John Gray and Jaron Lanier in conversation

A meeting of minds – entropy, technology & social connectivity

The British writer and philosopher John Gray is one of the few public intellectuals worthy of both titles. His many books place him as one of the key thinkers of our time. Equally critical of classic Left and Right positions and a rigourous inquisitor of much of what we take to be common sense, his public broadcasts, essays and book reviews demonstrate an authoritative grasp of the zeitgeist and a unique ability amongst his peers to address wider social and political concerns and be understood by the general public. In this passage, he talked with Jaron Lanier, one of the founding fathers of the virtual world, consultant on Second Life and a top programming guru with Microsoft who subsequently turned against the prevailing wisdom of this new priesthood. His brilliant bestseller, "You Are Not A Gadget" (Allen Lane 2010) is an indictment of the lazy thinking, the accident and malice that informs much of the foundations of the digital life to which our generation and potentially all future generations will be condemned. In a climate dominated by an excited chorus of uniform approval about all the fruits of new technology, Lanier is a compelling voice of dissent.

John Gray I was put onto the promise and, on the other hand, the dangers of virtual reality by something written by Stanislav Lem1 in the 1960s. He talked about a machine, which would enable people to live several different lives, rather than just one ending irrevocably in death. He thought it was achievable. This is a certain kind of consolation in materialism2. Rust and error defeat the perfect virtual reality machine.

Jaron Lanier Without entropy3 there would be no meaning. So in the sciences, rust and error are a perfect way of describing entropy. There is an error of time, there is no perfection.

JG But that's good, in my view.

JL If that were not the case then every point in time would be an equivalent to every other, it's this perfect Platonic object. Entropy is a consequence to reality.

JG There is a close convergence between certain trends in Platonic and other types of mysticism, which I interpret as anti-entropy programs. What they are trying to avoid is not only time's arrow, but also the irrevocability of events, because this is a part of being a finite human being. Those trends seem to be a metaphysical revolt against being human. Being human means doing irrevocable things. Things, which are irrevocable not just because of the certain physical properties of the universe like entropy, but because actually our way of understanding ourselves is bound up with having done certain things, and those things entering to what we then are. I reviewed Kurzweil's book Transcend, in which he recommends a diet that enables you to live forever. I am strongly hostile to this, not on the basis that it can be never technologically feasible, but on the basis that what would survive would be what the Greeks called a "shade", an abstract cartoon version of what he either was or wanted to be, or even wanted to have been. In a later book I did, The Immortalisation Commission, I looked in detail at early 20th century and late 19th century English psychical research and spiritualism. They attempted to show by scientific method that scientific materialism was false. They wanted to demonstrate that the human personality could survive bodily death. I interpret Kurzweil as of the same project in a different technological context, a project of eliminating entropy from the human mind in order that something, which doesn't suffer from that sort of irrevocability and contingency can be preserved.

JL In my view there is a central economic incentive to the new ideology. A computer is a little piece of the world, you can put a box around it. Within that little box is a theatre, in which you've set up a system, in which entropy doesn't exist. So you create this artificial theatre, but overall you're spewing randomness out. You are adding to the universe.

JG Adding to the noise.

JL Yes, but it's outside the boundaries of the system, that's why your computer gets hot, that's why big data centres are put by rivers, because computation makes heat and that's where the entropy gets spilled out. You create a theatre that's instrumentally real and valid for you, in which there is no risk and everything is deterministic, and everything makes sense to the degree you can program. That idea, when it's transferred to the self has a profound economic implication, because if you think of the self as a computer, then you imagine the person with the biggest computer to be able to calculate risk and radiate it, and that results in the entirely new world of economics, in which you can create some bubbles. We've seen that in the banking sector and things like Facebook, and in the way intelligence agencies operate. Everybody realises if you have the biggest computer, you can sort the rest of the world to your benefit and make everyone else take the risks so that your hedgefund, or derivative fund, becomes arbitrarily profitable; your social network gets all the benefits with none of the risks, your agency becomes the perfect panopticon. An interesting consequence is a double standard about what immortality means. There are two kinds of immortality for ordinary people who are out there, who don't have the biggest computers, who are accepting all the risk and are not being big makers of the social networks. For those people, you are supposed to accept simulations of people who died as being real, but the really rich are interested in freezing themselves - the people who benefit from things are interested in eternal experience. That divide is going to become the next great religious divide. It's like the distinction between the immortals and mortals in ancient Greece.

