Lanier, simulations, virtuality

by Paul Maharg on 15/07/2006

Found an old cutting last night from The Guardian  (traveller from an antique land) — profile interview with Jaron Lanier, by Oliver Burkeman.To set the scene, the article quotes Howard Rheingold (no citation):

Virtual reality vividly demonstrates that our social contract with our own tools has brought us to a point where we have to decide fairly soon what it is we humans ought to become, because we are on the brink of having the power of creating any experience we desire […] VR represents a kind of new contract between humans and computers, an arrangement that could grant us great power, and perhaps change us irrevocably in the process.

The article goes on:

In the 1992 movie Lawnmower Man, based on the novel by Stephen King, a crazed scientist uses his slow-witted gardener as a guinea-pig for his virtual reality experiments, launching him into an alternative universe created by a computer and turning him into a hyperintelligent monster in the process.

And then I remembered why I’d kept the cutting –  three years ago one of the student firms in Ardcalloch called their firm ‘Law’n More’, with the logo of a gardener with a lawnmower.  What were they doing?  Were they signalling their scepticism of the whole project?  Or enjoying it and entering the spirit of the simulation?  Some firms were more overt — ‘Virtual Lawyers’.  The names support the view that students took a spectrum of attitudes towards the projects: a complex of views ranging from outright scepticism to enthusiastic commitment.  A common attitude was one of commitment to the projects, and a sense of irony, with the deployment of ironical statements in letterheads — ‘I Can’t Believe it’s a Law Firm’, firms with Homer Simpson as their motto, and so on.  Irony is capable of many interpretations of course; but it was fairly clear to us that students were using irony not to subvert but as a signal of their independence, and of their awareness of the simulation context.  Lanier makes their irony more explicit:

If we allow our self-congratulatory adoration of technology to distract us from our own contact with each other, then somehow the original agenda has been lost.

His conversation with Burkeman touches on terminology as well as functionality, and includes a Man from Porlock moment:

It was Lanier who christened the embryonic technology.  ‘I don’t even like it’, he says of the term today.  ‘It’s a stupid term.  But I thought it had a ring to it, and it sounded quirky enough, and right on the edge of being contradictory — but not quite — so that it would grab attention, and be a nice cute phrase.  I was on a train in Italy some time later, and I had thought of a term that was much better than ‘virtual reality’.  but then there was some distraction with the ticket conductor and I never got it back’. […]

Lanier’s view of where this leads — to an enhancement of human communication, instead of to super-intelligent computers — baffles many proponents of artificial intelligence, Daniel Dennett among them.  Is he saying, Dennett demands, that computers with human-like intelligence — or even more — are ‘something we couldn’t develop, or shouldn’t develop?’  Neither, says Lanier: artificial intelligence is something we could never know, by definition, if we had attained it.  ‘Despite these ridiculous tests we give our children, there is no measure for intelligence, and treating it as an engineering goal puts one in a very strange position’, he says. ‘You can measure speed.  but if you want to engineer a device to maximise its beauty, you no longer have a measurement device.  It becomes subjective.  Artificial intelligence is like that.  When you talk to a person, there’s an element of faith on your part that there really is somebody at home.’  Proponents of AI, Lanier says, need to ‘justify why someone should show this good faith to a computer.’

Interesting, because nowadays our use of the term ‘virtual’ is a much looser sense than that used by Lanier.  Nevertheless, there are parallels for online simulations & legal ed.  One of these concerns the extent to which the reality of the simulation is an ‘immersive experience’ (and here, see the papers and email correspondence in ITFORUM on this concept, and that of ‘flow’).  If it draws in the user, how does it do so?  The simulation is really a device that, in Lanier’s terms, makes the user more ‘intentional’.

But we can take this further.  Lanier talks about not being able to form AI because we cannot know it when it is achieved.  There is a parallel here between this concept and that of transactional learning.  To adopt Lanier’s analogy, we can test and measure basic things such as speed or memory of concepts, etc.  But if we are to ‘maximise its beauty’, ie enable professional action in the world, then we will need to become subjective, and show students their own ways of attaining the goal.  There is, quite crucially, an element of personal making and re-making involved in professional learning.
Later in the article, Lanier talks of the connection between musical instruments and computers:

‘… I do think of instruments as having the best interfaces that have ever been designed’, he says.  ‘If there’s any object in human experience that’s a precedent for what a computer should be like, it’s a musical instrument: a device where you can explore a huge range of possibilities through an interface that connects your mind and your body, allowing you to be emotionally authentic and expressive’.

What is interesting about this quotation is the comparison that can be made with Steve Draper’s neat concept of the ‘fit’ of software being like a glove [somewhere here] — it’s largely unconscious, but you still feel it there, and you can still feel other things mediated through it in your hand, etc.  But this makes the technology potentially passive.  Lanier’s idea is much more interactive, in the way that a musician interacts with an instrument; and it’s ambitious for software designers, too.  There are a number of ways in which this can be applied to the virtual community:

1.  Students learn to use the community as a business community, in which they communicate with members of the community in a variety of tones and registers.

2.  The PI project is in a sense just such an expression of intention and developing artistry as is an instrument.  Through the project, the students begin to express themselves as professionals.  There is given to the students a set of procedures for the project, but it is emphasised to students that the project can go any way at all: unlike the Private Client project, for example, which is highly linear, this project is much more ‘open-field’, and has much more capability for individual as well as group expression as a result.  Because it is highly flexible, it relies much more on group dynamics, on the interpersonal side of the law, for a firm to succeed in it, or even to achieve competence.  Those firms who have difficulty in this project do so because they cannot manage the interpersonal aspect. Similarly, learning to play an instrument is manual dexterity, and the link between hand-brain; but there is also considerable personality involved even at low levels of musical education — for example the ability of a learner to distinguish good practice in rehearsal technique; the emotional intelligence of playing, and the ability to analyse and interpret musical passages.  This has highly interesting analogies built into it as a concept.  Think of musical education.  Think, for instance, of the RSNO choir, and the Kodaly method, or the analogy of master classes.

3.  The software is equivalent in complexity to the software that they would use in the legal office, and therefore it is a simulation of the types of tasks that they would undertake in a legal office.  To this extent, we needed to make the software as close a ‘fit’ as possible to the tasks they would undertake.  Inevitably, there was a considerable degree of learning involved in this — not merely the learning involved in learning to use the software, but the learning involved in developing a sense of office tasks and communications — for example, letting others know of the tasks you are doing, writing notes to file, saving in the correct directories, creating directories and files for clients, and so on.   In this respect, the concept of ‘categories’ that we used one year, instead of directories and sub-directories is a useful case study.  The concept was confusing to students.  Why?  Was it too close to directories?  What was confusing about it?  Could it be better put to the students?  At any rate, in Lanier’s terms, there is something going wrong with the fit of the concept.  It’s perhaps as if the students were being asked to learn instruments that were quite close to each other in fingering, and were confusing the fingering.

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