Jaron Lanier: The underlying low-bandwidth form

We don’t know what to think of Jaron Lanier. He’s just too far ahead of us, we guess. He’s making a ton of sense, though, in an Adweek interview. Snippets? You want snippets?

“These commercial,home-oriented broadband services tend to be created without any regard for latency of transmission.”


“The amount of time it takes for something to happen. If you see a particular frame of a television show a quarter of a second later than your neighbor, no one’s the wiser. Now, what if this model is completely wrong? What if people want to be connected with each other to be sources of information? What if they want to treat the Internet like a combination of videoconferencing, plus micro-broadcasting stations plus who knows what? In that case, they will care about symmetry.”

“Todayvideo games start to look, on the surface, like movies, and so people who are old-media type people tend to think of them as if they were movie productions. It makes sense but, in fact, that’s the wrong way to think of them.... Prior to the advent of computers and simulation, little kids were stuck with a horrendous dilemma in their lives: They had to choose between the world of make-believe, where they’re alone in their heads, or the world of shared people and sustenance.

“But in [the latter] their powers were very limited. So they were trapped. Gaining the real world meant losing the power of creativity. In the computer, especially when connected to the Internet, you have for the first time a place that’s fluid like imagination, but also shared – so you have a path through the dilemma of childhood.”

Amazon, AOL, and eBay “have the following distinction: The majority of bits on their servers are provided by users and not by the business. That doesn’t mean that everybody on this service wants to be an artist. Everybody on Amazon that’s reading reviews and commentary and so forth is not trying to be an author....

“[W]hat I’m pointing out is that the core value here actually functions at low bandwidth. And I’m going to make another claim even more dramatic: The main thing people want bandwidth for, or will want bandwidth for, is in the outgoing direction.” Creation, he means, not reception.

We don’t quite agree that bandwidth, i.e., production values, is irrelevant in video games, for example. We played Space Invaders. We set up Pong in the Woolco store so that the ball would bounce endlessly between the two paddles without human intervention. It was about as high-tech as pinball.

Anyway, isn’t this issue re-emerging in the complaints about the photorealistic icons in Mac OS X? They aren’t icons anymore; they’re pictures. Apple human-interface guidelines for OS X (available in PDF) go through a convoluted song and dance to describe the new functions of the sexy icons (applications, utilities, and documents all look different now, and not at all in obvious ways), but they don’t look like icons.

In any event, Lanier agrees with us on one point: Simple, small-scale “content” online works best. Like reading and writing. Easy stuff. No video, no film, none of that nonsense. He believes that will change when immersiveness becomes attainable. At present, we don’t agree. Unless you give us a way to make an immersive world with audible and visible words all over the place. In that case, we are so there.

Posted on 2000-10-12