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You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto Paperback – February 8, 2011
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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)
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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The remainder of the book covers Lanier's other interests, which are many and varied, and include science, virtual reality, ancient musical instruments, music, cephalopods, a particular polygon, art and humanism. The intelligence and grasp of varied subjects in varied disciplines that come across in this book are amazing.
What informs the entire range of his subjects is an awareness and cherishing of that elusive and often ineffable part of life which does not compute -- tenderness, empathy, delight, a sense of magic, a hint of something larger than ourselves. An appreciation for this aspect of our humanity seems so very absent in much of today's culture and, to my mind and to Lanier's, explains in part why so much of it is vacant and derivative.
This unsettling book explores some of the strange conundra created by our fascination with all things `web 2.0'. From the way one programmer's convenience becomes the next generation's strait-jacket, to the loss of identity in wiki-based knowledge, and the lowering of self-esteem among Facebook addicted youth, to the `ideal' of perpetual existence as a stream of electrons in a computer's `consciousness, this book takes science fiction and roots it deep into the rich manure of common current `culture'.
The concept that structure and process can speed up adoption and dissemination of new ideas by lowering volatility and improving message targeting is anathema to the proponents of wiki-style freedom. But is the freedom of information necessarily worth the sacrifice of individual expression, attribution and control? Proponents of the hive mind or noosphere would argue that case but Lanier takes an independent stance that values contribution of individuals as individuals, with their personal intelligence, experience and emotion, above the anonymous, often re-edited and variable outputs of agglomerated information mash-ups. It is a brave, but valid, stance and coherently reasoned.
The doctrine of crowd-based wisdom is infiltrating strategy and policy development processes. Whilst involvement is inherently useful, it appears obvious, upon reading this treatise, that there should be clear limits to the way in which crowds are used and scope for individual attributable contributions to retain relevance.
The use of pseudonyms and anonymous postings is definitely supporting the rise of `Trolls'. Trolls, in cyberspace, are people who are abusive towards other people or ideas. They have been implicated in cyber-bullying which leaves boards exposed to claims of failure to prevent harassment and/or discrimination. The move towards transparency is greatly hampered when organisations interact online with anonymous respondents.
As Lanier points out, "If you win anonymously no one knows, and if you lose, you just change your pseudonym and start over, without having modified your point of view one bit. If the Troll is anonymous and the target is known then the dynamic is even worse." Any company is at risk of a cyber-storm if their operations, brand or philosophy should offend a tribe of trolls. The case of Nestle and the palm oil debate is a dramatic illustration of this principle in action.
Another of Lanier's bugbears is the principle of `lock-in', where decisions made in the early stages of development establish constraints on decision-making in the later stages until they become ingrained as `facts'. Reducing the richness of individual experience to suit the templates of networking sites is a harrowing process to any innovative thinkers. Cutting the glissando of music into computer recognisable notes is anathema to many musicians. Both of these processes have enabled sharing and progress on a scale unparalleled in human history. Both are reducing the expression of future potential by fitting it into a template based on past expedience.
Lanier is one of the leading thinkers of the internet age and this book has set him apart, and at odds, from his fellows. It has also provided a necessary space for consideration in our headlong rush to the brave new lands of the internet fuelled universe. Like the maps of olden-times, at the edges of our current knowledge it would be well to mark the internet with signs stating `Here be Dragons'. They may only be dragons of our own invention but it is as well proceed towards them with due caution.
Highly recommended for both fans and sceptics of web 2.0 plus anyone who is still undecided.
Available at amazon.com
* Julie Garland McLellan is a professional non-executive director, board and governance consultant and mentor. She is the author of "Presenting to Boards", "Dilemmas, Dilemmas: practical case studies for company directors', "The Director's Dilemma", "All Above Board: Great Governance for the Government Sector" and numerous articles on corporate strategy and governance.
Dilemmas, Dilemmas: Practical Case Studies for Company Directors
Presenting to Boards: Practical Skills for Corporate Presentations (Volume 1)
says, but I think he brings up a number of very important points. The point that resonated
strongest is that about the devaluation of individual creativity. It is certainly true
that the work of individuals frequently crystalizes the thinking of society. But there
does seem to be a fairly broad movement to devalue the role of individuals in
the process of discovery. Lanier argues that ultimately replacing individual creativity
by the computationally guided "inventions" of the hive mind is a step in the wrong
Lanier's writing is clear, and should be required reading for regular followers of
Wired and similar publications (like myself). It does become clear that those
publications, and (if Lanier is right) a large part of Silicon Valley, subscribes to a
fairly coherent new philosophy. Lanier calls this set of belief a religion, simply
because many of the adherents will follow it without question. Whether he is ultimately
right on his main points or not, Lanier succeeds in making the reader question
assumptions about technology which many consider to be unquestionable truths.