To Read List: A Devaluation of Democratic Values



Jaron Lanier has worked on the cutting edge of computer programming since the 70s. His books, You Are Not a Gadget (2010), and Who Owns the Future (2015) are incisive, readable critiques of the most dominant digital networks. He’s not just talking about Uber and Facebook, but the architecture that underlies modern banks, news outlets, manufacturers, and just about everything else our standard of living depends on.


“A sufficiently copious flood of data creates an illusion of omniscience,

and that illusion can make you stupid.”


His 2010 Atlantic article, The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy, considers the case of Wikileaks and networks like Anonymous that claim to leak private information of individuals and institutions in the name of transparency. Lanier provides history on the evolution of some of the most influential cyber actors of our time and notes that most of them cultivate the kind of privacy protection they suggest the general population should learn to live without.

“Totally aside from whether Wikileaks has hurt the USA or anyone else, we should ask the question, "What has it done to us?" The hacker idea has gotten meaner, less sensitive, more combative, and more reactive.  This is what I mean by the problem of nerd supremacy.”


Lanier is not a pundit or a guru. He’s a scientist who understands how computers work and how they’re profited from. He’s also a thoughtful person who doesn’t see profits and stability as mutually exclusive. His article is a much needed alarm for a public that insists that wealth created by apparent technological innovation is the only solution to society’s problems. The idea that political engagement and coalition building are viable tactics is at an all time low, creating fertile ground for cyber vigilantism and violence in real time.




I can’t recommend his books enough, even if you only skim a few chapters. There is plenty of jargon and abstraction to confront, but Lanier’s humor and insight boost the reader through. Even for a layman like me, the path tech giants are taking to economic hegemony becomes clear.

The refrain running through both works is that none of this is inevitable. It is the result of structural decisions that date back before the birth of the internet. Today we have the perspective to see what those early decisions by programmers locked us into. This can teach us what kind of structures we should avoid today, if we take the long view. Doesn’t sound much like markets/people, though, does it?


“Isn't it clear that we tend to become

like what we mock and fear?”


All quotes from The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: the case of Wikileaks. Jaron Lanier. The Atlantic. Dec 20, 2010. Accessed Jan 19, 1017.
All Images from


To Read List: Deconstructing Money

I discovered Douglas Rushkoff through Disinformation, a short-lived show referred to as “the punk rock 60 minutes.” The DVD includes a number of speeches from the Disinfo.con at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom in 2000. Rushkoff pushed back against the idea of necessary duality, Grant Morrison explained basic sigil magic, and Joe Coleman detonated himself in protest of humanity. Pretty inspiring.

Rushkoff writes both fiction and nonfiction. He teaches at several schools and works as a consultant with organizations large and small, fringe and corporate. He is most often described as a media theorist, a cyberpunk, or a technologist, but a cursory look at his work reveals a thinker primarily concerned with how people create. Rushkoff writes about media and its effects on everything from the human brain to the global community. His latest 2 books focus largely on the digital economy.

Present Shock -2013

      Table of Contents:

  1. Narrative Collapse
  2. Digiphrenia
  3. Overwinding
  4. Fractalnoia
  5. Apocalypto

Narrative Collapse speaks to the loss of basic foundation. The story, the plan, the beginning, middle, and end. Numeracy overtakes literacy. The distance and perspective of the reader is replaced by the immersion and interaction of the player.

Digiphrenia is the condition real people develop as we try to adapt to a world of digitized, automated, “always on” information. Our business, financial, and media networks are automated into 24-7 cycles that we compete to keep up with. Capitalist propaganda finds new life in our digital age. More choice = greater freedom. But are we free to stop choosing?

Overwinding deals with how our digital architects overlook the effect of their systems on the end-user in favor of instant feedback from every aspect of our lives.

Fractalnoia is another condition humans develop once they’re unmoored from reliable narratives, time tables, and information scarcity. Conspiracies abound, statistics overwhelm, all theories, fears, and prophecies seem to find supporting evidence somewhere just under the waves of the digital ocean. The sheer volume of information makes it impossible for even the richest, most entrenched organizations to control the narrative.

