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You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto
 
 
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You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto [Deckle Edge] [Hardcover]

Jaron Lanier
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (105 customer reviews)


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Book Description

January 12, 2010
Jaron Lanier, a Silicon Valley visionary since the 1980s, was among the first to predict the revolutionary changes the World Wide Web would bring to commerce and culture. Now, in his first book, written more than two decades after the web was created, Lanier offers this provocative and cautionary look at the way it is transforming our lives for better and for worse.

The current design and function of the web have become so familiar that it is easy to forget that they grew out of programming decisions made decades ago. The web’s first designers made crucial choices (such as making one’s presence anonymous) that have had enormous—and often unintended—consequences. What’s more, these designs quickly became “locked in,” a permanent part of the web’s very structure.

Lanier discusses the technical and cultural problems that can grow out of poorly considered digital design and warns that our financial markets and sites like Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter are elevating the “wisdom” of mobs and computer algorithms over the intelligence and judgment of individuals.

Lanier also shows:
How 1960s antigovernment paranoia influenced the design of the online world and enabled trolling and trivialization in online discourse
How file sharing is killing the artistic middle class;
How a belief in a technological “rapture” motivates some of the most influential technologists
Why a new humanistic technology is necessary.

Controversial and fascinating, You Are Not a Gadget is a deeply felt defense of the individual from an author uniquely qualified to comment on the way technology interacts with our culture.


Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, January 2010: For the most part, Web 2.0--Internet technologies that encourage interactivity, customization, and participation--is hailed as an emerging Golden Age of information sharing and collaborative achievement, the strength of democratized wisdom. Jaron Lanier isn't buying it. In You Are Not a Gadget, the longtime tech guru/visionary/dreadlocked genius (and progenitor of virtual reality) argues the opposite: that unfettered--and anonymous--ability to comment results in cynical mob behavior, the shouting-down of reasoned argument, and the devaluation of individual accomplishment. Lanier traces the roots of today's Web 2.0 philosophies and architectures (e.g. he posits that Web anonymity is the result of '60s paranoia), persuasively documents their shortcomings, and provides alternate paths to "locked-in" paradigms. Though its strongly-stated opinions run against the bias of popular assumptions, You Are Not a Gadget is a manifesto, not a screed; Lanier seeks a useful, respectful dialogue about how we can shape technology to fit culture's needs, rather than the way technology currently shapes us.

A Q&A with Author Jaron Lanier


Question: As one of the first visionaries in Silicon Valley, you saw the initial promise the internet held. Two decades later, how has the internet transformed our lives for the better?

Jaron Lanier: The answer is different in different parts of the world. In the industrialized world, the rise of the Web has happily demonstrated that vast numbers of people are interested in being expressive to each other and the world at large. This is something that I and my colleagues used to boldly predict, but we were often shouted down, as the mainstream opinion during the age of television’s dominance was that people were mostly passive consumers who could not be expected to express themselves. In the developing world, the Internet, along with mobile phones, has had an even more dramatic effect, empowering vast classes of people in new ways by allowing them to coordinate with each other. That has been a very good thing for the most part, though it has also enabled militants and other bad actors.

Question: You argue the web isn’t living up to its initial promise. How has the internet transformed our lives for the worse?

Jaron Lanier: The problem is not inherent in the Internet or the Web. Deterioration only began around the turn of the century with the rise of so-called "Web 2.0" designs. These designs valued the information content of the web over individuals. It became fashionable to aggregate the expressions of people into dehumanized data. There are so many things wrong with this that it takes a whole book to summarize them. Here’s just one problem: It screws the middle class. Only the aggregator (like Google, for instance) gets rich, while the actual producers of content get poor. This is why newspapers are dying. It might sound like it is only a problem for creative people, like musicians or writers, but eventually it will be a problem for everyone. When robots can repair roads someday, will people have jobs programming those robots, or will the human programmers be so aggregated that they essentially work for free, like today’s recording musicians? Web 2.0 is a formula to kill the middle class and undo centuries of social progress.

