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You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 12, 2010
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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.)
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Lanier's personal interest in exotic music fits with his own form of personal revolt against the dehumanizing forces at play. Laced with insightful snippets, Lanier appears "locked" into his own matrix. Lanier fears and believes in a digital future. It's economic and socially revolutionary potential intersects with a growing proportion of humanity. Yet just as Latin (then French) dominated intellectual discord in the West (and arguably English in a more global sense today), the very breadth of intellectual resources will eventually require the return of specialists and revitalize demand for "original" sources in much the same manner that ideas from classical times became the passion of Renaissance humanists.
Lanier identifies the forces and possible implications of modern information technology. As the law of unforeseen consequences would suggest, Lanier defines a window with extensive potential to remake the world as we know it -- or at least perceive it. However, anticipating future trends (the mantra of the human existence) carries a burden of having only the present to project into the future. Lanier's critique of contemporary culture is insightful but it is also limited in application to a passing generation.
Lanier aspires to pull us away from the dehumanizing abyss of current technology. His own evidence regarding the expanding capacity of computers and information technology generally, however, could as easily prove its own undoing as data evades quantification under the weight of its own quantity. Qualitative analyses (along with an appreciation of music) require a mature intuitive cherry-picking of reliable evidence. Or as previous leading thinkers have noticed, logical constructs preclude non-logical outcomes, which in turn preclude progress beyond what is commonly viewed as reasonable or rational. Or as Einstein once noted, paraphrasing, if you want your children to better understand math, teach them fairy tales. Perhaps Lanier can bridge this gap in his next book.
The book starts out speaking about the limitations inherent in our current technology due to lock-in as many of the programming languages currently in use today were written ten, twenty, thirty years ago. A good example is MIDI. MIDI was created to be a simple mime of a synthesizer on a computer, but MIDI only specifies certain notes in a limited range (like the keys on a piano). Pick up a saxophone or start to sing and there are many more possible sounds than can be produced using MIDI; the technology is so embedded in everything we do now that it's locked-in.
Lainer stands in contrast to proponents of the free/open culture movement; most free culture advocates perceive themselves as rebellious and liberal but Lainer posits that they are the conservative ones. He makes a great point in that many of our best pieces of software have come from closed systems - i.e. the iPhone or Adobe Flash. This quote sums up his view nicely: "If we choose to pry culture away from capitalism while the rest of life is still capitalistic, culture will become a slum." I think a happy medium does exist, but is currently not present in efforts such as Creative Commons licensing (though it's certainly a start).
"Am I accusing all of those hundreds of millions of users of social networking sites of reducing themselves in order to be able to use the services? Well yes, I am. [...] A real friendship outght to introduce each person to unexpected weirdness in the other. Each acquaintance is an alien, a well of unexplored difference in the experience of life that cannot be imagined or accessed in any way but through genuine interaction. The idea of friendship in database-filtered social networks is certainly reduced from that." Sure all of that is true, but that all depends on how we define and value various words. I don't consider all of my 1,192 "Facebook friends" to be my close friends in real life, many are people that I've met along the way and simply want to keep in touch with occasionally. I realized shortly after reading that chapter that I was being small. I grew up straddling the analog and digital ages and I know both. Lanier is looking beyond that at future generations that will grow up on Facebook, Twitter, and other web 2.0 networks.
I've found great joy in people I've met on the internet and proceeded to meet in person, many of who have become great friends. I've been meeting people from online communities for nearly a decade now and it's never been weird or creepy, aside from the middle school dance feeling that might occur for the first few minutes. To be fair, Lainer does spend about a page or two praising this result of the web, but I don't think he gives it enough credit.
One point I have to strongly disagree with is Lanier's assertion that musical progress has been greatly slowed and everything is just "retro, retro, retro." He says most people in their 20s can't differentiate between 90s and 00s music. Can you tell me that there's anything that sounds like The Postal Service or The Knife from the 20th century? Those are just two examples off the top of my head but there's a plethora of original music out there right now that is distinct to our time. I'm also not sure why musical genres and trends have to be spliced into ten year increments that coincide neatly with decades, but that's just an aside. Musical genres have splintered and there's isn't currently an overarching archetype, but I would say that's simply because we have access to so much music and record companies no longer have as much power to set the standard for what is appropriate for the masses. The masses decide for themselves by finding new music on the internet.
I found this book to be a fantastic thought exercise and it made me take a hard look at my technological worldview. I wish the conclusion was a more coherent and non-tangential; Lanier goes on to talk about cephlopods for several pages at the end of the book.
My life is seeped in web 2.0; this review itself is sending to four different web 2.0 platforms after I hit the publish button. We as a culture and society have become so engrossed in these platforms that I think it's important to step back and evaluate exactly what it is we're doing. I hope there's a compromise that exists between totally free and open culture and closed systems; I suppose we'll find out.
I wouldn't consider myself to be a Luddite. Ray's discussion of humanity trying to repress technology is correct and will not work. Once Pandora's box has been opened there is no stopping what will happen. It comes down to being uncertain about things and not being trustworthy of leaders, that are supposed to represent you and as we already know from recent news....
Anyways, great book