Finally, Apocalypto. The mass media disconnects us from the past and the future, locking us in an eternal present of fight or flight. We’re left to hoard and prep for the endgame. Many are seduced by a cult of human obsolescence that unleashes a cultural backlash against not only religion and politics, but humanism and free will as well.

These are the elements of Present Shock- a phenomenon wherein technology speeds up the rate of change in society, causing institutions- government, business, education, culture, media- to lose their foundations, leaving individuals in a desperate race to regain understanding, advantage, meaning, and a vision for the future.

Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus -2016

      Table of Contents:

  1. Removing Humans from the Equation
  2. The Growth Trap
  3. The Speed of Money
  4. Investing Without Exiting
  5. Distributed

The underlying shift is away from Hours Served

and towards Value Created

This book examines our current economic moment and gives a brief history of how authorities devised debt-based tools to profit off the work and creation of poorer communities.

On corporate welfare:

“It would be much simpler, more sustainable, and less expensive to get that region to work without putting it into debt or the service of a remote entity. Instead of installing industry, equip regions with the tools and information they need to develop a means of value exchange. After all, if people have skills and needs, then they have the basis of an economy.”

Google Bus distinguishes itself from other books on the subject by reminding us that it doesn’t have to be this way. Rushkoff submits numerous examples of alternative corporate charters, local currencies, and new labor paradigms. Rushkoff’s worldview is optimistic, but it challenges the reader to take action. Not all the people at the top are unreasonable, but they are not going to change course until someone shows them how it will benefit them.

“The beauty of such possibilities from the perspective of charting a 21st century career, is that they offer a glimpse of an employment path structured around the needs of real people today rather than the priorities of 13th century factory owners who have long since left this realm. In nearly all these strategies, the underlying shift is away from Hours Served and towards Value Created. It’s less symbolic and more real, less based in legacy systems and more grounded in productivity. Instead of tying workers and our current entire economy to the industrial age machine, we reprogram our economy from the ground up.”

About time.


To Read List- Blood Moon Over Bismark: Virtual Reality Eats America's Empty Quarter

IMG_4153 I was initially nonplussed when my girlfriend suggested we drive from Portland to North Dakota to attend a lecture series put on by the North Dakota Humanities Council. She wanted to see journalist Jon Ronson speak about his recently published book "So You've been Publicly Shamed", an insightful investigation into the culture of social media and the growing consequence of digital reputation. It mirrored the theme of the Humanities Council's Gamechanger event- How is Technology Changing Humanity?

Ronson is a consummate reporter who's published several books exploring a number of fringe communities. His voice concisely documents the "destruction" of several individuals carried out in the 21st century pillory of the world wide web. I eventually read it and had to concur that it was superior writing. Ronson doesn't just recount the stories of victims, pressing his subjects for their interpretation of the phenomenon as it replicates itself hour after hour on the web. He interviews judges, politicians, and academics, producing a brief history of shame and punishment.

At the moment, I was in the middle of "Who Owns the Future", whose author's name I was shocked to see below Ronson's- Jaron Lanier. The book is a surprisingly readable analysis about the effect of the modern web on our society, principally the many industries digital networks have disrupted and in some cases eviscerated-- music, journalism, and publishing. Lanier warns of near future targets such as health care and customer service, not to stoke fears, but to urge engagement and recognition that nothing about the internet and technology is accidental, but the result of design- design that end users should be demanding place humans at center stage. Don't take it for a luddite manifesto; Lanier has worked in computer science since the 70s, engineering some of the most groundbreaking virtual reality technologies in the world. What were the odds of the authors of books we were both currently engrossed in speaking at a conference within driving distance? What else would we do but rent a car and plan a road trip to the middle of one of the most desolate states in the country?

Though he spoke in the middle of the roster, Richard Van Eck seemed make the most proximate delivery of the night given the venue and audience. His talk was billed The Power of Video Games to Reshape Learning. His closing word to the wise? That, concerning education, we must decide the outcome we want students to have and work backward from this goal to create a structure that can produce it, because if we simply try to incorporate video games and other emerging technologies into our existing school systems, the result will likely be refurbished mediocrity at best.

