book review: Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget

by on February 15, 2010 · 616 comments

Of the many tech policy-related books I’ve read in recent years, I can’t recall ever being quite so torn over one of them as much as I have been about Jaron Lanier‘s You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto.  There were moments while I was reading through it when I was thinking, “Yes, quite right!,” and other times when I was muttering to myself, “Oh God, no!”

The book is bound to evoke such strong emotions since Lanier doesn’t mix words about what he believes is the increasingly negative impact of the Internet and digital technologies on our lives, culture, and economy. In this sense, Lanier fits squarely in the pessimist camp on the Internet optimists vs. pessimists spectrum. (I outlined the intellectual battle lines between these two camps my essay, “Are You An Internet Optimist or Pessimist? The Great Debate over Technology’s Impact on Society.”) But Lanier is no techno-troglodyte. Generally speaking, his pessimism isn’t as hysterical in tone or Luddite-ish in its prescriptions as the tracts of some other pessimists.  And as a respected Internet visionary, a gifted computer scientist, an expert on virtual reality, and a master wordsmith, the concerns Lanier articulates here deserve to be taken seriously— even if one ultimately does not share his lugubrious worldview.

On the very first page of the book, Lanier hits on three interrelated concerns that other Net pessimists have articulated in the past:

  1. Loss of individuality & concerns about “mob” behavior (Lanier: “these words will mostly be read by nonpersons–automatons or numb mobs composed of people who are no longer acting as individuals.”)
  2. Dangers of anonymity (Lanier: “Reactions will repeatedly degenerate into mindless chains of anonymous insults and inarticulate controversies.”)
  3. “Sharecropper” concern that a small handful of capitalists are getting rich off the backs of free labor (Lanier: “Ultimately these words will contribute to the fortunes of those few who have been able to position themselves as lords of the computing clouds.”)

Again, others have tread this ground before, and it’s strange that Lanier doesn’t bother mentioning any of them. Neil Postman, Mark Helprin, Andrew Keen, and Lee Siegel have all railed against the online “mob mentality” and argued it can be at least partially traced to anonymous online communications and interactions. And it was Nick Carr, author of The Big Switch, who has been the most eloquent in articulating the “sharecropper” concern, which Lanier now extends with his “lords of the computing clouds” notion. [More on that towards the end.]

Singularity Silliness & a Kantian Categorical Imperative for High-Tech

Lanier is fairly thoughtful when walking us through these concerns, although at times his passions get the best of him as we’ll see later. He does a nice job asking people to think twice before taking too big of a gulp of the “free culture” kool-aid and extreme varieties of cyber-collectivism.  More broadly, his book is an attack on what he calls “cybernetic totalism,” or the belief by some extreme digital age optimists that a “hive mind” or “noosphere” is coming about; it’s a vision of the Net as an organism powered by the wisdom of crowds. Lanier thinks such thinking is all bunk and, worse yet, that it has dangerous ramifications for humanity and individuality. He is guided by the equivalent of the Kantian categorical imperative:

I take a mystical view of human beings. My first priority must be to avoid reducing people to mere devices. The best way to do that is to believe that the gadgets I can provide are inert tools and are only useful because people have the magical ability to communicate meaning through them. (p. 154).

Lanier is refocusing the inquiry (about the Net’s impact on society & culture) around the question of whether it has bettered the lot of the individual human being, not the group. What he laments is that the early cyberspace dream was supposedly guided by “a sweet faith in human nature,” but this “has been superseded by a different faith in the centrality of imaginary entities epitomized by the idea that the Internet as a whole is coming alive and turning into a superhuman creature.” (p. 14)  Referring to these folks as “digital Maoists,” Lanier argues that this movement “starts to look like a religion rather quickly”:

The Singularity and the noosphere, the idea that a collective consciousness emerge from all the users on the web, echo Marxist social determinism and Freud’s calculus of perversions. We rush ahead of skeptical, scientific inquiry at our peril, just like the Marxists and Freudians. (p. 18)

I too have grown tired of such quixotic techno-utopianism and those Internet pollyannas who sound like they long for the Singularity, global cybernetic consciousness, and life in The Matrix. (Kevin Kelly, I’m looking at you!) But I think Lanier casts this critical net far too wide by suggesting that this thinking has become the dominant mindset among modern digerati. While I agree it has caught on in some circles, I think plenty of others have called out this kookiness or refused to embrace it as a enthusiastically as Lanier suggests.