Question: You say that we’ve devalued intellectual achievement. How?

Jaron Lanier: On one level, the Internet has become anti-intellectual because Web 2.0 collectivism has killed the individual voice. It is increasingly disheartening to write about any topic in depth these days, because people will only read what the first link from a search engine directs them to, and that will typically be the collective expression of the Wikipedia. Or, if the issue is contentious, people will congregate into partisan online bubbles in which their views are reinforced. I don’t think a collective voice can be effective for many topics, such as history--and neither can a partisan mob. Collectives have a power to distort history in a way that damages minority viewpoints and calcifies the art of interpretation. Only the quirkiness of considered individual expression can cut through the nonsense of mob--and that is the reason intellectual activity is important.

On another level, when someone does try to be expressive in a collective, Web 2.0 context, she must prioritize standing out from the crowd. To do anything else is to be invisible. Therefore, people become artificially caustic, flattering, or otherwise manipulative.

Web 2.0 adherents might respond to these objections by claiming that I have confused individual expression with intellectual achievement. This is where we find our greatest point of disagreement. I am amazed by the power of the collective to enthrall people to the point of blindness. Collectivists adore a computer operating system called LINUX, for instance, but it is really only one example of a descendant of a 1970s technology called UNIX. If it weren’t produced by a collective, there would be nothing remarkable about it at all.

Meanwhile, the truly remarkable designs that couldn’t have existed 30 years ago, like the iPhone, all come out of "closed" shops where individuals create something and polish it before it is released to the public. Collectivists confuse ideology with achievement.

Question: Why has the idea that "the content wants to be free" (and the unrelenting embrace of the concept) been such a setback? What dangers do you see this leading to?

Jaron Lanier: The original turn of phrase was "Information wants to be free." And the problem with that is that it anthropomorphizes information. Information doesn’t deserve to be free. It is an abstract tool; a useful fantasy, a nothing. It is nonexistent until and unless a person experiences it in a useful way. What we have done in the last decade is give information more rights than are given to people. If you express yourself on the internet, what you say will be copied, mashed up, anonymized, analyzed, and turned into bricks in someone else’s fortress to support an advertising scheme. However, the information, the abstraction, that represents you is protected within that fortress and is absolutely sacrosanct, the new holy of holies. You never see it and are not allowed to touch it. This is exactly the wrong set of values.

The idea that information is alive in its own right is a metaphysical claim made by people who hope to become immortal by being uploaded into a computer someday. It is part of what should be understood as a new religion. That might sound like an extreme claim, but go visit any computer science lab and you’ll find books about "the Singularity," which is the supposed future event when the blessed uploading is to take place. A weird cult in the world of technology has done damage to culture at large.

Question: In You Are Not a Gadget, you argue that idea that the collective is smarter than the individual is wrong. Why is this?

Jaron Lanier: There are some cases where a group of people can do a better job of solving certain kinds of problems than individuals. One example is setting a price in a marketplace. Another example is an election process to choose a politician. All such examples involve what can be called optimization, where the concerns of many individuals are reconciled. There are other cases that involve creativity and imagination. A crowd process generally fails in these cases. The phrase "Design by Committee" is treated as derogatory for good reason. That is why a collective of programmers can copy UNIX but cannot invent the iPhone.

In the book, I go into considerably more detail about the differences between the two types of problem solving. Creativity requires periodic, temporary "encapsulation" as opposed to the kind of constant global openness suggested by the slogan "information wants to be free." Biological cells have walls, academics employ temporary secrecy before they publish, and real authors with real voices might want to polish a text before releasing it. In all these cases, encapsulation is what allows for the possibility of testing and feedback that enables a quest for excellence. To be constantly diffused in a global mush is to embrace mundanity.