JG It recurs in the philosophically developed English psychical research in the early 1900s, because there were different theories of what immortality meant then and one was the persistence of subjective experiences and the other was that the information in a mind would somehow be stored. Preserved either in a large storehouse, or a cosmic storehouse, or as separate streams or currents. But then it wouldn't be associated with experience. There might be just memories.

JL There is actually a tremendous mysticism heritage that influenced Silicon Valley, particularly Gurdjieff4, the California new age movement which was our reflection of English mysticism a half a century earlier. We inherited your fetishes for exoticism and spiritualism.

JG One of the earliest experiments of freezing people was actually on Lenin. The people who did that were a branch of the Bolsheviks called The Godseekers which included Krasin, who was a trade minister. He was a techno-immortalist and disciple of Russian mystical thinker, [Nikolai] Fyodorov5.

JL Marxism did have this Platonic quality where you build the perfect society that lends itself to this notion of being able to preserve the nature of a person. They had an entropy-free sense of materialism, which is a scientifically invalid form of materialism.

JG When I published my book I was approached by one or two people who have been in Russia very recently. They say that all this Fyodorov stuff, which is a mix of certain trends in Russian Orthodoxy with Russia's rocket science tradition, which was, as in America, always tied up with what we think of as occultism. What they told me was that it's very strong now, the ideology of cosmism6. The slogan of cosmists was: Dead of the world unite! That cosmist ideology, which went on even in the Stalin period, was biggest from the Revolution into, I'd say, late 1920s, that's all still there.  Can I just say something before I forget on the economic side? Phillip Mirowski's Economics as a Cyborg Science  reconstructs the history of economics. He deals with Hayek7 partly wrongly, partly rightly as a proto-cybernetic8 theorist of the information economy. But there is another side to Hayek, where he draws much more on ideas like those of Michael Palanyi, which are not about information at all, but about tacit practical knowledge. Parts of knowledge that cannot be turned into information. The main influence on Hayek was Ernst Mach. Hayek laid emphasis on this other side, not the informational or the cybernetic side, he didn't even use those terms, but on that part of knowledge which inherently can't be reconstructed as information, but which we use in the economy, which we use in our transactions with each other. That's the other side. Mirowski overdoes the cybernetic side of Hayek. There are the crucial papers that he wrote in the 1940s after he lost his debate with Keynes9 on economic calculation and on models of market socialism, which, he rightly thought, didn't work.

JL I praise Keynes as a great computer scientist.

JG He is a much greater thinker than Hayek.

JL Keynes is thinking in terms of neurodynamics10. There is a mistake that a lot of people make when they try to bring mathematical thinking into other fields: if you can find one ideal point in a system, it must be the only one or the best one. So, in economics if there is one point of equilibrium, we should focus on it, where in fact there might be many others. Keynes understood that there might be multiple humps. The so-called conservatives or the austerians of the moment believe that austerity always leads upwards, unless it's [per taxes] then it suddenly leaps forwards. So, there are two peaks. They are conveniently mathematically correct or not, when it suits their purposes and it bothers me a great deal.

