Jaron Lanier is my new guru… He thinks that I’m not a gadget and this book – which is his first – is a rant against the negative effects of technology including the internet.
Lanier argues in You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto that it’s ultimately people that are meaningful, and that we are in danger of devaluing individuals, deadening creativity, endlessly rehashing past culture, risking weaker design in engineering and science, and reducing development in every sphere. Lanier is an American computer scientist, composer, visual artist, author, and pioneer of Virtual Reality.
Personally, I’ll read anything with the word “Manifesto” on the front, plus this book was given to me by a friend, but I was hooked after reading the front cover. I’ve reproduced the cover text below… probably contributing to and perpetuating the very issue that he’s confronting. But for the record:
It’s early in the twenty-first century, and that means that these words will mostly be read by nonpersons – automatons or numb mobs composed of people who are no longer acting as individuals.
The words will be minced into atomized search-engine keywords within industrial cloud computing facilities located in remote often secret locations around the world. The vast fanning out of the fates of these words will take place almost entirely in the lifeless world of pure information.
Real human eyes will read these words in only a tiny minority of the cases.
And yet it is you, the person, the rarity among my readers, I hope to reach.
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
One of Lanier’s basic ideas is that we’re starting to experience something he calls “lock-in” – a process whereby human affairs, which are becoming increasingly software driven, have become more subject to lock-in than in previous eras. His caution is that some of the ideas that have been locked in aren’t so bad, but others like the so-called web 2.0 are stinkers, so we ought to reject them while we still can. For example, he cites the notion of the electronic file as something that is now locked in… there were other ways of thinking about how to store information, but now were locked in to the idea of the file.
Another idea of his is that web 2.0 designs like Facebook and Wikipedia emphasize the crowd which means deemphasizing individual human beings in the design of society. He states that when you ask people not to be people, they revert back to bad mob-like behaviours. And certainly, many of us who participate in online discussions know what it’s like when the electronic crowd turns nasty.
He also provides a searing critique on the following issues:
The Singularity (google it if you don’t know…) and how it’s an unhelpful, faith-based apocalyptic idea with no basis in reality.
How technologies change people, e.g. by making people seem obsolete so that computers seem more advanced.
How the point of virtual reality machines should be to make the world more creative, expressive, empathetic and interesting. Not to escape it.
How the attribution of intelligence to machines, crowds of fragments, and others in the pantheon of what he calls “nerd deities” obscures more than it illuminates.