(Photo © Jonathan Sprague)


From Publishers Weekly

Computer scientist and Internet guru Lanier's fascinating and provocative full-length exploration of the Internet's problems and potential is destined to become a must-read for both critics and advocates of online-based technology and culture. Lanier is best known for creating and pioneering the use of the revolutionary computer technology that he named virtual reality. Yet in his first book, Lanier takes a step back and critiques the current digital technology, more deeply exploring the ideas from his famous 2000 Wired magazine article, One-Half of a Manifesto, which argued against more wildly optimistic views of what computers and the Internet could accomplish. His main target here is Web 2.0, the current dominant digital design concept commonly referred to as open culture. Lanier forcefully argues that Web 2.0 sites such as Wikipedia undervalue humans in favor of anonymity and crowd identity. He brilliantly shows how large Web 2.0–based information aggregators such as Amazon.com—as well as proponents of free music file sharing—have created a hive mind mentality emphasizing quantity over quality. But he concludes with a passionate and hopeful argument for a new digital humanism in which radical technologies do not deny the specialness of personhood. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (January 12, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307269647
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307269645
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.9 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (105 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #120,728 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jaron Lanier is known as the father of virtual reality technology and has worked on the interface between computer science and medicine, physics, and neuroscience. He lives in Berkeley, California.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
194 of 209 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A critical take on Web 2.0: People first January 13, 2010
Format:Hardcover
"Technology criticism," the author writes, "should not be left to the Luddites." Jaron Lanier is certainly no Luddite, but in this "manifesto" he blasts the Web 2.0 mentality, highlights long-standing technology lock-ins, and ranges far and wide in his criticisms of the Internet, computing, and the cultures surrounding the two today.

The core of his argument is that the achievements of the Web 2.0 collaborations are neither exciting, nor new. "Let's suppose that, back in the 1980s, I had said, `In a quarter century, when the digital revolution has made great progress and computer chips are millions of times faster than they are now, humanity will finally win the prize of being able to write a new encyclopedia and a new version of UNIX!' It would," he writes, "have sounded utterly pathetic." He's referring to Wikipedia and Linux, two clear successes of collaborative construction. And furthermore, the intellectual work of those thousands of people have been undervalued, in fact, they're unpaid volunteers. The middle classes have spent their hours working without paid to build wonderful constructs for the profits of major companies. Hmmm...as I write this book review, unpaid, with Amazon looking to earn money from selling more copies of this book...

Ranging further across the Web 2.0 field, Jaron notes the Facebook and Myspace pages in their prescribed formats with individuals reduced to favorite books, movies, five options for politics, and six options for relationship status. Other parts look at technology lock-in, with the example of MIDI. It was developed in the early 1980s for keyboard synthesizer control and output, and reproduces the nuances of a keyboard but not, for example, a violin. It would be hard to get support for a new, broader tool.
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116 of 125 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking and worthy of your time. January 15, 2010
Format:Hardcover
In his book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Jaron Lanier becomes a solitary voice in the wilderness shouting as loudly as he can that all is not well with the virtual world nor with the tools that make the virtual world possible....software and computers. That this book was written by an insider from the world of the Internet should get everyone's attention.

Jaron Lanier is a household name for those who follow the world of computers and virtual reality and his book is nothing more than a manifesto warning us that there is a dark side to the Internet. Even innocuous websites such as Facebook and Google, "lords of the cloud" do not escape Lanier's expose. "Emphasizing the crowd means de-emphasizing individual humans" and that, in the end, leads to "mob" behavior. Utterly true.

As I flipped through the book, the point that resonated most loudly to me was the impact `anonymity' has had on our virtual world (and maybe the real world as well). I can remember visiting a chat room that was dedicated to "Books and Literature" in 2000 or 2001. As a librarian I was naturally drawn to a space that I thought would be filled with others like me who had a love of the written word and for good books. Did that assumption back fire? You bet! What I found was a chat area filled with virtual people who wanted to chat about anything but books and literature. If I were to post a question about what people were reading or what they thought of a given book I was torn (virtually) from limb to limb. Having served in the military I have a pretty good operational understanding of foul language, and I'm pretty good at throwing the words around when necessary. However, that this language would be used in that particular venue by people who could remain anonymous was a shock.
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127 of 139 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
What Jaron Lanier does is take us up 50,000 feet and allow us to view things with perspective. He says we have been overwhelmed by the unnoticed "lock-in" and simply adjust and reduce ourselves to fit the requirements of online dating, social media, forums, and the software we employ. Web 2.0 is homogenizing humanity, taking us down to the lowest common denominator instead of allowing or encouraging us to bloom in different directions. Everything we now "enjoy" seems to be backward looking - music is sampled and retro, news is criticized mercilessly, but very few are creating it any more, relationships are Tweets...

