February 18, 2010


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You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier (2010, Knopf, 209 pages)
Virtual reality engineer and all-around thinker Jaron Lanier argues, with feeling, against cybernetic totalism in the disjointed but still interesting You Are Not a Gadget.

“Cybernetic totalism” is Lanier’s name for the stance some people take that “Computers will soon get so big and fast and the net so rich with information that people will be obsolete, either left behind like the characters in Rapture novels or subsumed into some cyber-superhuman something.” If you believe this, Lanier points out, “you might cease to design technology to serve humans, and prepare instead for the grand events it will bring.” People are doing this, and we’ve got to stop them (and ourselves, from participating) before it’s too late, Lanier says. And we must hurry, before “lock-in” sets in — lock-in is when the way you happened to start out doing something becomes the way it’s done forever because it would be so hard to change. Like the fact that we organize everything into “files” on our computers. It didn’t have to be that way — who knows what other organizational schemes we could have embraced? — but there’s no backing out now.

So what does Lanier want us not to lock in?

Pretty much anything that constrains us into impersonal, digitized, multiple-choice data. Anything that takes away the mystical magical non-gadgetary person-ness we all have. Lanier does wade into the argument over whether consciousness is more/other than what brains do when they have enough connections in them, but he’s vague and not terribly convincing — and it doesn’t really matter anyway, to the rest of what he’s saying. Even if consciousness is an illusion, let’s keep it up, is, I think, the point.


Fight the one-form-fits-all trends like Facebook that give everyone the same template to fill out, as if each of us is nothing more than our age, marital status and favorite color. Fight the push to make yourself a brick in the great online wall, where “A … young person who suddenly becomes humiliated online has no way out, for there is only one hive.”

Fight the hive mind exemplified by Wikipedia, because it will make us dull and passive: “Online culture is dominated by trivial mashups of the culture that existed before the onset of mashups…. It is a culture of reaction without action.” This was brilliantly highlighted the day I read it (Feb. 12) by a New York Times article titled “Author, 17, Says It’s ‘Mixing,’ Not Plagiarism,” about Berlin’s Helene Hegemann, who won and kept a spot as a finalist at the Leipzig Book Fair despite obvious — well, call it what you like — and who was quoted as saying “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”

(Especially interesting is Lanier’s comparison of Wikipedia to the Bible — written by a largely unidentified crowd, changed and edited and mixed over time, yet it becomes revered as “the word” by a ready public.)

Fight the privacy-invading, person-devaluing commercial interests that gather your vital statistics and don’t care about you. Sound overly paranoid? The same day, an article appeared in The Guardian online about a woman whose carefully guarded privacy was trashed by Google Buzz, a new feature many of us woke up to that morning that automatically shows your writings, if you’ve made any via Google Reader, to whoever happen to be the most frequent e-mail contacts in your Google account. One of them — her third-most-frequent contact, and actually not very frequent — was her abusive ex-husband. Apparently Google did not stop to think about the varied possible meanings behind “frequent e-mail contact” and it did not find it necessary to ask first. It really did treat us like gadgets. (“Google Buzz’s open approach leads to stalking threat,” Feb. 12.)

Lanier’s assertions are not all watertight (you’d at least want to ask him some follow-ups) and a lot of the book is abstract. He can be vague and a bit rambly. It feels at times like you’ve wandered in to the second half of a three-hour seminar among graduate computer scientists — terms and statements feel rootless, although you’re sure they mean more to the guy making them. Like “Information is alienated experience,” and “Realism is based on specifics, but we don’t yet know…the specifics of personhood from a computational point of view.” Out of nowhere, something is chalked up to “homuncular flexibility” — not the kind of term most people throw around without offering context (what homunculus?). And this from a man who detests decontextualization. Granted, his largest audience is insiders; still, he could’ve cleaned up a little for the rest of the guests.

So if you are wont to disagree, you’ll find it easy enough.

But whether you are already inclined to side with or against gadget-ness, or you think you’re a noncombatant, the book’s worth reading because we all have a stake in the Internet.

And here’s one we can all agree on: “once you have the basics of a given technological leap in place, it’s always important to step back and focus on the people for a while.” BLisa Parsons