Jaron Lanier’s recent book, You Are Not A Gadget, is a broad criticism of the internet. Lanier thinks cyberspace is full of unimaginative software. Web 2.0 is window dressing on a tired paradigm. Silicon Valley is funding trivial applications.not much better than than the hasty business plans of the dot-bomb era. Users have bought into a mash-up universe where authorship is not rewarded and content is divorced from context. Anonymity and incivility rule.
All information is becoming one big book, managed by Google’s search engine. Lanier derides those who think this trend is desirable, calling them digital Marxists who believe in the eventual “singularity” of knowledge with the same fervor as a fundamentalist Christian awaiting the Rapture. This vision is anti-humanist, because it treats people as unimportant once their contributions have been uploaded to “the hive.”
Lanier is eager not to be judged a Luddite. He’s one of the fathers of virtual reality programming. His disappointments are similar to those of a pioneer reviewing the settled civilization that followed him. As the book’s title suggests, he’s not impressed with the landscape. Instead of exposing us to new experiences, internet applications are dumbing us down. People are becoming more like machines in order to interact with their computers. It should be the other way around. This theme may sound like the growing backlash of articles about the dangers of internet dependency. (See, for example, Is Google Making Us Stupid?.
However, this work isn’t a signal for retreat. It’s a call for us to demand more from technology.
The author worries about where we’re heading as the internet erases geographic, business, and personal boundaries. He questions whether the mass unpaid participation of the “free” social web can produce the same quality as commercial software. As a Microsoft fellow, he may appear self-interested in this subject (although he points to Apple as the exemplar of quality engineering). But a closer reading of this book shows that he’s more concerned about the artist than the entrepeneur. The internet and the Creative Commons model allow others to re-mix a performer’s or writer’s work without compensating him and without even his knowledge and consent. This freedom to copy dissolves the relationship between the performer and the audience. A musician in his spare time, Lanier thinks the value of recordings can only be restored by re-introducing them in physical packaging. He proposes the creation of “songles” – micro-chips embedded in everyday objects – that would enable playback of a purchased tune, functioning like a dongle but connecting wirelessly to any audio system in the vicinity.
I enjoyed Lanier’s irreverent shrugs about Linux (it’s just an extension of Unix, a decades-old operating system) and Wikipedia (there are usually better sources of information just below it in a Google search). The most interesting chapter is the explanation of software “lock-in”. By this term, Lanier doesn’t mean a single vendor’s strategy. He’s talking about the unintended inflexibility of software design as a code base grows larger and more inter-dependencies are created between packages. So-called standards enable rapid development of new software – you don’t have to re-invent the wheel – but at the price of creativity. The patterns become entrenched and we quickly lose the ability to do things any other way. He illustrates how even a revolutionary concept like MIDI notation, which was designed for keyboard instruments, has narrowed our idea of the musical note, and therefore musical composition, to fit within its limits.
You Are Not A Gadget has the marks of a cogent essay stretched into a rambling disorganized book. If you take it as a tonic against internet hype, it’s a fun read.
You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier, Knopf, January 12 2010, ISBN-10: 0307269647, ISBN-13: 978-0307269645