Book review: You Are Not a Gadget, by Jaron Lanier

By Ellen Ullman
Sunday, February 14, 2010


A Manifesto

By Jaron Lanier

Knopf. 224 pp. $24.95

It's not often that one of the creators of our new digital culture comes forward to say: I made a mistake; this is not what I intended.

But Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in the invention of virtual reality, has done just that. Breaking with the ideas of technology-boosting friends and colleagues, such as Kevin Kelly, former executive editor of Wired magazine, and Chris Anderson, Wired's current editor, he goes so far as to call them "digital Maoists."

A self-confessed "humanistic softie," Lanier is fighting to wrest control of technology from the "ascendant tribe" of technologists who believe that wisdom emerges from vast crowds, rather than from distinct, individual human beings. According to Lanier, the Internet designs made by that "winning subculture" degrade the very definition of humanness. The saddest example comes from young people who brag of their thousands of friends on Facebook. To them, Lanier replies that this "can only be true if the idea of friendship is reduced."

Anyone who has followed technology and for years has resented the adoration heaped upon the ascendant tribe will positively swoon as Lanier throws into one great dustbin such sacred concepts as Web 2.0, singularity, hive mind, wikis, the long tail, the noosphere, the cloud, snippets, crowds, social networking and the Creative Commons -- dismissing them all as "cybernetic totalism" and, more fun yet, as potential "fascism."

The "cybernetic totalists" base their thinking on decades-old ideas known as "chaos" or "complexity" theory, which began with a question about ants: How does something as complex as a colony arise from the interactions of dumb ants? This approach can be useful if one is studying mass phenomena such as traffic jams. The problem comes when we try to apply ant-derived thinking to people who are trying to lead creative, expressive lives.

In the totalist model, algorithms (most of them secret and proprietary, such as Google's search engine) create knowledge by making links among the system's many human participants. From this possibly infinite set of connections arises intelligence. The creative actor is no longer the human being but the system and its algorithms, out of which emerges a living, nonhuman or trans-human higher being. (Lanier does not hesitate to compare this to religion.) There are some, such as Google co-founder Larry Page, who believe the Internet will soon be alive.

The poor human participants become "peasants" working for the "lords" of technology: those who have deeper access to the workings of the Web (read Google, Yahoo and hedge funds with vast analytic resources) and who profit from our volunteer labor. Our role is simply to keep contributing our code-bits and snippets and Facebook pages. We become what Lanier calls "computer peripherals," and he is raising a defense against this reduction of our being.

Lanier says there is still time "to promote alternate designs [of the Internet] that resonate with human-kindness." He is fighting for something "ineffable" in the human imagination and creativity; for us to see personhood as "a quest, a mystery, and a leap of faith." These are not views normally expressed by computer scientists, and anyone but Lanier would get laughed off the stage. Yet he dares to say the forbidden: that computers as we know them may be incapable of truly representing human thoughts and relationships.

This book is very much like the Jaron Lanier he shows in his public appearances: mind-bending, exuberant, brilliant, thinking in all directions. He describes how computer software locks us into rigid ways of thinking (which brings up the next logical question, though he fails to ask it: How can a computer, with its need for standard interfaces, not lock us into the behavior and thought patterns implicit in our software?). He discusses how pack-like attacks arise on the Web wherever there is an opportunity for "consequence-free, transient anonymity." The topic hardly matters: "Jihadi chat looks just like poodle chat."

He describes the sad, stressful lives of young people who "must manage their online reputations constantly." He makes the point that the free use of everything on the Web leads to endless mashups, except for the one thing legally protected from being mashed-up: ads, making advertising the one thing on the Internet that can be "owned." In the book's final pages, he tries to imagine an alternative to "totalist" computing: a new sort of virtual-reality software that would allow us to express ourselves through transformations of our virtual bodies, as if we were cephalopods. All of which sounds quite wild, but so did virtual reality in 1980.

Overall, the book is a delight; it gives us the privilege of riding inside Lanier's "adventurous individual imagination that is distinct from the crowd." The most serious problem is the lack of citations. Many of the ideas Lanier describes have been expressed previously by others. Yet he quotes only his friends, employers and research associates, as if only their thoughts mattered and all other ideas simply came to him through the ether. He recognizes how this happens: On the Web, "often you don't know where a quoted fragment from a news story came from, who wrote a comment, or who shot a video." But he did not choose to place his manifesto on the Web; he chose to write a book, so we have the right to expect more of the author. He might have asked himself: How did I come by these ideas? Are they all wholly mine? His dedication, in part, thanks someone named Lillibell, "who taught me to read anew."

The preface says he is grateful for the "real human eyes" that will pass over the following pages, and for the "tiny minority" of humanity that still reads books. Yes, Jaron, we are still here. We few, we happy few.

Ellen Ullman, a former software engineer, is the author of "Close to the Machine" and "The Bug: A Novel.

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