JG There was only one economist who personally knew Keynes and Hayek and was influenced by them both and tried to synthesise them. G.L.S. Schackle. In Epistemics and Economics he takes Keynes' work on probability, where Keynes gave up, and takes it further. He argues what you've just said on the plurality of different equilibria, which could even be an infinite plurality at some point. The only orthodox, or conventional economist influenced by him is Arrow, and there is nothing in Arrow's thought, which shows that he absorbed the Keynesian insights of Schackle. So, what interests me is that this cybernetic trend in economic thinking broke down within economics in Keynes, Hayek and Schackle. There was a moment, which must have been somewhere in the '40s and '50s, when Hayek was at Chicago, in which the non-cybernetic aspects of indeterminacy and disequilibrium in economics became paramount and were then forgotten. One of the things I try to do is bring that back, but nobody is terribly interested.

JL That's fascinating. I have one friend who won a Nobel in economics, who advised me never to use the term "economics" in my book in order to describe myself as having any ambitions or acquaintance with economic thinking per se. I should have adhered to it, because there is certain truth to it and I'd never consider myself an economist. I interact with physicists and neuroscientists in my work, and they never have any excitement.

JG They are the most defensive and most intolerant in my experience.

JL Economics is the only field I've ever encountered that doesn't seem to be able to falsify an idea. They never die. Economic ideas are like Richard Dawkins, they just continue.

JG They are immortal.

JL Every time you talk to someone about economics, they have this absolute certainty: "You don't know anything, I know everything, I really understand this subject". There are a thousand people with definite certainties. I see that very much in the austerity-oriented thinking that's going on today.

JG The ideas of Hayek, and even of Keynes, embody certain larger intellectual traditions of which in general economists today are ignorant. They are using the products of these traditions without understanding what they were. In Hayek's case, it was Kant, it was Mach. In Keynes' case it was the Scottish classical economists, it was certain work done by Ramsay and others in probability.

JL In information theory one of the most crucial things that we worry about is noise propagation. If you have a source of information here and you are reading some information here, and there have been events transpiring in between, how many good bits actually made it through? That's absolutely fundamental to everything. I think that the information feedback with some of the economy loses a great deal of information and there is this great tremendous degree of the assumption.

JG Of course.

JL I am not saying that all economists are ignorant to this fact, but I've run into some who are.

JG One reason Keynes himself wasn't is that he was a practicing speculator for 30 years.

JL Yes. The people who actually make money know.

JG Basically when you get to the very centre of economic activity, there is alchemy and chaos.

JL Animal spirits.

JG As Keynes called them. In Keynes', Hayek's, or even Schackle's day, the sharp distinction between economics as some sort of discipline with fixed boundaries and other regions of thought was not made by any of the practitioners. They simply addressed what they thought were the questions or the issues. The only area in which Buchanan-like rational choice theory11 and public choice theory12 work, is in the economics profession. However it only works there because they internalise it.

JL In the new book, I take a leap from not just criticising, but actually proposing an alternate way to run the economy in the age of computation. The problem is that we use computers to radiate risk out from computational economic structures. You gather information in such a way that you get this advantage and you order the rest of the world to your benefit. That's creating a gradual shrinking of the economy, because what you do is demonetise what other people do. On Facebook, people put their information for free, for Facebook's benefit, and the type of benefit that ordinary people have is efficiency but not wealth creation. So you gain the ability to crash other people's couches more efficiently, but you don't gain an ability to have your own equity and your own wealth. In classical economics, I argue, the only reason we've got strong middle classes was because of the world of the ad-hoc structures that I am calling "levies". These are like little dabs that capture some of the flow of the capital for the benefit of the person in order so that there can be a middle class and it's not just slashing back and forth between the extremes of wealth and poverty. These include unions and copyright royalties, and all kinds of the other structures, ad-hoc structures and that's what created the middle class and the new efficiency of perpetration is destroying all those. The remedy I am proposing is to value all the information gathered on people, whether voluntarily or not. So if somebody is seen by a street-camera and that's used for the government, the government sends that person a cheque. If Facebook makes money off aggregating your data, they should send you a payment. I believe valuing all money may create a different system that's very realistic in terms of dynamic, where risk would become bundle, rather than radiated from whoever has the biggest computer. It would create an incremental system for building the middle class, instead of one based on ad-hoc systems, copyright or union membership. I believe it would naturally create a middle class.

