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Breaking News: Jaron Lanier Called to the Witness Stand in London to Discuss the Future of Hip-Hop Music

Tomorrow, Google is sponsoring a debate in London called “Hip-Hop on Trial” to consider the proposition that “Hip-Hop Doesn’t Enhance Society, It Degrades It.” The event will be streaming live on YouTube from 7-830 pm GMT+1 (1-2:30 pm EST) on June 26th.

Why is the Prevail Project interested in what promises to be a loud-spoken affair? (Jesse Jackson + Touré + KRS-One = loud-spoken) Because Jaron Lanier will take the witness stand!

That’s right. Jaron Lanier, champion of the Prevail Scenario and owner-operator of one of the largest collections of ancient music instruments in the world, will be called to the stand – literally – as a witness. For the prosecution or the defense? The press releases do not say; we will have to watch and listen for ourselves. My guess is that Lanier will share many of the same sentiments as The Roots drummer ?uestlove, and legendary producer-lyricist Q-Tip: hip-hop is culture, this culture is complex and complicated, and hip-hop “mos-definitely” has a bright future.

The Google event was sparked, in part, by the role of hip-hop in spreading the protest sentiments of citizens in Egypt and Tunisia. In February 2011 when NPR covered “The Songs of the Egyptian Protests”, hip-hop was a prominent feature of the protest fuel.

In January 2012, the New York Times covered a wider swath of revolutionary hip-hop in a piece titled “The Mixtape of the Revolution.” Hip-hop’s influence in the Arab Spring extends from Libya to Algeria, “from Guinea to Djibouti.”

One of those rappers, El Général, will take the stand Tuesday in London.

Hip hop is often recognized in English departments as the embodiment and progression of the personal essay form, sharing affinities with the best of American poetry from Walt Whitman to Bob Dylan.
As an avid hip-hop fan, the idea that hip-hop in toto “degrades society” is the sort of patently absurd claim that only a lawyer’s guild would make. The question in my mind is not about which side of the isle will win the case, but rather which hip-hop artists Jaron Lanier finds inspirational.

In an age when hip-hop records tend to be tightly controlled by major record labels, perhaps Lanier appreciates the initiative shown by Ghana’s Blitz the Ambassador, who managed to reach the top 10 most downloaded list on iTunes, for a brief spell, without a record deal? Perhaps Lanier fancies the futuristic strain of hip-hop, exemplified by Deltron’s 3030, with Dan the Automator’s vintage lo-fidelity soundscapes?

Tune in to find out, and share in the discussion online at the Google+ YouTube site. Tell them the Prevail Project sent you!

Empathy and Creativity

There are three fundamental principles for the Prevail scenario:

1. The future is not predictable; uncertainty trumps technological determinism. Prediction is a fool’s errand. That’s why we need multiple scenarios to navigate the future.

2. Connectedness is crucial: “a gradual ramp of increased bridging of the interpersonal gap.” I share with Howard Rheingold the belief that our technologies can serve rather than substitute for fleshier connections. But I agree with Jaron Lanier that eternal vigilance is called for to assure that the design and execution of our social networking technologies not lead us astray toward bogus connectivity.

3. We can achieve social transcendence by expanding the radius of empathy, but not so far as to include all living things.

Let me expand especially on the third: Empathy is essential. And compassion. But Jaron Lanier is also right to hold out for the creativity of innovative individuals—artists, poets, scientists, musicians.

One of the most challenging aspects of the Prevail scenario lies in navigating the narrow pass between too much individualism on the one hand, and too much collectivism on the other. We tend to think in binary terms: A or non-A. But the Prevail scenario calls for a more complex path: Not the One of hyper-individualism, not the All of Communist collectivism, but the less precise Some of limited community.

The radius of empathy cannot extend into the infinite. You can’t “friend” billions. Nor can it contract to the precious self of solipsism and narcissism. Is there an ideal size to the Some of a thickly empathetic community? No. And that’s part of what makes this idea of “Not One, not All, but Some” so intractable and intellectually unsatisfying.

But, hey, that’s life. Some communities will contract too far toward the exclusivity of we precious few. That way lies tribalism. Some communities will seek such broad inclusivity that their specialness will be leveled out and homogenized. We’ll lurch from the too small Some to the too large Some and back again because there is no ideal number.

This is why Joel Garreau has to describe the Prevail scenario as a series of “fits and starts, hiccups and coughs, reverses and loops—not unlike the history we humans always have known.” Its trajectory will not follow a downward deterministic curve toward oblivion. Nor will it carve an ascending arc toward an asymptotic approach to the Singularity. Instead it will look rather more like a pubic hair.

Jay Oglivy is the author of “Creating Better Futures” and is one of the founders of the pioneering scenario-planning firm Global Business Network.

The Lanier Effect

You’re probably familiar with Jaron Lanier. VR pioneer, musician, author of You Are Not a Gadget and far too many articles to mention. He’s also the inspiration for the Prevail Scenario in Radical Evolution, and the Prevail Project in general. And more recently, he has an hour long interview over at edge.org.

The interview and transcript is far too complex to be summarized here, but Jaron attempts to get at this very basic question: if the internet was supposed to connect people, get them access to information and the levers of power, and make the world better, why do people feel less secure and less wealthy today? It’s because we’re giving up our data, our decisions, and our integrity in the name of efficiency and internet fame, without asking if those are durable goods.

What you have now is a system in which the Internet user becomes the product that is being sold to others, and what the product is, is the ability to be manipulated. It’s an anti-liberty system, and I know that the rhetoric around it is very contrary to that. “Oh, no, there are useful ads, and it’s increasing your choice space”, and all that, but if you look at the kinds of ads that make the most money, they are tawdry, and if you look at what’s happening to wealth distribution, the middle is going away, and just empirically, these ideals haven’t delivered in actuality. I think the darker interpretation is the one that has more empirical evidence behind it at this point…

And so when all you can expect is free stuff, you don’t respect it, it doesn’t offer you enough to give you a social contract. What you can seek on the Internet is you can seek some fine things, you can seek friendship and connection, you can seek reputation and all these things that are always talked about, you just can’t seek cash. And it tends to create a lot of vandalism and mob-like behavior. That’s what happens in the real world when people feel hopeless, and don’t feel that they’re getting enough from society. It happens online.

What does Jaron see as the way out? Well, you’ll have to read the article to find out.