It sounds like Lanier recommends friends don't let friends communicate via Facebook - they do it on the phone or in person. But the direction we are taking instead reduces interaction, kills creativity, journalism, music, science....it's not as pretty as predicted.

These are truly valuable criticisms, and this is an important, if flawed book. Flawed because after a hundred page pounding of logic and evidence, Lanier spends the second hundred pages telling us how wonderful it is to be a scientist and play with humans and cuttlefish. I was particularly annoyed with a gratuitous couple of paragraphs devoted to swearing, which which he says might be connected to parts of the brain controlling orifices and obscenity.

Well, to my knowledge, swearing is purely cultural, not physiological. In Quebec, the worst swearing is against the Catholic Church, Translated into English "Christ Tabernacle" sounds like something WC Fields said to skirt the censors. But it's the most vile thing you can say in polite conversation in Montreal. On the other hand Motherf----r doesn't translate into French at all. And what's any of this got to do with online reductionism?
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A clear concise and worldy critique of may of the ...
A clear concise and worldy critique of may of the current assumptions of the digital world, also a warning.
Published 10 days ago by Jason Ian Gordon
2.0 out of 5 stars In way over his head
A rule of thumb is that it takes ten years to become an expert. Among PhD's and software engineers, there is a common delusion that hard-won expertise in a miniscule area of human... Read more
Published 2 months ago by John Broglio
5.0 out of 5 stars Important book
Along with his other book, "Who Owns the Future", this is an important book to read if you are interested in social and scientific trends and where we are headed as a... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Michael Berkowitz
5.0 out of 5 stars Well done
I just finished my second book by Jaron. I very good read indeed with wonderful insight and the keen observation of the human experience online. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Jeff Heywood
5.0 out of 5 stars Makes you question the influence internet has on you and virtually all...
I learned about Jaron Lanier through a Ted-talks, which led me to reading this book. In it, he goes on to discuss the quick evolution/adaptation of the internet and technology. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Kristopher D. Kufit
4.0 out of 5 stars Can we Understand Humans as Cybernetic Patterns?
This book by the technologist Jaron Lanier, is primarily a humanist work, raising contrarian questions about much that Silicon Valley worships and promotes today. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Raghu Nathan
5.0 out of 5 stars Refreshing, Bold, and Timely
I quote this book all the time, and I'm glad Jaron wrote it. He seems to have found a new stride.
Published 6 months ago by Jeffrey
5.0 out of 5 stars Food for thought
An enlightening read, which will change your opinion about "free" stuff on the internet, the price creativity pays for the dumbed-down world of the WWW, and more....
Published 6 months ago by Debbie
5.0 out of 5 stars A (much needed) call to prioritize the person over the machine
Everyone needs to read this book. Intellectuals, technologists, creatives, and every other internet user alike. At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves... who serves whom? Read more
Published 6 months ago by B.H.
4.0 out of 5 stars Provides some different, more obscure implications of today's...
"You are Not a Gadget" by Jaron Lanier is a book written by a Silicon Valley visionary since the 80s, a man who predicted the changes Internet would bring to our lifestyle, culture... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Denis Vukosav
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Isn't it ironic that this book is available for one of the newest 2.0...
Lanier is not talking about technology. He is discussing technology's effect on people. The future of humanity is at stake in the ability of people to handle the technolgy they produce. And if you think there's no problem with that consider one technolgy and what wisdom humans may have in... Read More
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