JG Very interesting. It could be seen as a Schumpeterian thesis on the negative side of the way in which the creative destruction of these new information technologies incorporates the extinction of what we have, in the past, viewed as a middle class.

JL Sure. A venture capital firm will say, "we are looking for someone to disrupt the market". What they mean is, that you go in and computerise it, digitise it for your own benefit, you radiate the risk out and the total value of that market shrinks to maybe a quarter to a tenth of what it once was. It has happened to media arts, like music and publishing. The bigger picture is when cars start to drive themselves, or when you can print out goods from a 3D printer. This idea of creative destruction combined with computation is too destructive. The world I am talking about is still utterly dynamic and will be more laissez-faire capitalistic.

JG Schumpeter thought the result of creative destruction would be socialism. Reiterated experiences of creative destruction in Schumpeter connected some flimsy speculations he had about the birth rate. He thought that the middle class would shrink to the point that it became insignificant, so you'd have bourgeois democracy without bourgeoisie, then you'd have socialism. You are suggesting something diametrically opposite.

JL This idea has been inherited in modern Silicon Valley, where there is intense libertarian laissez-faire capitalism, but projecting to the future, we imagine a socialism, which is called "abundance", where technology makes everything present, so that all you need is efficiency. Everything's done by machines. It'll matter because there'll be just ambient technologies and this is a socialist dream.

JG It's Fourier13 in the 18th century, when he said that the oceans would taste of lemonade.

JL You share with me that sort of amusement at finding an idea being treated as so new it's not actually new.

JG That's right.

JL There are few new ideas. Almost all of them had a period in the past.

JG I think if you don't have any knowledge, which lots of people now don't, then what you recreate are shoddy versions of earlier ideas.

JL Allen Watts was tremendously influential in that new age quality of the [San Francisco] Bay Area, which also houses Silicon Valley. He had a wonderful essay on the topic of reincarnation, saying, "if you nick the idea from physics of the particle versus wave and wave interpreting analysis, you can think of a wave way of interpreting people, where the qualities of people reappear in a wave, like a wave of new people". In that sense there is no mortality to people and ideas.

JG They recur.

JL Alan Watts' writing is infinitely more sober and sophisticated.

JG And laconic and concise. I only recently discovered that someone I knew in the last years of his life, Norman Cohn, who wrote on millennialism14 in the late Medieval period, was at Bletchley Park when Turing was there. It was recognised in Bletchley Park that as well as mathematicians and code breakers like Turing, they needed historians. They were supposed use their historical understanding, their historical empathy, their understanding of what human agents do in particular types of situation, to deal with the raw decrypts. It was important to have these other types of minds, and that it seems to be the sort of imperialism of a certain kind of economics. The complete loss of a kind of non-informational or non-cybernetic understanding of economic processes.

JL It's possible to make the greatest fortunes in history by refudiating the human element as much as possible. That's the strange thing, because you want to radiate anything about the human element outwards. So you want to say: "I have a social network, it's not my responsibility what people do on there, but I gather their data and then customers come in and use their data to manipulate these people, but even that's not my problem. I am just a superior computer looking down on it all, and any judgement doesn't have to deal with me, because I am the biggest aggregator". You see this in so many different fields now.

JG An enormous amount of politics, policy-making, economic theory and economic management articulate conceptions of knowledge, which are fundamentally flawed. Those errors partly result from the fragmentation of disciplinary knowledge. Keynes read poetry, philosophy, history, etc. And knew many political actors of the time. He was with the British delegation at Versailles. So he knew what it meant to be a political actor. Most economists I know don't know any politicians.

JL It's a big problem. There are some really smart ones, but they are a minority.  One interesting sociological phenomenon is the rise of influence of a certain cognitive style, or personality, which is associated with computer culture, which might be described as having a touch of Asperger's syndrome. We lack adequate terminology, but its sometimes called "nerdiness". It's a way of thinking about people's information as put up in units and as being roughly equivalent to the other information. It's empirically naïve. If you have a device that purports to be human life, like Siri, the phone that talks to you, people change themselves in order for that to feel real. People adjust themselves to be more computer-like to make the software seem more human-like.

