Conference Explores Future of Digital Cities

As part of a newly expanded focus on the structure and administration of digitally enabled urban environments, UCLA Luskin held a two-day conference April 24-25 titled “Who Owns the Digital City?”. Scholars, entrepreneurs and activists came to campus to explore innovations and share knowledge on digitally empowered publics, tackling questions of ownership, service, participation, equity and justice in equal measure.

Read the formal conference summary

The conference kicked off with a keynote address Thursday, April 24, as detailed in this report by UCLA Luskin student writer Max Wynn.

Rethinking Digital Ownership: The contrarianism of Jaron Lanier

Technologist and futurist Jaron Lanier, author of Who Owns the Digital Future, opened the “Who Owns the Digital City?” conference in front of a crowd gathered on UCLA Luskin’s rooftop terrace.

Lanier is a tech pioneer whose wide-ranging accomplishments include coining the term “virtual reality,” starting a number of successful tech companies, and possessing one of world’s most extensive collections of actively played rare instruments.

After an adjective-laden introduction from Dean Frank Gilliam, Lanier approached the microphone.

“Oh god, aren’t I impressive,” he asked with an air of mock conceit.

The gathered crowd laughed, but it was an appropriate introduction for what followed. Lanier’s talk, like his book, presented a scathing critique of the current Internet landscape, and of the big businesses that dominate it. However, it was a critique given in an off-kilter manner that was befitting of the dreadlocked man delivering it.

His argument centered on the concentration of technologically bred wealth in the hands of a digital elite. According to Lanier, these elites have positioned themselves at the hubs of digital networks, and have succeeded in monetizing the shared data of their users. The users, or “peasant class,” are not compensated for their role in this wealth creation process. The result has been a tech sector that is actively contributing to the continued destruction of the middle class.

As Lanier’s assault wore on, many of the titans of literature, business, philosophy and, of course, technology were both praised and criticized, often in the same breath.

Lanier’s eclectic interests were on constant display, and within the first ten minutes he discussed the works of Aristotle, Marx and Shelley. In doing so Lanier strayed from Silicon Valley’s typical catalog of cultural references, though Ayn Rand was mentioned briefly.

While Lanier referenced an extensive cast of literary figures, his talk veered well beyond the bounds of letters. At one point he linked “Maxwell’s demon,” a famous thought experiment in the field of thermodynamics, to macroeconomic theory and the history of American business.

The talk ended in an appropriately unexpected fashion. After readjusting the microphone, Lanier was joined onstage by the musician Paul Simon’s son, Harper. As the sun dropped below the Westwood skyline, the duo performed a series of musical compositions. Lanier played a number of exotically named instruments from his personal collection while Simon strummed on a guitar and swayed from side to side.

Afterwards, Lanier signed books and took questions from a crowd still slightly awed by the evening’s spectacle.


The Promises and Pitfalls of Digital Governance

Listen to Jaron Lanier here


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