Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget has been on my reading list for nearly two years, and if nothing else comes of this damn book I’m trying to write, it’ll be satisfying to say that I’ve made my way through any number of important works that for one reason or another, I failed to read up till now.
I met Jaron in the Wired days (that’d be 20 years ago) but I don’t know him well – as with Sherry Turkle and many others, I encountered him through my role as an editor, then followed his career with interest as he veered from fame as a virtual reality pioneer into his current role as chief critic of all things “Web 2.0.” Given my role in that “movement” – I co-founded the Web 2 conferences with Tim O’Reilly in 2004 – it’d be safe to assume that I disagree with most of what Lanier has to say.
I don’t. Not entirely, anyway. In fact, I came away, as I did with Turkle’s work, feeling a strange kinship with Lanier. But more on that in a moment.
In essence, You Are Not A Gadget is a series of arguments, some concise, others a bit shapeless, centering on one theme: Individual human beings are special, and always will be, and digital technology is not a replacement for our humanity. In particular, Lanier is deeply skeptical of any kind of machine-based mechanism that might be seen as replacing or diminishing our specialness, which over the past decade, Lanier sees happening everywhere.
Lanier is most eloquent when he describes, late in the book, what he believes humans to be: the result of a very long, very complicated interaction with reality (sure, irony alert given Lanier’s VR fame, but it makes sense when you read the book):
I believe humans are the result of billions of years of implicit, evolutionary study in the school of hard knocks. The cybernetic structure of a person has been refined by a very large, very long, and very deep encounter with physical reality.
Lanier worries we’re losing that sense of reality. From crowdsourcing and Wikipedia to the Singularity movement, he argues that we’re starting to embrace a technological philosophy that can only lead to loss. Early in the book, he writes:
“…certain specific, popular internet designs of the moment…tend to pull us into life patterns that gradually degrade the ways in which each of us exists as an individual. These unfortunate designs are more oriented toward treating people as relays in a global brain….(this) leads to all sorts of maladies….”
Lanier goes on to specific examples, including the online tracking associated with advertising, the concentration of power in the hands of the “lords of the clouds” such as Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and even Goldman Sachs, the loss of analog musical notation, the rise of locked in, fragile, and impossibly complicated software programs; and ultimately, the demise of the middle class. It’s a potentially powerful argument, and one I wish Lanier had made more completely. Instead, after reading his book, I feel forewarned, but not quite forearmed.
Lanier singles out many of our shared colleagues – the leaders of the Web 2.0 movement – as hopelessly misguided, labeling them “cynernetic totalists” who believe technology will solve all problems, including that of understanding humanity and consciousness. He worries about the fragmentation of our online identity, and warns that Web 2 services – from blogs to Facebook – lead us to leave little pieces of ourselves everywhere, feeding a larger collective, but resulting in no true value to the individual.
If you read my recent piece On Thneeds and the “Death of Display”, this might sound familiar, but I’m not sure I’d be willing to go as far as Lanier does in claiming all this behavior of ours will end up impoverishing our culture forever. I tend to be an optimist, Lanier, less so. He rues the fact that the web never implemented Ted Nelson’s vision of true hypertext – where the creator is remunerated via linked micro-transactions, for example. I think there were good reasons this system didn’t initially win, but there’s no reason to think it never will.
Lanier, an accomplished musician – though admittedly not a very popular one – is convinced that popular culture has been destroyed by the Internet. He writes:
Pop culture has entered into a nostalgic malaise. Online culture is dominated by trivial mashups of the culture that existed before the onset of mashups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralized mass media. It is a culture of reaction without action.
As an avid music fan, I’m not convinced. But Lanier goes further:
Spirituality is committing suicide. Consciousness is attempting to will itself out of existence…the deep meaning of personhood is being reduced by illusions of bits.
Wow! That’s some powerful stuff. But after reading the book, I wasn’t convinced about that, either, though Lanier raises many interesting questions along the way. One of them boils down to the concept of smell – the one sense that we can’t represent digitally. In a section titled “What Makes Something Real Is That It Is Impossible to Represent It To Completion,” Lanier writes:
It’s easy to forget that the very idea of a digital expression involves a trade-off with metaphysical overtones. A physical oil painting cannot convey an image created in another medium; it is impossible to make an oil painting look just like an ink drawing, for instance, or vice versa. But a digital image of sufficient resolution can capture any kind of perceivable image—or at least that’s how you’ll think of it if you believe in bits too much. Of course, it isn’t really so. A digital image of an oil painting is forever a representation, not a real thing. A real painting is a bottomless mystery, like any other real thing. An oil painting changes with time; cracks appear on its face. It has texture, odor, and a sense of presence and history.
This really resonates with me. In particular, the part about the odor. Turns out, odor is a pretty interesting subject. Our sense of smell is inherently physical – actual physical molecules of matter are required to enter our bodies and “mate” with receptors in our nervous system in order for us to experience an odor:
Olfaction, like language, is built up from entries in a catalog, not from infinitely morphable patterns. …the world’s smells can’t be broken down into just a few numbers on a gradient; there is no “smell pixel.”
Lanier suspects – and I find the theory compelling – that olfaction is deeply embedded in what it means to be human. Certainly such a link presents a compelling thought experiment as we transition to a profoundly digital world. I am very interested in what it means for our culture that we are truly “becoming digital,” that we are casting shadows of data in nearly everything we do, and that we are struggling to understand, instrument, and respond socially to this shift. I’m also fascinated by the organizations attempting to leverage that data, from the Internet Big Five to the startups and behind the scenes players (Palantir, IBM, governments, financial institutions, etc) who are profiting from and exploiting this fact.
But I don’t believe we’re in early lockdown mode, destined to digital serfdom. I still very much believe in the human spirit, and am convinced that if any company, government, or leader pushes too hard, we will “sniff them out,” and they will be routed around. Lanier is less complacent: he is warning that if we fail to wake up, we’re in for a very tough few decades, if not worse.
Lanier and I share any number of convictions, regardless. His prescriptions for how to insure we don’t become “gadgets” might well have been the inspiration for my post Put Your Taproot Into the Independent Web, for example (he implores us to create, deeply, and not be lured into expressing ourselves solely in the templates of social networking sites). And he reminds readers that he loves the Internet, and pines, a bit, for the way it used to be, before Web 2 and Facebook (and one must assume, Apple), rebuilt it into forms he now decries.
I pine a bit myself, but remain (perhaps foolishly) optimistic that the best of what we’ve created together will endure, even as we journey onward to discover new ways of valuing what it means to be a person. And I feel lucky to know that I can reach out to Jaron – and I have – to continue this conversation, and report the results of our dialog on this site, and in my own book.
Next up: A review (and dialog with the author) of Larry Lessig’s Code And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.
Other works I’ve reviewed:
Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (my review)
The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (my review)
In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)
The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)