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Review: You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier

If you are not a gadget, what are you? Jaron Lanier would have you be a person, but he warns that Web 2.0 is pushing us away from personhood in ways that we haven’t really examined. Actually, he might have you be a cephalopod, because he finds octopi mesmerizing, but that enthusiasm only appears at the end of You Are Not a Gadget, his first book.

It is something of a reckoning. Lanier turns a philosopher’s eye to our everyday online tools. What do they say about us? How have they come to inhabit and inhibit the way we imagine ourselves? Who do our new systems reward? Is the Internet all that, really?

In short, anecdotal sections, Lanier argues that the cloud should not be superior to the individual, and that early, ad-hoc software decisions constrain genuine growth. He shows that our achievements aren’t particularly creative, progressive — or even interesting.

Like this: “Let’s suppose that, back in the 1980s, I had said, ‘In a quarter century, when the digital revolution has made great progress and computer chips are millions of times faster than they are now, humanity will finally win the prize of being able to write a new encyclopedia and a new version of UNIX!’ It would,” he writes, “have sounded utterly pathetic.” [p.121-122]

Lanier has the long view on Silicon Valley, where he was one of the brilliant thinkers and programmers who got us onto the path to our fully-wired culture. He is known as the father of virtual reality — which, because of the way our minds work, is more than a silly headpiece and glove — yet it’s his deep humanism that informs his arguments. We are all more than the sum of our favorites listed on Facebook, he reminds us.

Now an interdisciplinary scholar-in-residence at UC Berkeley, Lanier points out how early decisions wound up creating software systems that had “lock in” — meaning we can’t shake them. Musical MIDI software, originally built in the 1980s by a synthesizer designer, “could only describe the tile mosaic world of the keyboardist, not the watercolor world of the violin,” Lanier writes, but it is now a standard building block in electronic versions of music. “A thousand years from now, when a descendant of ours is traveling at relativistic speeds to explore new star systems, she will probably be annoyed by some awful beepy MIDI-driven music to alert her that the antimatter filter needs to be recalibrated.” [p.9] He shows that lock-in is widely present, and how other decisions have failed us.

In three of the book’s five sections, Lanier holds up a mirror to what we’ve done, and the vision is gloomy. Not only have we represented music poorly; we’ve devalued creative and journalistic work; we’ve overvalued abstraction, not just in Silicon Valley, but also on Wall Street, to disastrous consequences; we’ve slipped into a vortex of retro-crunching mashups without creating anything new; we’ve allowed the principle of anonymity to foster a vicious, troll-filled commons; and we’ve elevated the cloud or hive mind above the spirit, intelligence, and idiosyncrasy of the individual.

As a programmer, Lanier certainly knows his way around an if/then statement. But he doesn’t lay out his argument in that kind of logical progression. Instead, he provides a complete idea in a few pages, then moves on: chapters are titled “An Apocalypse of Self-Abdication” and “The Lords of the Clouds Renounce Free Will in Order to Become Infinitely Lucky.” It’s as if he’s walking from cluster to cluster at a cocktail party, dropping a how-about-this to one group and did-you-ever-think-of to the next. This makes it very hard to get a clear picture of where his argument is headed, because he’s not arguing — he’s suggesting and feinting, inspiring and distracting. What this succeeds in doing is sparking connections. The reader is compelled to engage with his work, to assent, contradict, and contemplate. In this, Lanier’s manifesto is not just a success, but a meta-success.

But it is necessary to point out that Lanier could have represented his opponents better. He calls them “cybernetic totalists” and “digital Maoists” — names they certainly would not use to describe themselves. For the most part, he battles these straw men rather than engaging directly with the words of the men and women who are proponents of the ideas he is challenging. This does them all a disservice. Lanier is clearly brilliant, and there was no need for him to disarm his opponents by reducing them to malevolent shadows.

Nevertheless, early adopters, lovers of the Internet and all its possibilities, owe it to themselves to plunge into Lanier’s 200-page manifesto and look hard in the mirror. He’s not telling us what to think; he’s challenging us to take a hard look at our cyberculture, and emerge with new creative inspiration. And, like Lanier, some of us may find it in an octopus.