You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier is filled with interesting ideas but unfortunately these ideas are laid out in such a way that they are fragmented, repetitive, undeveloped and confusing. I read somewhere recently that the book was put together from Lanier’s Wired columns and if that is the case, it explains the book’s structure – or lack thereof.
Lanier is a computer scientist, musician, and pioneer in virtual reality. The man cannot be accused of being anti-computer or anti-internet. He is an über-nerd. And so for him to write a book about the pitfalls of technology, well, I was happy to bite.
Lanier’s main theme and warning in the book centers around what he calls cybernetic totalism. It is the belief among many other über-nerds in things like the singularity (when computers become smarter than people) and the intelligence of the hive mind. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it shuts out individuality, promotes group-think, and dehumanizes us. Those who believe in and promote the hive mind think that quantity becomes quality at extreme scale and that
a million, or perhaps a billion, fragmentary insults will eventually yield wisdom that surpasses that of any well-thought-out essay, so long as sophisticated secret statistical algorithms recombine the fragments.
I was constantly reminded throughout of the old schtick that a thousand monkeys typing away will eventually write a Shakespeare play. We are made to believe by the cybernetic totalism folk that this is inevitable, that the way computers and technology are currently evolving cannot be stopped or changed, that resistance is futile and we will all eventually be assimilated into what amounts to the real-life version of the Borg on Star Trek and we will all be smarter and happier for it.
Lanier counters that computers do not evolve on their own, that humans make decisions about the creation and use of technology, nothing is inevitable and we have a right to question, resist and demand technology that is a tool for our purposes instead of people serving technology.
It is a good argument and one that needs to be thought about and discussed. Unfortunately the argument is not really developed fully and what is developed doesn’t come in a continuous, coherent building of examples and studies and argument, but in bits and pieces that are sometimes self-righteous and sometimes couched in jargon that never gets satisfactorily defined.
There are other issues and arguments in the book too but they are just as fragmentary and even more difficult to piece together. And then there are the tangents Lanier goes off on like research in olfactory science and why we don’t have smell-o-vision yet and some wild theories about how the development of language in humans might be related to our sense of smell.
Overall I was disappointed in the book. I expected something more coherent. It is clear that Lanier is a smart guy who has thought a lot about technology issues but while he goes on about the evils of “the cloud” he fails to come down to earth from his own cloud enough to deliver a coherent argument that is understandable by the many people who still don’t know the difference between a right mouse click and a left mouse click. And this is a shame because it is them, perhaps as much as or more so, than the computer savvy that need to to understand the issues and what is at stake.