JG A little bit more Aspergery.

JL One theory I hear all the time in Silicon Valley is a genetic one. Nerds started getting rich and powerful a generation or two ago, and now we have generations of children of high-powered parents who are very intelligent, who themselves are nerdy. So there has been a selection process.

JG Do you think that's plausible? I don't.

JL It doesn't seem right to me. I think that the autism epidemic is more of an artefact of classification and reporting then it is a real phenomenon.

JG It almost seems, this explanation, to embody the disorder it diagnoses. It's a neo-Darwinian explanation of social change.

JL This is pure Silicon Valley culture. We use this nerdy explanation to describe our own nerdiness.

JG So you have a perfect bubble, and that's why it might be so difficult to get out of it.

JL Exactly, it's so difficult. There is this institution called the Singularity University that I always ridiculed, because I thought calling something a singularity15 university is preposterous. This thing has emigrated into a NASA facility and then Google, and extended its global campus. I believe if it wasn't accumulating so much wealth, it wouldn't possess so much power.

JG It's the confluence of these different, self-immunising characters of the worldview. Its enormous economic success gives it credibility, I am sure this is just a priori to the American military.

JL I think the military has suffered from a degree of overreliance on abstract information sensibility that's empirically flawed. Historically, you can find a large catalogue of military blunders.

JG There has been a recent pattern connected with not understanding what happens when you dissolve tyrannous political structures suddenly. In Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and potentially Syria. What we've had in most cases is a groupist version of the Hobbesian16 war, not an individualist war, it's secterianised. It flouts Hobbes' central thesis about self-preservation, because many of them are quite willing to trade off their lives for the sake of something else, not information, but meaning. In the last 15 years, there have been enough resemblances among the blunders for one to think they have some common root.

JL In Silicon Valley we were calling the Arab Spring "the Facebook revolution", or "the Twitter revolution" as if we were bringing utopia to all these people. Looking at all of these young people in Tahrir Square, many of whom look extremely bright and like people I'd want to know, I think, "does anyone believe that Twitter or Facebook are going to create livelihoods for these people?" To separate communication from economics is a great fallacy. It's a great undoing of what Silicon Valley is bringing to the world. We are going to aggregate all of the data to some Californian company's computer and we think that's going to help them in the future. It's a tease. It's saying: "here is a window of communication to modernity, and all you get is information, you don't get a livelihood, you don't get wealth, you don't get power". They can't just have a platform for complaint and for protest.

JG The first self-immolation was connected with the price of wheat. There is an argument that this was also to some extent connected with American attempts to re-float the American economy by masses of liquidity, which got into speculative markets.

JL The capital is coming from people who previously had political monopoly on the wealth of their nations, or some sort of petro-fiefdom. You see a lot of Gulf money pouring into these things; you see Russian oligarchal money going in. So, essentially we are moving from an era where you control a physical area and a population, to one where you control competition. But it's the same capital flowing from one to the next.

JG 10 years ago I wrote a book, Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern. I argued Al Qaeda was extremely modern, not only because they used computers, but because their ideas were modern - many were taken from Lenin. They used terms, which are not Islamic. It's not just modern, it's modernist. What it means to be modern is now being fostered in these countries through the notion that if they possess the requisite information then by some kind of magic, they can transform their economies.

JL The guys recruited for the September 11th attacks had come from an engineering background. You can go to university and get an education in engineering and it's treated as a technical ability that's like this module you plug in your psyche. It does not have an inherent quality, it's an abstract skill.

JG Another example, perhaps even more extreme, is the Aum cult17 in Japan, recruited from geneticists.

JL It's a relevant example because it's important not to be centred on Muslim things. Aum may be the worst type, and it was nominally Buddhist.

JG But also influenced by western science fiction. Especially the recruitment, which was entirely in highly mathematically, biologically, genetically and scientifically literate groups.