Lanier’s Critique of the Free Culture / Open Source Movement

Lanier is on safer ground in pushing back against the occasional narrow-mindedness of the free culture / open source movement and their frequently hostility to traditional forms of content creation. Like other Net critics before him, he stresses the occasional downsides of “the wisdom of the crowd” (groupthink, mob-like behavior, puerile comments, etc). And Lanier rightly points out that—contrary to what some free culture / open source advocates would have us think—personal expression and proprietary models have driven some amazing recent innovations, from great video games to Pixar movies to the iPhone. When specifically referring to the work of famed video game innovator Will Wright, creator of The Sims and Spore, Lanier notes:

Wright offers the hive a way to play with what he has done, but he doesn’t create using a hive model. He relies on a large staff of full-time paid people to get his creations shipped. The business model that allows this to happen is the only one that has been proven to work so far: a closed model. You actually pay real money for Wright’s stuff. (p. 132)

And, yet, Lanier notes that, “When Spore was introduced, the open culture movement was offended because of the inclusion of digital rights management software,” and “as punishment for this sin, Spore was hammered by mobs of trolls on Amazon reviews and the like, ruining it public image. The critics also defused what should have been a spectacular debut,” he claims.  I think Lanier makes many fair points here. First, it is certainly true that we occasionally see an entitlement mentality at work with some digital natives who seem to think that intellectual property rights and DRM are akin to a form of slavery. The notion that all intellectual creations must be released immediately into the wild without any constraint, protection, or form of payment is surely the height of digital utopianism, and Lanier is quite right to castigate those who adopt such an approach to culture and its creation.

But, again, one must be careful not to go overboard here. In particular, I think Lanier goes too far when he questions whether open source software has really advanced since the early days of its inception. “Open wisdom-of-crowds software movements have become influential, but they haven’t produced the kind of radical creativity I love most in computer science,” he says. (p. 126) He calls Linux merely “a superbly polished copy of an antique” bit of code, and says that he “long(s) to be made obsolete by new generations of digital culture, but instead I am tortured by repetition and boredom.”  Really? How hard are you looking, Jaron?  Because I believe you can find more—and more interesting—forms of culture today than at any point in human civilization. I’m constantly amazed by the creativity and innovation of all sorts that we see on display every day thanks the Internet and digital technologies— including open source-based efforts.

Generally speaking, I’ve tried to stake out a middle ground, Rodney King (“why-can’t we-all-just-get-along?”) position by arguing that free and open source software (FOSS) and remix culture more generally has offered society enormous benefits, but that FOSS (or collective “wiki” models) will not replace all proprietary business models or methods entirely. Each model or mode of production has its place and purpose and they will continue to co-exist going forward, albeit in serious tension at times.  We should appreciate the benefits of both models and be thankful these distinct modes of cultural production are at work in our modern society and economy.

That said, I find myself increasingly agreeing with Lanier’s worry that “The distinction between first-order expression and derivative expression is lost on true believers of the hive.” He elaborates:

First-order expression is when someone presents a whole, a work that integrates its own worldview and aesthetic. It is something entirely new in the world. Second-order expression is made of fragmentary reactions to first-order expression. A movie like Blade Runner is first order expression, as was the novel that inspired it, but a mashup in which a scene from the movie is accompanied by the anonymous masher’s favorite song in not in the same league.(p. 122)

He’s onto something here. I sometimes find myself perplexed by the amount of remix worship going on in cyberspace and worry that the underlying creativity of the original, first-order work is being downplayed or forgotten. And there are plenty of epigones out there who are butchering someone else’s original work of art on a regular basis. Just search YouTube for the phrase “guitar solo” and be prepared to have your ears violated by those who fancy themselves the reincarnation of Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughn.

Of course, some would claim that a redo, remix, or mashup of first-order creations is the highest form of adoration of that original content—even if it is poorly done. Perhaps. But all too often the focus and adoration is on the redo or remix itself, which often doesn’t share the same degree of creative genius as the underlying first-order expression. And then, of course, there are the sticky copyright / fair use battles. Do I need permission to remix first-order expression?  To be clear, I am not against remix; I made that clear here when commenting on Lessig’s book of the same name. But I generally side with those whose adoration and amazement lies with the original creator(s) of the underlying first-order work. Moreover, I also fear that too often there is a blurring between remix culture and“ripoff culture” (i.e., those who aren’t out to create anything new but instead just take something without paying a penny for it).

