Saturday, 8 October 2011

Review: You are not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier

Book: You are not a gadget by Jaron Lanier
“The words in this book are written for people, not computers.
I want to say: You have to be somebody before you can share yourself.

Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, composer, visual artist, and author as well as roving academic for Microsoft Corporation the University of California at Berkeley. Lanier is associated with research into “virtual reality,” a term he coined whilst developing VR in the late 1980s.

Lanier describes this 2010 book as a manifesto: “my belief that cybernetic totalism will ultimately be bad for spirituality, morality, and business.”

In the book, Lanier dissects the current state of technology, in particular the World Wide Web – “petty designs sometimes called web 2.0. This ideology promotes radical freedom on the surface of the web, but that freedom, ironically, is more for machines than people.”

In his critique, the web embodies flexibility and inflexibility of design, thinking, philosophy, both liberating and constraining. Under chapter headings such as: The Most Important Thing About a Technology Is How It Changes People, Lanier asks “…if I am blogging, twittering, and wikiing a lot, how does that change who I am?” or “If the ‘hive mind’ is my audience, who am I?”

This is a book full of eloquent and indeed elegant argument, for example:
“Emphasizing the crowd means de-emphasizing individual humans in the design of society, and when you ask people not to be people, they revert to bad mob-like behaviors. This leads not only to empowered trolls, but to a generally unfriendly and unconstructive online world.”


“Finance was transformed by computing clouds. Success in finance became increasingly about manipulating the cloud at the expense of sound financial principles.”

Never one to shy away from expressing an opinion, Lanier is forthright on every one of the 390-plus pages:

“There are proposals to transform the conduct of science along similar lines. Scientists would then understand less of what they do.”

Contemporary culture is demolished in repeated attacks:

“Pop culture has entered into a nostalgic malaise. Online culture is dominated by trivial mashups of the culture that existed before the onset of mashups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralized mass media. It is a culture of reaction without action.”

If I dare not use the word polymath, Lanier is a well rounded thinker:

“Spirituality is committing suicide. Consciousness is attempting to will itself out of existence.”

Now, this book is undeniably well argued and well written, for the most part thoroughly entertaining, but you can’t describe Lanier as Everyman. Sometimes he can’t resist complex literary construction and flashy demonstrations of his vocabulary:

“So, in this book, I have spun a long tale of belief in the opposites of computationalism, the noosphere, the Singularity, web 2.0, the long tail, and all the rest. I hope the volume of my contrarianism will foster an alternative mental environment, where the exciting opportunity to start creating a new digital humanism can begin.”

At his best, Lanier debunks a lot of popular myths and misconceptions, such as:

“‘Information wants to be free.’ I say that information doesn’t deserve to be free.”


“…the Turing test cuts both ways. You can’t tell if a machine has gotten smarter or if you’ve just lowered your own standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machine seems smart.”

He also likes to coin catchy chapter headings such as Empathy Inflation and Metaphysical Ambiguity, whilst still condemning the “…lack of intellectual modesty in the computer science community.”

This is a book full of pithy metaphors and quotable lines. In the section, America in Dreamland, he asks “…will our central tollbooth on all smart things sink under its own weight into an ocean of global connections? Even if we can win at the game, not many Americans will be employed keeping our yacht afloat, because it looks as though India will continue to get better at running help desks.”

Part of his ‘manifesto’ contains an exploration of cultural values, value systems and something he coins ‘digital socialism’ – what is left when paid jobs disappear because neither manual labour nor creativity are paid resources – one replaced by self governing machines the other by the free availability of created works. So that “…if all of us are to earn a living when the machines get good, we will have to agree that it is worth paying for one another’s elevated cultural and creative expressions.”

We get yet more coining of future solutions, Lanier just can’t help himself. There’s Telegigging – music by telepresence, Songles – dongles for commercial songs and Formal Financial Expression – enforceable, regulated trading contracts devoid of the ambiguity of human language.

To his credit, Lanier acknowledges his many contradictions and that his manifesto is not easily implemented; “…web 2.0 designs strongly favor flatness in cultural expression. But I believe that flatness, as applied to human affairs, leads to blandness and meaninglessness.” Lanier is disappointed that even movements such as Open Source aren’t open enough, radical enough or creative enough.
Realising (or prompted by his editor) how intellectually dense is some of this stuff, Lanier is helpful enough to box some of his pithy aphorisms for priority consideration:

“Freedom is moot if you waste it. If the internet is really destined to be no more than an ancillary medium, which I would view as a profound defeat, then it at least ought to do whatever it can not to bite the hand that feeds it—that is, it shouldn’t starve the commercial media industries.”

Of course, he saves some of his most damning criticism til near the end, for all those Internet Start-ups, “…rooms full of MIT PhD engineers not seeking cancer cures or sources of safe drinking water for the underdeveloped world, but schemes to send little digital pictures of teddy bears and dragons between adult members of social networks. At the end of the road of the pursuit of technological sophistication appears to lie a playhouse in which humankind regresses to nursery school.”

It’s not an original thought, go read Huxley’s Brave New World or watch Wall-E. What is more original are Lanier’s closing observations, but I’ll leave you to discover how Lanier links virtual reality, morphing and cephalopods. It’s worth staying to the end. RC

Book: You are not a gadget by Jaron Lanier
eISBN: 978-0-307-59314-6
Copyright © 2010 by Jaron Lanier
Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf