EVER SINCE musician, writer, and technological visionary Jaron Lanier coined the term ''virtual reality" in the early 1980s, and headed up efforts to implement the idea, he's been a member of the digerati in excellent standing. But he's an anxious member, known to raise alarms about just those big ideas and grand ambitions of the computer revolution that happen to excite the most enthusiasm among his peers. That was the case with his contrarian essay, ''One Half of a Manifesto," in 2000. He's done it again in a new piece, ''Digital Maoism," which has roiled the Internet since it was posted at edge.org on May 30.
In ''One Half of a Manifesto," Lanier attacked what he dubbed ''cybernetic totalism," an overweening intellectual synthesis in which mind, brain, life itself, and the entire physical universe are viewed as machines of a kind, controlled by processes not unlike those driving a computer. This digital-age ''dogma," he argued, got a boost from the era's new and ''overwhelmingly powerful technologies," which also obscured the dangers inherent in totalist thinking. People who would steer clear of Marxism, for example, might fall for an even more grandiose world view if it had digital cachet.