For those reasons, I sympathize with Lanier’s critique of the free culture movement when it comes the question of derivative works and how little focus is on the underlying first-order expression. And this is exacerbated when the free culture movement adopts an entitlement mentality regarding access to that first-order expression, regardless of the impact of unlimited use on the first-order creator. Lanier fears that eventually this will result in the loss of a great deal of original culture and creativity:

I don’t claim I can build a meter to detect precisely where the boundary between first- and second-order expression lies. I am claiming, however, that the web 2.0 designs spin out gobs of the latter and choke of the former. It is astonishing how much chatter online is driven by fan responses to expression that was originally created within the sphere of old media and than is now being destroyed by the Net. Comments about TV shows, major movies, commercial music releases, and video games must be responsible or almost as much bit traffic as porn. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but since the web is killing the old media, we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock. (p. 122)

I’m not sure I would go that far, and in some ways Lanier is undercutting his own argument here since he points out that those free culture fanatics in the webosphere are still plenty enamored with old media!  But his broader concern—about us eating our own seed stock—deserves to be taken seriously. It’s great that the online mob still appreciates professional, first-order cultural production, but will they support it monetarily going forward so that it can be sustained? It’s a fair question.

Lanier’s Short-Sighted Critique of Modern Culture

At other points in the book, Lanier’s critique of the free culture movement and the modern Web 2.0 world goes off the rails because it devolves into a subjective attack on almost all modern culture. I find that many Net pessimists engage in this sort of philomaths-vs-the plebians, elites-vs-common folk critique. In defending the continued importance of professional content creators, proprietary business models, or intellectual property rights, many Net critics unfortunately often feel the need to denigrate all digital era culture or digital natives themselves. Helprin, Keen, and Siegel were guilty of this in the extreme in their books; Lanier somewhat less so here.  But he still does so occasionally throughout the book.

For example, Lanier dismisses most modern culture as “retro” and “a petty mashup of preweb culture.” “It’s as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump.” (p. 131) I find this argument largely uncompelling and quite myopic. I believe many Net pessimists (and many other cultural critics, for that matter) are guilty of a form of hyper-nostolgia about those mythical “good ‘ol days” when all was supposedly much better. It’s a common refrain we’ve heard from many social and cultural critics before, of course. But the problem with such cultural critiques is that they are highly subjective in nature. And, like many other critics before him, it seems likely that Lanier’s “adventure window” has slammed shut. Our willingness to try new things and experiment with new forms of culture—our “adventure window”—fades rapidly after certain key points in life, as we gradually get set in our ways. Many cultural critics and average folk alike always seem to think the best days are behind us and the current good-for-nothing generation and their new-fangled gadgets and culture are garbage.

But Lanier’s specific assertion that modern culture has “frozen” and is little more than “a petty mashup of preweb culture” demands closer inspection.  I will be guilty of a bit of subjectivity here myself, but looking back over the list I put together here of my choices for “Best Albums Every Year Since Your Birth,” I am struck by how much incredibly innovative music has been made over the past decade. Among my favorites: Muse, The White Stripes, The Flaming Lips, The Secret Machines, Vampire Weekend, The Killers, Modest Mouse, White Lies, Arcade Fire, Them Crooked Vultures, Silversun Pickups, Stufjan Stevens, Wolfmother, The Airborne Toxic Event, Phoenix, Manchester Orchestra… these bands are making some absolutely amazing music.

Now, if by “retro” Lanier means that some of these modern bands draw upon past musical influences well, then, that is pretty much the history of all music in a nutshell!  Consider my favorite rock band of all time: Led Zeppelin.  Zep was creative beyond belief with a thunderous sound that many others have tried, but failed, to reproduce ever since. If you know anything about Zep, however, you realize how profoundly they were influenced by blues artists. Not only are the influences unmistakable, but their first album is practically a tribute to the genre. But then Zep began experimenting with new sounds based on alternative influences and elevated their art to a whole different level. By their third album, they were drawing upon Celtic influences. By their fifth, east Asian influences can be detected. By their last, they were even toying with a bit of disco. So, are we to conclude from this that Zep was “retro” and “a petty mashup of [previous] culture”? The answer is YES! But only in the sense that all musicians are influenced to some degree by those that came before them.  And the same is true of some modern bands like The White Stripes, Wolfmother and Them Crooked Vultures, all of which are clearly influenced by Zeppelin. (Of course, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin is also a member of Them Crooked Vultures, so it only makes sense in that case!) Regardless, these are great bands making great original rock music, even if they also draw upon earlier sounds and influences.

