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You Are Not a Gadget

Author and Internet pioneer Jaron Lanier pleads the human case

As an Internet and Virtual Reality trailblazer, Jaron Lanier helped to change the world as we know it. Now he wants to do it again, only this time by advocating for reform of the online culture he in part created.

In his book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, published last month, Lanier gives an impassioned call for a renewed Internet characterized by technological humanism, intellectual modesty on the part of technologists, and civility of discourse by all who log on. In other words, in his view the Web ought to be about—and its designs ought to encourage and empower:

  • Individuals rather than ads;
  • Decorum and exchange rather than mean-spiritedness and polarization;
  • Unique, idiosyncratic voices rather than an anonymous hive;
  • Original creative expression rather than rehashes and mashups (what Lanier calls “Second-order expression”);
  • Artistic entrepreneurship rather than the Web-giveaways of thought, labor, and creativity now expected in our “crowd-sourced” world.

Where the trendsetters of today’s Internet (“Web 2.0”) extol its liberating, ultra-democratic spirit, pointing to Social Media (Facebook, etc.) and Open Culture (Wikipedia, etc.), Lanier fears an Internet that institutionalizes bad Web design and a Web-mentality that celebrates constrictive, data-centric technology over infinite human creativity, and does so largely because that technology serves advertising and thus enriches data-gatherers and “cloud-lords” (those few technologists who’ve cornered the market on connecting the crowds).

Writes Lanier:

The central mistake of recent digital culture is to chop up a network of individuals so finely that you end up with a mush. You then start to care about the abstraction of the network more than the real people who are networked, even though the network by itself is meaningless. Only the people were ever meaningful.

That’s Lanier’s sharp left hook to the jaw of “cybernetic totalism,” the predominant religion of Silicon Valley. Cybernetic totalists believe in “the noosphere … a collective consciousness [that] emerges from all the users on the Web,” and also in “The Singularity,” a kind of techno-Rapture which involves “people dying in the flesh and being uploaded into a computer and remaining conscious.”

No kidding.

The cybernetic totalists live to serve their faith by implementing Web designs that nourish the crowd, the “digital cloud,” a super-consciousness before which the point of view of the individual human ceases to matter. The Cloud, at any given moment, knows all that mankind can ever know. The implications of such beliefs are vast. It follows, for instance, that instead of books, we will have one global book authored by this electronic super-consciousness (i.e. by everybody and thus…nobody).

Sound a little bit like technological fascism? Alas, how blurry grows the line between creative/social idealism and destructive folly!

A half century ago Aldous Huxley wrote the following in Brave New World Revisited. In light of the ascendant culture criticized in You Are Not a Gadget, do you find Huxley’s words as chilling as I do?

A new Social Ethic is replacing our traditional ethic system—the system in which the individual is primary. The key words in this Social Ethic are ‘adjustment,’ ‘adaptation,’ socially oriented behavior,’ ‘belongingness,’ ‘acquisition of social skills,’ ‘team work,’ ‘group living,’ ‘group loyalty,’ ‘group dynamics,’ ‘group thinking,’ ‘group creativity.’ Its basic assumption is that the social whole has greater worth and significance than its individual parts. … However hard they try, men cannot create a social organism, they can only create an organization. In the process of trying to create an organism they will merely create a totalitarian despotism.

In the dominant ideology now shaping the Internet, the Cloud is all. And the Cloud, specifically, is the Crowd.

Lanier argues that current software designs (“Twitter’s adoration of fragments ; Facebook…organizing people into multiple-choice identities; Wikipedia eras[ing] point of view entirely”) implicitly encourage us to depersonalize ourselves, to reduce to base technological definitions important human things like friendship, individual expression, and personal attributes. We’re each coaxed to become but a facet of the Crowd, to dissolve into digital ether, no longer characterized, no longer really human, but wholly Cloud. “Authorship…is not a priority of the new ideology,” hence: “the digital flattening of expression into a global mush.”

Lanier revolts:

It is true that by using [online] tools individuals can author books or blogs or whatever, but people are encouraged by the economics of free content, crowd dynamics, and lord aggregators to serve up fragments instead of considered whole expressions or arguments. …The one collective book will absolutely not be the same thing as the library of books by individuals it is bankrupting. Some believe it will be better; others, including me, believe it will be disastrously worse.

And here, knowingly or not, he goes on to echo Huxley:

Any singular, exclusive book, even the collective one accumulating in the cloud, will become a cruel book if it is the only one available.

The medium is the message, indeed. In a modern world that lives by and worships technology, one ideology or another will prove a force we can’t ignore. So it turns out that questions as seemingly arcane as online design bear strongly on the universal matters of freedom, democracy, cultural well-being, and spiritual health.

As the great cultural critic Neil Postman asked,

Can a nation preserve its history, originality, and humanity by submitting itself totally to the sovereignty of a technological thought-world?

Lanier, who in many ways fits Postman’s description of a technological “resistance fighter,” explores those big societal questions throughout his book, and outlines the dispiriting new economic order resulting from Web 2.0: a broad disenfranchisement of artists and creative entrepreneurs; i.e. of culturally enriching creative expression.

If some free video of a silly stunt will draw as many eyeballs as the product of a professional filmmaker on a given day, then why pay the filmmaker? If an algorithm can use cloud-based data to unite those eyeballs with the video clip of the moment, why pay editors or impresarios?