I wondered what the audience really made of his presentation. It seemed comprised mostly of educators, many, one of the event's hosts informed us, were sent on scholarships from their respective schools and colleges in efforts to keep them relevant to modern student bodies. Van Eck's stories of out-of-class computer obsession as a youth in the early 80s brought to mind some comments by Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian Literature Professor and author of several famous books from the 60s and 70s dealing with the effects of different mediums on human behavior and perception on a mass scale. He claimed that television had created a new environment for all young people in the mass media societies. For the first time in centuries for anglo-americans wherein information, the substance of education, was more available and efficiently consumed outside of schools than in, creating historic shifts in cultures, industries, and social relationships. He reiterated his premise in The Medium is the Massage, War and Peace in the Global Village, and Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man", as well as countless interviews, that electricity and mass media had retribalized western society, eliminating an ironclad foundation of the printed word, giving us "an ear for an eye", with myriad destabilizing effects on our very psyches. The crowd at Gamechanger was far from some of the myopic embittered conference scenes I've been privy to, but I couldn't help but think that many were politely balking at the idea that their institutions were fundamentally unsuited to adopting the mediums most likely to engage their students, and may indeed require replacement rather than reform. Time will tell.

Bioethicest and biotechnology expert Lori Andrews illustrated many of the real world consequences of the modern love affair with social media in her presentation I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy. Produced a jaw dropping laundry list of Americans fired over dubious quotes on Twitter, indicted by police from contextless photos on Facebook, and students spied on in their homes by school funded devices. Besides the stories that could be shrugged off as salacious outliers of a mostly benign digital landscape, Andrews went on to detail the new normal of internet recon major employers use to determine who is hired in the post-privacy world order. She also recounted her Social Network Constitution, available for perusal online.

Transhumanism, singularities, and the parameters of personhood were analyzed by religious scholar and computer scientist Noreen Herzfeld, who argued persuasively against the notion that uploading a human brain, no matter how sophisticated a procedure we may one day design, will genuinely achieve immortality, at least as most imagine the concept. A mind in a program run on a computer is not the same as a living person. Is it even still a real intelligence, exorcised from a body subject to chemical reactions and encounters with other beings in physical space? Immortality has throughout history been portrayed in all human cultures as a Faustian proposition. Herzfeld is dismayed at the credence many currently pay to the prospect of digitally procured life extension and eagerness to anthropomorphize emerging technologies.

It seemed oddly fitting that the closing speaker of a conference fraught with cautionary tales and invocations of insidious threats to come would be an advocate of virtual reality who claimed to use zero social media. Jaron Lanier is a unique speaker, jumping from past to present seamlessly, interrupting himself on a regular basis without losing momentum, elucidating dense scientific theories without excessive jargon through stories of personal friends from Silicon Valley and intellectual ancestors from the near and distant past. One such was Alan Turing, the subject of several recent biographies and films, claimed by many to have put forth the scientific basis for artificial intelligence. Turing was a brilliant British mathematician who cracked an historic German code during World War 2 that some say was crucial to the Allies winning the war. He was also a gay man forced to live in denial and later hounded into quack medical treatments for his "mental illness" that likely led to his suicide. Lanier deftly connected some of the ideas Turing put forward near the end of his life concerning artificial intelligence to some of the bright new tropes of the day such as web 2.0, big data, and predictive algorithms. To be sure, there are innovations to be found in these ideas, but most are double-edged swords, equally capable of propelling us backwards into neurotic spirals of narcissism and self-fulfilling prophecy. Are the new platforms we pour our personal data into really superintelligent or are we retarding our expectations and perceptions to make them seem that way? Lanier remains optimistic, positing that technology can indeed save us, but only if we make conscious efforts to design it to do so. Not a given in our current race to the future. When greeted with near silence at his question of who in the audience has experienced a virtual reality program such as Occulus Rift, Lanier marveled that this would probably be one of the last audiences he'd speak in front of that would answer as such. During the closing discussion when all the speakers returned to the stage, Lori Andrews expressed great trepidation at the effects mass virtual reality would have on people, and he conceded that it may be the worst thing that could happen, as well as the best. But far from being an escape from the pains and struggles of real life, Lanier says the most accurate description of VR working properly is a "consciousness-recognizing machine". There is a moment, he claims, in every users' experience exploring a computer generated environment when the brain "believes" in the virtual world and the human being experiences their own perception in a radically new light. 11:8:15