In sum, Mr. Lanier and other cultural critics who lament supposed declines in the quality of modern music (or other culture) typically fail to acknowledge the highly subjective nature of their critiques. Moreover, even if we had a metric by which to judge, it is simply much to early to judge how this generation’s music stacks up against previous eras. Regardless, I wish Net critics like Mr. Lanier would stop tying their critiques of the free culture movement to such subjective theories about the supposedly death of quality content or modern culture. It seriously undercuts their case. There are ways to properly express concerns about the potential downsides of the free culture mindset without suggesting the entire digital generation is a lost cause or that all modern culture is moribund.

“Lords of the Cloud” & False Consciousness

I also find Lanier’s “lords of the cloud” critique of social networking and advertising unpersuasive.  Lanier seems to believe that Google, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and other Web 2.0 sites are all just part of the hive mind indoctrination scheme. Or, at a minimum, they are turning our brains into Jello: “Something like missionary reductionism has happened to the Internet with the rise of web 2.0,” he claims.  “The strangeness is being leached away by the mush-making process,” and “using computers to reduce individual expression is a primitive, retrograde activity.” (p. 48)  I don’t know what the hell that even means, but Lanier’s general crankiness here goes back to his nostalgic view of the supposed passing of Web 1.0′s halcyon days.  As Glenn Harlan Reynolds noted in his review of Lanier’s book:

Mr. Lanier is nostalgic for that era and its homemade Web pages, the personalized outposts that have largely been replaced by the more standardized formats of Facebook and MySpace. The aesthetics of these newer options might be less than refined, but tens of millions of people are able to express themselves in ways that were unimaginable even a decade ago. And let’s face it: Those personal Web pages of the 1990s are hardly worth reviving. It’ll be fine with me if I never see another blinking banner towed across the screen by a clip-art biplane.

Amen. Most of us who endured the Web 1.0 world wouldn’t want to go back to the floppy disk era for one second, regardless of Lanier’s romantic view of it.  And are Web 2.0 sites really “de-emphasizing individual humans” as Lanier suggests?  I think that would come as a surprise to a lot of other web critics who think such sites over-emphasize humans by allowing us to have the equivalent of the “Daily Me”, or hyper-tailored content and endless interactions with chums. Of course, the reality is somewhere in between: modern social networking sites and Web 2.0 offer opportunities for us to engage in, or view moments of, both beautiful self-expression and embarrassingly excessive narcissistic immaturity.

But even if Lanier could be convinced that Web 2.0 offered more opportunities for exactly the sort of individual excellence he desires, he wouldn’t care because his view of the modern Netizenry is that we are all just mindless sheep who are being ruthlessly exploited by our commercial masters. “The whole artifice, the whole idea of fake friendship, is just bait laid by the lords of the clouds to lure hypothetical advertisers–we might call them messianic advertisers–who could someday show up.” (p. 54) He then goes into some nonsense about social networking sites manipulating people and “violating privacy and dignity.”  What’s ironic about this argument is that Mr. Lanier goes around calling people “digital Maoists” and yet here he is trotting out some classic Marxist tripe about consumer manipulation! As Clive Thompson’s correctly noted in his review of the book:

Lanier’s critique of online life has a strong whiff of the “false consciousness” dicta that gained currency in the aftermath of the New Left. Lanier assumes people are essentially imprisoned by the software around them and are so witless that they aren’t aware of how impoverished their lot has become—Facebook as the high-tech iteration of Plato’s cave. Now, it’s certainly true that software can influence our behavior… But it’s also true that users aren’t so easily controlled. Indeed, the history of technology is full of people using software in ways the designers never intended or even imagined.

Quite right. Indeed, someone as sapient as Lanier should have a little more faith in humanity and their ability to use new tools and adapt to new realities to better the lot of mankind. Sadly, he’s bought into the sad ‘we’re-all-just-sheep-being-led-to-the-slaughter’ view of things.

Conclusion

Despite the reservations I’ve raised here, Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget is an important book worthy of your attention. It will certainly find a slot high up on my next end-of-year “Most Important Info-Tech Policy Books” list since we’ll be talking about Lanier’s book for many years to come.

____________

Additional Thoughts on Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget:

A PBS News Hour Debate

Jaron Lanier: Staying Human in a Tech-Driven World from Richard Huskey on Vimeo.

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