JL There is unfortunately a sense that nerds are a master race. You see people who triumphantly publish, "we found a way to create this killer virus" or, "we have this way to do horrible harm to people". We're the good guys. There is this triumphalism that is terribly wrong-headed.

JG That is also in the early Russian cosmist rocket scientists, who were influenced by Fyodorov. His explicit programme was to eliminate inferior species, which is practically every non-human animal species, but also inferior human beings, and it wasn't racist in the sense that the Nazis were, because it wasn't tied up explicitly with Haeckel-like theories of fixed racial groups, just human beings who aren't very smart, who don't have a lot of cognitive capacities.

Sometimes it sounds a bit like the first decade of the 20th century in Russia.

JL I hope not. I hope that the following decade will be as dissimilar as possible.

JG It was an incredible burst of intellectual, mystical, occultist and scientific creativity. Incredible at that time. §


1. Stanislav Lem  (September 12th, 1921 - March 27th, 2006) was a Polish writer, best known for the science fiction novel Solaris (1961).

2. materialism:  the philosophical theory that regards matter and its motions as constituting the universe, and all phenomena, including those of the mind, as due to material agencies.

3. entropy:  a doctrine of inevitable social decline and degeneration, which also has specific implications in the field of thermodynamics as well as information theory and cosmology.

4. George Gurdjieff  (January 13th, 1866 - October 29th, 1949) was a spiritual leader who developed a concept of self-development known as the Fourth Way by combining various esoteric eastern practices.

5. Nikolai Fyodorov  (June 9th, 1827 - December 28th, 1903) was a Russian Orthodox Christian philosopher, futurist and member of the Russian cosmist movement. He advocated the pursuit of scientific methods for the dramatic extension of life, sea and space exploration, and the revival of the dead.

6. cosmism  was a philosophical and cultural movement originating from Russia in the early 20th century that envisioned the perfection of the human race coming with the pursuit of space colonisation and foreshadowed the later transhumanist movement.

7. Friedrich Hayek  (May 8th, 1899 - March 23th, 1992) was a Nobel Prize winning Austro-Hungarian economist of the Austrian School and had a profound influence on the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan during the 1980s.

8. cybernetics: the branch of science concerned with control systems in electronic and mechanical devices and the extent to which useful comparisons can be made between man-made and biological systems.

9. John Maynard Keynes  (June 5th, 1883 - April 21th, 1946) was a British economist, widely considered to be the most influential economist of the 20th century. Keynes advocated a mixed economy with a significant role for government in regulating the activities of the private sector.

10. neurodynamics: an area of research in the cognitive sciences relating to, or involving communication between different parts of the nervous system.

11. rational choice theory is a framework for understanding and often formally modeling social and economic behavior. Rationality is equated with seeking the most cost effective means of achieving a specific goal.

12. public choice theory applies the theories and methods of economics to the analysis of political behavior, an area that was once the exclusive province of political scientists and sociologists.

13. Charles Fourier  (April 7th, 1772 - October 10th, 1837) was a French philosopher whose views inspired several socialist utopian communities in America in the mid-twentieth century.

14. millennialism a belief held by some Christian denominations that the final judgement will be preceded by a   "Golden Age" or "Paradise on Earth" lasting a thousand years during which Christ will reign.

15. singularity: sometimes called the technological singularity, it refers to the hypothetical future in which an artificial superintelligence emerges bringing with it unknown and unpredictable consequences.

16. Thomas Hobbes  (April 5th, 1588 - December 4th, 1679) was an English philosopher. He postulated that life without a moral social contract would amount to a "war of all against all" in which each man would have a license to everything in the world.

17. Aum Shinrikyo cult: Aum Shinrikyo is a millennial Japanese cult whose belief system incorporates facets of Yoga, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and the writings of Nostradamus. They were responsible for the infamous 1995 gas attack on the Tokyo subway.



  • John Gray – Jaron Lanier