Book Review: You Are Not a Gadget

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto
by Jaron Lanier (January, 2010)
Alfred A. Knopf, 209 pages, $24.95

I'm often accused of being a Luddite -- mostly based on my fervent and affectionate clinging to several physical objects that are quickly becoming cultural artifacts: the ink pen, the paper book, and the vinyl record -- but those items haven't been the only 'evidence' my accusers have historically cited. In addition to that physical evidence, there has always been my suspicion that some of the things I valued in life -- listening to a whole album, reading an entire novel in one sitting before grabbing another off the shelf -- were also going the way of Betamax, and being replaced by short attention-spanned, sound-bited fragments of conversation that didn't convey knowledge or ideas in nearly the same way. This suspicion, this "feeling" if you will -- obviously doesn't originate with me, and it's often diluted (by the internet) into some version of "the internet is making us dumber" argument. Of course, that's not really the argument at all, but who needs to be bogged down with details these days? Enter You Are Not a Gadget, which I review below.

Jaron Lanier has been known for decades as one of the pioneers of virtual reality, and it's very hard to argue his importance in much of the early development of computers, interfaces, and the World Wide Web. He was also, unsurprisingly, an early advocate of the open source movement. You Are Not a Gadget is a manifesto in the starkest sense of the term: Lanier fully articulates his final and somewhat absolute break with the open source movement typified by what he describes as the "Libertarians" of Silicon Valley and the proponents of Web 2.0. He's here to call their bluff, to tell them the truth they don't want to hear: most of their principles are bad (if well intentioned) and will ultimately lead to nobody making any money, having any ownership over the quality of their creations, or any way to support themselves on the internet -- outside of giant companies whose main source of revenue is online advertising.

Lanier is a big thinker, and he asks his reader to follow the train of his thought, which varies pretty widely at times, though his main points include at turns arguing against the singularity (the eventuality that computers will be "smarter" than humans one day, most famously championed by Ray Kurzweil), discussing such futurists and their new religion, and of course -- taking on Web 2.0. What Lanier describes as "mashup" culture -- where nothing is quite a whole work but rather snippets of things remixed together -- leads to aggregation of aggregators such as FriendFeed, where it's hard to tell the source of a work, idea, or quote, and where there is barely any context, if any at all. Teenagers, Lanier contends, are the most affected, as they manage homogenized identities on social networking sites rather than cultivate an original idea of who they are. Of course, envisioning this future, everyone will be subjected to the type of identity creation that Lanier describes. In this culture, "being the most meta" becomes far more important than creating one's own, original content. Crowdsourcing, unhitched from human or editorial intervention, becomes the search engine-based object of our affections, and it's no surprise that Google takes more than a few hits from Lanier's pen.

Open source content, he goes on to argue, essentially devalues the content producer him (or her) self, in a way that makes it exceedingly hard for any person to make a living off of the fruits of their own brain. Journalists, musicians, filmmakers -- all are devalued to the extent that they are forced to hit the talkshow circuit, or sell some other, physical commodity -- because their digital commodities have no monetary value -- because they are "open" and "free." Lanier argues that in this system, the only thing with unaltered, undeniable value is advertising, which is "elevated by open source culture from its previous role as an accelerant and placed at the center of the human universe" (82). Lanier recounts some of the early motivations which led the internet to this sorry state of affairs, but his writing is often strongest when he is looking at the present, rather than the past -- for which he is nostalgic, or the future -- for which he seems to struggle at times to envision as better than his descriptions would lead us to believe it will be.

For Lanier, with all of his musings on the present-day homogenizing of young people's social lives through Twitter and Facebook (and I agree with him, for he's so obviously correct about that), seems to desperately want to be an optimist in a world where -- if you accept any, most, or all of his premises -- there is no reason to be such. Because of this, the final section of You Are Not a Gadget, in which other futures are imagined, such as a 'micropayment' system for viewing web content which would help content producers small and large make money on something besides advertisements, where Lanier is least convincing, seemingly because the future which he has just outlined is indeed so very bleak. While he notes that not all crowdsourcing is bad, the need to pick and choose where it can be used effectively is ultimately up to the nebulous makers of content, and the average person is still in much the same position as always, in need of filters for aggregators of aggregations. Most people, Lanier contends, simply don't have the time to wade through the piles of random information, so they choose crowdsourced and often sub-par content provided by Google or Wikipedia.

Ultimately, much of what Lanier argues has been unsurprisingly controversial in internet and techie circles... after all, it's not every day that one of our own turns against us, is it? It's interesting to note, however, that Lanier makes several mentions of the lack of reflective thinking in the technology community, as opposed, he says, to the scientific or mathematics communities. To that end, of course, You Are Not a Gadget is a must-read for both the pro- and anti-open sourcers the world over, regardless of whether the tide of collectivism can be turned back or not. Of course, reading the book for yourself, rather than merely reading a snippet of this review, is ultimately part of his recommendation for moving forward. And we concur.