Stop and Think

You Are Not a Gadget, by Jaron Lanier, Alfred A. Knopf (2010)

Jaron Lanier is not a particularly eloquent rhetorician. He can be maddeningly vague about concepts fundamental to his arguments. He makes pronouncements based on unstated (and sometimes unshared) presumptions, and sometimes, with even his most cogent points, he uses examples that are (to say the least) extremely wacky. This would make him much easier to dismiss if he wasn’t also so often right. Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget, an ambitious, flawed, grand polemic against “web 2.0 design” addresses everything from how Facebook encourages young people to rigidly delimit their individuality, to the evils of the hive-mind metaphor, the creative dark age we’re currently in, and why the future should bring us virtual puppeteers performing for children’s birthday parties via holographic projectors.

Starting with the question “What is a Person?” Lanier intends this book, which is primarily a manifesto about the future of the internet, to also be a spiritual, or metaphysical account of how the web 2.0 design features dehumanize individuals in what he says is the false hope of creating artificially intelligent life. He avers that “web 2.0 design” (a term he never formally defines, but which seems to mean a combination of both Facebook and any technology that encourages people to produce or access content for free) is double-pronged in its methods of devalueing individual effort. Via free music and journalism (presumably including even this review), anonymous Wikipedia entries, YouTube movies, and many other creative outputs, Lanier points out that the new technologies encourage people to give away their work for free in the false assumption that the “cloud-based hive-mind” will be smarter than any one individual, and may one day even develop self-awareness, or its own person-hood. This is the theory behind both Wikipedia and aggregate sites like Digg, Yelp, or Rotten Tomatoes, that try to replace individual content or opinion with an anonymous running feed of whatever is most popular.

 On the other hand, entities like Facebook, which seem at first to over-glorify the individual, also deny human individuality, as Lanier explains, by persuading people to restrict their self-identities to little more than a spreadsheet data-set of favorite movies, activities, relationship statuses, and group memberships—an effect that Lanier admits may not have been intended by its designers, but is now “locked in” by Facebook’s extreme popularity. The effect, especially for young people, is what Lanier calls Facebook addiction, wherein people with valid complaints about the site cannot stop using it, and indeed feel pressure to constantly maintain their site in order to avoid extreme public humiliation. The evidence he provides for this is largely anecdotal.

There are points, however, where Lanier does take the time to discuss a claim at length, and when he does, it pays off. His explanation of how programmers are hoping to use cloud-based computing to create intelligent life doesn’t sound as crazy as it initially might seem. He provides a brief history of artificial intelligence, looking at the moment when world chess champion Gary Kasparov was “out-thought” by a computer in 1997. He makes a strong argument for what computer programmers are trying to do, why the idea of AI is so enticing (he describes it as a Silicon Valley religion) and also why every effort so far, including the “hive-mind” super-intelligence ideology is both a bad idea and doomed to fail—why, for instance, the demand for free content weakens creativity instead of strengthening it.

On this second concept, Lanier, who is also a musician, devotes a lot of time on the value, even the necessity of paying for content, and of creating what he calls “artificial scarcity” in order to effectively revalue creative content. It’s here that his ideas become most persuasive. In terms of artificial scarcity, Lanier uses the metaphor of money—there’s no actual limit (besides paper, maybe) to the amount of dollar bills that the U.S. Treasury can produce if it wants, but the reason the dollar has value is that the U.S. carefully controls how much is actually in circulation (and cracks down on counterfeiters who replicate money).

Lanier makes the case that music, writing, and movies also have more value when they are not ubiquitous, and that value should be recognized and respected by societal norms. This is an idea that is particularly anathematic to certain sets of computer users who see freely sharing music and movies as both a right, and a righteous slap in the face to “evil” industry moguls.

And Lanier clearly sympathizes—he is no shill for the industry, and he doesn’t ask for a return to business as usual. Instead, he sketches out several possible solutions that would recreate a social contract for paying for content: methods that would both support musicians, movie makers, and other creative producers, while still allowing people to use technology to access and organize content. Some of Lanier’s ideas seem prescient. Others—such as “songles” (tchotchkes like bracelets or coffee mugs that contain hit songs in RFID chips) or the previously mentioned concept of puppeteers “telegigging” via holographic projectors—are about as out there as one can get.

 Lanier definitely believes in a technological utopia: he helped invent virtual reality, and he’s been a major influence on the computer programming world for as long as Bill Gates has. His ideas for the future of computing and the internet are some of the most exciting parts of the book. Lanier talks about building computers that could respond, not with line-by-line code (which is what causes your iphone to disconcertingly “hang” at odd moments when thousands of commands are being processed, one by one, and they back up) but more, as Lanier puts it, like one dancer responding to another, in real-time. He talks about ways of interacting with computers that are more like virtual reality—in which users can engage in “postsymbolic communication” by physically morphing into what they want to describe instead of, well, describing it. He mentions, over and over, a future world in which robotics and instantaneous communication have made it so that creative output, far from being devalued, have all the value—where everyone is free to engage in a life of the mind, to be exploratory and creative for the great bulk of their lives.

And it’s this optimism, this unadulterated ability to envision a strange, better new world—even one with holographic puppeteers—that makes his harsh criticism of the current cynically ad-heavy, un-creative, rehash and mashup-heavy “content wants to be free” (or “content free”) internet experience so potent.

Lanier makes the point particularly well when it comes to the lack of innovation in music. After pointing out that only a decade separated Robert Johnson from Charlie Parker, or the Beatles from Hip-hop, he laments the relative stagnation of music since the beginning of the century:

I have frequently gone through a conversational sequence along the following lines: Someone in his early twenties will tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about, and then I’ll challenge that person to play me some music that is characteristic of the late 2000s as opposed to the late 1990s. I’ll ask him to play the tracks for his friends. So far, my theory has held: even true fans don’t seem to be able to tell if an indie rock track or a dance mix is from 1998 or 2008, for instance.

His point is clear: it’s not just individual artists, writers, etc. who are suffering as a result of the music download free-for-all, it’s innovation in general. And the results are bad for all of us, creators and consumers alike.

 So, when Lanier points out that things don’t have to be this way, that we can become creative individuals who benefit from the internet’s abilities, and not creative slaves in thrall to the demands of a hive-mind’s need for endless free content, delimited in easily rearrangeable parts, he is compelling. And his vision for the future, while sometimes wacky, looks a lot more interesting than the present.

This is a book that should be read by anyone who makes or uses digital content, from the casual mp3 downloader to the dedicated blogger or internet journalist. It’s a missive from one of the people who helped design the technology that many of us depend upon for work, entertainment, and more; and it explains, if often a little brusquely, what the flaws in the design are and how we might go about fixing them. It will change the way you think about the internet, and what we all need to do to make it work for us more effectively.


Christopher Michel

CHRISTOPHER MICHEL is a writer and stay-at-home dad. He lives in Brooklyn's secret Chinatown.