?

Well, give me a second.

All right.

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 whatnot.

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.

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?

Yeah, curation.

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.

I’m sorry.

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,

including technology.

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.

Yeah, okay.

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.

You’re right.

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.

Why not?

I like that kind of version.

Why not?

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.

No, no.

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?


Okay, look.

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?

And absolutely.

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.

All right.

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.

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?

Well, okay.

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.

Oh, Clippy.

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.

The 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.

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?

Ah, okay.

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’re okay.

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.

The weirdness.

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.

Well, lately.

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…

Mostly harmless.

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.

Fair enough.

Well put.

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

advice thing.

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?

Yeah, sure.

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

a kid.

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

for yourself?

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

to support this podcast please check out our sponsors in the description

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

comments powered by Disqus