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The guy who coined ‘virtual reality’ thinks tech may cause human extinction

Influential commentator says technology is endangering humankind

If the last few years have felt like a slew of bad headlines after bad headlines, it’s because they essentially have been. A pandemic, supply chain issues, shortages, and other challenges have given rise to “doom scrolling” on Twitter, which has seen its own share of bad news lately.

Not to be those people, but we have some more doom-and-gloom news to share. This time, it’s about the end of humankind thanks to technology. When will humans go extinct? That’s unclear, but it’s “on the table,” according to Jaron Lanier, the person who came up with the term “virtual reality.”

Image used with permission by copyright holder

What’s all the fuss about? A lot of Lanier’s warning has to do with the aforementioned issues with Twitter

“People survive by passing information between themselves,” Lanier said in an interview with the Guardian. “We’re putting that fundamental quality of humanness through a process with an inherent incentive for corruption and degradation. The fundamental drama of this period is whether we can figure out how to survive properly with those elements or not.”

However, it’s not just the dramatic shifts happening at Twitter that concern Lanier. He cited “psychological operatives” associated with Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the Chinese communist government promoting and filtering agenda-based information. Basically, technology and the web have become a rigged, abused system, and it’s causing dangerous chaos. 

“There are all kind of intermediaries,” Lanier told the Guardian. “They might be the people who own a platform, recently Elon Musk, or third parties who are good at sneaking in influence. The interveners can be varied. Some are official, some are revealed, others hidden. Some are competent, some incompetent. Some are random, like an algorithm that someone made but didn’t understand.”

So, what does all of this talk about technology have to do about extinction? 

“I still think extinction is on the table as an outcome,” Lanier said. “Not necessarily, but it’s a fundamental drama. If we can coordinate ourselves to solve the climate crisis, it’s a fundamental sign we haven’t become completely dysfunctional.”

Have we coordinated a true response to the climate crisis? That’s debatable. What’s not debatable is that social media has become a polarizing space. Lanier also penned an opinion piece for the New York Times, writing that he noticed a change “or, really, a narrowing, in public behavior of people who use Twitter or other social media a lot.” Lanier named names: Elon Musk, Donald Trump, and Ye (formerly Kanye), calling them “bratty little boys” and hypothesizing that they had been “Twitter poisoned.”

This news all sounds very grave. What can we do to save humankind?

“The most profound problem here is, can we be sane enough to communicate and coordinate for our survival?” Lanier asks.

Time will tell.

BethAnn Mayer
Beth Ann's work has appeared on and In her spare time, you can find her running (either marathons…
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