Specifically, Lanier sees an emergent generation of unpaid “digital peasants,” those who labor and think in service to the so-called “noosphere,” even while disempowered—and largely dehumanized—by the decisions of digital lords, rulers of the Cloud. His outrage is heartening:

It is utterly strange to hear my many old friends in the world of digital culture claim to be the true sons of the Renaissance without realizing that using computers to reduce individual expression is a primitive, retrograde activity, no matter how sophisticated your tools are.

Personally I part company with Lanier toward his conclusion, where his techie fervor stirs him to swooning descriptions of the ultimate entertainment: computerized alternate worlds, immersive virtual realms yet to be realized. Admittedly, Virtual Reality can serve us in obviously constructive ways, for example its use in surgical procedures, but Lanier’s boosterism of the technology for its own sake seems to contradict the general spirit of his book at its close.

Still, You Are Not A Gadget is a brilliant, almost mind-altering read. Though Lanier’s aim may be manifesto, his tone is winningly conversational throughout. We hear the voice of an aggrieved forefather pleading for reason, technological temperance, and good old humanism amid an accelerating technocracy. And he’s not short on constructive ideas, both macro and micro, assuring us there’s still hope for a positive Web renewal because the design mentalities driving Web 2.0 are not yet incontrovertibly locked-in, not quite. The way of the “noosphere” needn’t necessarily be our future.

But how is the average non-techie Internet user to help shift the cultural tide?

There are things you can do to be a person instead of a source of fragments to be exploited by others …

and proposed within an encouraging list of creative ideas, Lanier offers this antidote to the fetish of fragments and bits (it’s representative of the book’s constructive spirit):

Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out.

With Soul Shelter’s modus operandi so nicely endorsed, how could we fail to sing the praises of this timely manifesto?

(Read Lanier’s recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal)

You may also enjoy:

Is the Internet Dangerous? (Part One)

When Connectivity Breeds Loneliness

A Soul-Affirming Vision of the Internet

Presenting…the Intravidual

Why It’s Desirable to Be Eccentric

John Ruskin on Soulful Imperfection

6 Comments to You Are Not a Gadget

On Feb 15, 2010, Nana commented:

The sky is falling, the sky is falling! Just kidding. It’s not. But you’d sure think so, according to Lanier. And unless I suddenly get the urge to invest my millions into uplinking my brain to the internet (for the edification of future generations, of course) I probably won’t worry too much, even if other people want to. Facebook and Twitter hold no terror for me! I am a Free Thinker! (strikes pose)

Seriously, good article, just, you know, can’t get behind the issue.

On Feb 15, 2010, by Mark commented:

Nana, You win honors for stylishness in our comments field, and eliciting smiles in us bloggers. Your free thinking is welcome at Soul Shelter anytime. ~Mark

On Feb 16, 2010, Aaron @ Clarifinancial commented:

The thing is that the cloud, still relies on humans. Not to be too self-promotional, but my service relies on the skill and experience of individuals, but the best ones of the group naturally float to the top.

“Adaptation” “belongingness” Yea! “Group thinking” “group creativity” Boo!

Rather than, “the social whole has greater worth and significance than its individual parts,” I’d say, “individual parts of the social whole put together is better than any single person.” I know I’m flawed. I know I don’t know it all. But I also know I’m better than anyone else at certain things. Let’s find each other’s awesomeness.

The problem I’m trying to solve (I don’t know about these nut-jobs you’re writing about) is still a human problem. And I think there is a human that knows the answer better than any computer or any collection of agreed-upon answers. But to ignore the tools we have in an effort to find these nuggets is just plain silly.

I guess that means I don’t fully agree or disagree with you or Lanier. It’s just a different perspective.

BTW, for an interesting take on the personal in the group social, you might want to check out Cowen’s Create Your Own Economy about curating your own micro-reality as an expression of the self.

On Feb 16, 2010, chacha1 commented:

I’ve read a couple of reviews of “You are Not a Gadget” and I think the context is important to keep in mind. The author has lived his entire professional life in the extremely self-limiting world of digital innovation. Naturally, this is going to color his view of the digital fringe.

There is a vast world full of people who not only live fully sense-experiential lives, but to whom it would never occur to consider a box of circuitry as the Motherland – or the Afterlife. Most of us, I think (even in the presently screen-addicted cultural state of the U.S.) still find actual human interaction, and employment of our physical senses, to be preferable to a life of the mind on the scale proposed by Lanier’s nemeses.

Re: blog posts: I couldn’t agree more about that one. :-)

On Feb 16, 2010, John Bardos - IdeaEconomy commented:

Fantastic article.

This likely would have been a “10 reasons you are not a gadget” list post on a typical blog. :-) It is great to see posts “that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out.”

I definitely agree that “people are encouraged by the economics of free content, crowd dynamics, and lord aggregators to serve up fragments instead of considered whole expressions or arguments.”

However, there is a key fact that I think is neglected in his arguments. The Internet is bringing the tools of creative expression and communication to virtually everyone, everywhere on the planet. The Internet is not constricting the most creative people, it is just drowning them out in sea of mediocrity.

It is important to remember that technology is just a tool. The tool itself is not good or bad. Giving everyone in the world free sculpting tools does not diminish the works of the most talented artists. It just inundates the world with a lot of lousy sculptures.

Substandard and fragmented content is increasing, but there is more access to quality creative expression as well. I would have never found your blog if it weren’t for this “Internet that institutionalizes bad Web design and a Web-mentality that celebrates constrictive, data-centric technology over infinite human creativity.”

On Feb 16, 2010, Taking Aim at Web Utopians « Techpoets commented:

[…] Aim at Web Utopians My friends at Soul Shelter have jumped into the dialog and controversy stirred up by author Jaron Lanier, and his latest book, […]

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