I have several complaints about Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget: The book feels unfinished. The introduction is scattered and unconvincing. He often makes little asides that sound really interesting and then never follows them up. He doesn’t spend enough time exploring his many ideas. His solutions to the problems he discusses are often not convincing. And I could have done without the distraction of the too-clever section headings that appear every second page and feel like slogans rather than content.
But in spite of those complaints, I’m still recommending this book to everyone I meet. It expresses a number of ideas that I’ve felt implicitly, draws some incredible connections, and engenders a lot of worrying thoughts about the digital age we’re living in.
I tried to write a quick summary of Lanier’s argument, but the book isn’t really structured like an argument. Rather, it’s a web of interconnected and sometimes contradictory ideas. The best I can do in a sentence: Lanier thinks that our present technological and cultural milieu poses danger to individual identity and individual creativity. The book explores many forms of this danger, and considers some of the solutions. Some of the more interesting examples:
- That Web 2.0 sites like Facebook try to standardize the definition of fundamental human concepts like “person” and “friendship” in simplistic ways that are understandable to computers but miss much of the richness of reality. Because people are willing to dumb themselves down to fit into the boxes that the machine provides, we’re in danger of losing that extra richness completely. He uses MIDI, a music standard designed for digitizing pianos that has become the standard for digitizing all instruments, as his example of what happens when a poor representation becomes entrenched.
- That first order creation by individuals is not valued as much as aggregation and derivation by the anonymous crowd. He illustrates this by leveling some fresh criticisms at Wikipedia, that triumph of “crowd sourcing”. Most people who complain about Wikipedia worry about its accuracy. Lanier worries about Wikipedia’s tone, which is a kind of neutral journalistic style free of the imprint of any of its authors. He thinks wikipedia is in danger of claiming too much authority: it becomes the voice of the all-knowing crowd, rather than the creation of a bunch of real, individual people with whom one could meaningfully disagree. He draws an interesting parallel: “Like wikipedia, the Bible’s authorship was shared, largely anonymous, and cumulative, and the obscurity of the individual authors severed to create an oracle-like ambience of the document as “the literal word of God”.”
- That there is very little that is new coming out of online culture: “Even the most seemingly radical online enthusiasts seem to flock to retro references. The sort of “fresh, radical culture” you expect to see celebrated in the online world these days is a pretty mashup of preweb culture.
“Take a look at one of the big cultural blogs like Boing Boing, or the endless stream of mashups that appear on YouTube. 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 the garbage dump.”
If you don’t believe him, plug “Super Mario” into the search box at YouTube, and look at all the people making things about a game from the mid 1980s…
- And, most frighteningly, that there is no standard path to success for a creative person trying to make it online. In the old days, if you were a musician, you played concerts, got a record deal, and got your music on the radio. If you were a writer, you sold your book to a publisher. Large numbers of musicians and writers did these things and were able to make a living. Now, what do you do? There are people making a living from their online endeavors (he mentions Ze Frank and Jonathon Coulton), but Lanier thinks that their success is doesn’t represent a model to follow. They’re one-offs. There is no reproducible method. Once “old media” is dead, how will the creative people be able to keep creating?
The thing that makes his criticisms so hard to ignore is that he is not a Luddite. He’s a silicon valley nerd who believes that the internet ought to have lead to an explosion of new weird and vital forms of culture. He isn’t arguing against technology, but against the unconsidered attitude that the digital revolution will magically turn out alright, and against the way the technology is structured and used. Drawing an analogy to the printing press, he writes, that “People, not machines, made the Renaissance. The printing that takes place in North Korea today, for instance, is nothing more than propaganda for a personality cult. What is important about printing presses is not the mechanism, but the authors.”
If you think all of this sounds interesting and true, you should read his book, because there is much more material where that came from. And if you think this sounds fishy and wrong, you should still read his book, because you can always benefit from someone challenging your premises, and the stakes are very high here.
Time is a created thing. To say ‘I don’t have time,’ is like saying, ‘I don’t want to.’
- Lao-Tzu. (At least, it’s usually attributed to him, although I so far haven’t been able to find that particular idea in Tao Te Ching. Of course, there are a million different translations of Tao Te Ching, so who knows. I like it anyway, regardless of who actually said it.)
I have a proposal: let’s all wake up an hour earlier than usual. Let’s eat breakfast in a fog, put on mismatched socks, and go to work an hour earlier. Let’s break for lunch before we’re hungry, and let’s knock off an hour earlier in the afternoon. It’ll give us more daylight hours to enjoy after work.
Could you imagine what it’d be like if someone actually made this proposal? It would be hard to get anyone else to play along. And, supposing the idea did catch on, you’d eventually get to an awkward stage where half your co-workers showed up an hour earlier than you (or an hour later), and it’s extremely hard to organize a group for lunch. And even if the idea really caught on, there would still be hold-outs, call them the True Nooners, who would stubbornly resist changing their schedule after everyone else had long ago adapted to that 6:00 am wake-up.
And yet, this is exactly what is going to happen on Monday, with all the attendant grumbling and traffic accidents. Daylight Savings Time begins tonight. The brilliance and tyranny of DST is that it bypasses the messy process of trying to get everyone to agree on something, and just flips a digit on the clock. And because we’re used thinking of The Clock as an immutable external force that must be obeyed, we go along with it. It never even crosses our minds that the whole thing is just a convention we have tacitly agreed to follow.
There’s probably a lesson here about how easy it is to manipulate people into doing things, if only you can find the right artificially-created (and thus, easily changed) concept to fiddle with. In this case, we’re being manipulated into something basically harmless, but Daylight Savings Time serves as a reminder that we can be easily thus hoodwinked. This is the danger of living too comfortably with abstractions: 12:00 noon is now quite divorced from the real phenomenon of the sun at its highest point in the sky, but because we live by the clock (the abstraction) and not the sun (the concrete thing), we don’t even notice the disconnect.
Abstractions are useful and all—having a standardized system of time sure makes scheduling that lunch meeting easier—but we should also remember to keep an eye on reality.