Wednesday, September 15, 2010

You are not a gadget: A manifesto

Melanie Rothschild
Lanier, J. (2010). You are Not a Gadget: a Manifesto. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

I must first explain, that I consider Jaron Lanier to be something of a Cinderella figure in my life: this has nothing to do with his three-foot long dreads. Rather it harkens back to the Creativity and Cognition conference I attended in October, 2009. At that conference, I found myself deeply enthralled by an un-scheduled speaker who warned about the dangers of groupthink in the creativity community. In the middle of a thought, he suddenly remembered his unattended parking meter and bolted out of the hall. No one sitting near me knew his name and I was never able to learn his identity. Several months later, I heard Mr. Lanier interviewed on the radio about his new book and found very engrossing the issues he was discussing about maintaining individual personhood in an increasingly tech world. When I finally got hold of You Are Not a Gadget, and went to read about the author, I was astonished to see from the picture, that he was in fact, the same fellow who ran out to tend his parking meter last year in Berkeley. Ah, a fit for the glass slipper at last.

“When we deploy a computer model of something like learning or friendship in a way that has an effect on real lives, we are relying on faith. When we ask people to live their lives through our models, we are potentially reducing life itself. How can we ever know what we might be losing?” (p.70).

I have been a visitor to Mr. Lanier’s world of technological landscapes and fast flowing rivers of expertise. This destination is extremely far from my usual home, further even than Buffalo, New York. He is certainly a fascinating, if not necessarily overly welcoming host to non-techies. Nevertheless, I find him to be a profoundly good man and I am happy to hang out in his quarters for a while based on my abundant respect for his raw tech brilliance all the while connected to an ever-present awareness and concern for the experience of the human soul. His book is basically a discussion on maintaining personhood in a technological culture.

In describing him in relationship to creativity, I would probably have to say that he is the closest thing to a living embodiment of the entire concept of creativity that I can imagine. His claim to pioneering inventions and inroads in the history of technology is formidable (among many other things, he is credited with coining the term virtual reality) and he is not only a musician but also a recognized expert in early instruments. All this would certainly be enough to earn him substantial decorative hardware as a creative giant, but what speaks the loudest about his essential creative spirit I believe, is his ability to be introspective and sensitive to a myriad of potential human ramifications of this dense and intense world as well as the bravery to amplify his concerns. It would only shortchange Lanier to not extend full claim to him, all of the following titles: tech giant, musician, philosopher, anthropologist, entertainer and “humanist softie” (p.191).

While thoroughly devout to the potential of the tech world for ultimate good, he discusses a host of fundamental issues about a cybernetic totalist culture where individual human specialness would ultimately be subsumed. His concerns include the annonynimity of the web which he asserts too often denies the individual intellectual credit as well as the need for responsibility, giving rise to creating pack-like thinking. He points to Wikipedia as becoming a dominant source of reference which erases accountability and point of view entirely. The author takes the reader on a logical continuing path in which the practice of obscuring authorship could ultimately lead to “one collective book” (p.47) bankrupting us of books by individuals. He refers to a “digital flattening of expression into a global mush” (p.45). His discussion of the internet’s impact on the world of print journalism posits a critical warning about the invaluable role of an independent press, composed of “heroic voices” without which, “the collective becomes stupid and unreliable” (p.57).

He continually points out and challenges subtle strains of thought which are easily taken for granted in our rush to keep up with an ever-developing tech way of life. Lanier discusses how computers, with reputations as intelligent machines, tend to make people defer to them and become prone to changing themselves in order to appear to make the machine work better, instead of insisting that the computer be changed to be more useful (p.36).

Facebook he warns, organizes people into multiple-choice identities and points out that it is the “alien bits where the flavor is found” (p.48). By reconfiguring information to make it fit a particular pre-planned format, we risk losing the heart of it. He reminds us that the real customers of Facebook are not the members, but rather the advertisers of the future who will feed on the valuable information currently being captured (“social-graph”) between people whose definition of what constitutes a “friend” seriously diminishes prior uses of the term. A fierce believer and defender of individual creativity he states: “A new generation has come of age with a reduced expectation of what a person can be and of who each person might become” (p.4).

He believes that before vast baseline technological systems are instituted and become deeply entrenched, or “locked-in” to place, tremendous thought must go into potential outcomes:

“It is impossible to work with information technology without also engaging in social engineering . . . Different media designs stimulate different potentials in human nature. We shouldn’t seek to make the pack mentality as efficient as possible. We should instead seek to inspire the phenomenon of individual intelligence” (p.5).

“There is more than one possible technological future and the debate should be about how to best identify and act on whatever freedoms of choice we still have” (p.45). Without this careful planning, the consequences of initially inconsequential decisions can develop into “unchangeable rules of our lives (p. 8-9).” Constantly questioning what are easily perceived as established rules of the web, he makes a compelling case for the ultimate diminution of individual creativity within the framework of an endless sea of free access to creative content: without compensating individual artists even a tiny bit, we lose the effect of imposed scarcity, without which money itself has no value, a concept which is at the heart of a capitalist system.

While Lanier certainly blasts tech culture to a significant degree, he makes a touching tribute to his colleagues rather early in the text, thereby reasserting his basic core optimism in the creative spirit of the intellectual tech culture:

Many of my friends disagree with me. It is to their credit that I feel free to speak my mind, knowing that I will still be welcome in our world (p.17).

His tome, while dire at times, is impressive and even inspiring in terms of the writer’s ability to examine that of his own making as well as to introduce thinking which emboldens us to take claim of our spiritual selves and challenge what may at time seem like the inevitable. He reminds us indeed that we are each, responsible for our own creativity.

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