You May Not Be a Gadget, But I’m Still Not Sure How

Jaron Lanier, in his manifesto titled You Are Not A Gadget (2010), makes the claim that at one time, he was sitting in the most interesting room in the world.  He was helping to design a video game, and while I appreciate his experiences in Silicon Valley and his contributions to the wonderful web of the Internet, I just have to disagree.  I disagree that he was in the most interesting room.  It may have been most interesting to him, but for me, I’d probably rather eat glass than design a video game and be in a roomful of people doing so.  I have a different personality, which is beautifully described in Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (click to see my review).   But that’s just me.  I guess the point is that hopefully we all believe we are participating in something that could be considered “most interesting,” because it is what gets us out of bed in the morning.

you are not a gadget coverThis illogical frame is the biggest problem with Lanier’s entire book.  His thoughts and ideas are central to him, but I had a hard time identifying with him, linking those ideas to my own life and scholarship, and taking him seriously because of this skewed view.

I do applaud Lanier for attempting to reject technological determinism.  He sees determinism, the idea that technology can save us or control us, as harmful to humanity and as denying agency to humans.  He takes the humanistic view of technological development and progress.  He refers to technological determinism, or some shade of it, as the “hive mind.”  While that imagery sort of worked, this beehive metaphor struck me as wrongheaded, especially since so many other groups and cultures use it to explain a harmonious and hardworking society of people who are establishing or maintaining something good.  Bees are sophisticated creatures who often serve as a model of success when it comes to collaboration.  Yes, mob mentality isn’t a good thing, but I don’t think that “hive mind” was the right way to describe it, especially when it comes to the Internet.

And yet, despite Lanier’s attempts to be humanistic, he unwittingly admits that technology has agency with his story of MIDI.  He talks about the creator, Dave Smith, and how culture has used it in ways not originally intended.  This connects to the idea of unintended consequences and may suggest that technology does have agency, or that the people who wield technology do, even if they weren’t originally privileged enough to do so or involved in the creation of the technology.  I find it interesting that Lanier also absolves Dave, the creator, of this “problem” with how MIDI is being used because he couldn’t have known the consequences (p. 10.)  Yet that brings up ethics and responsibility.  We vote with our dollars and we collude in technological pollution through consumerism.  I say these consequences include the creator of a technology, even if he did not intend the consequences.

I did find some good information for my research on blogs.  Lanier talks about blogs in terms of extroversion and pseudonymity, which are issues that I hadn’t thought of before.  He also insists that we resist the “hive mind” by doing things to promote personhood online.  His suggestions are on p. 21.  I reproduce them here.

“Don’t post anonymously unless you really might be in danger.

If you put effort into Wikipedia articles, put even more effort into using your personal voice and expression outside of the wiki to attract people who don’t yet realize they are interest in the topics you contributed to.

Create a website that expresses something about who you are that won’t fit into a social networking site template.

Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view.

Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out.

If you are twittering, innovate to describe your internal state instead of trivial external events.”

He suggests all of these in order to humanize and create what he calls “personhood” online.  This list has encouraged me to explore these issues in the blogs I analyzed and the bloggers I interviewed last semester.  How do they either participate in the hive mind mentality, or how do they work as a humanizing force for personhood on the web?  I am also interested in exploring how his idea of transient anonymity, creating pseudonyms to post “anonymously” and be mean, plays out on in blogging.

Additionally, Lanier brings up the false idea of the democratizing influence of the Internet, and technology in general.  He is interested, like I am, in looking at how the online world can create opportunities for everyone, yet access is restricted in different ways to certain socioeconomic groups or races or genders or countries.

Now I have several additional criticisms of this book, while still respecting the author’s ideas and where he is coming from.  I appreciate his experience in the computer and gaming industries and his knowledge of the genesis of the web.  However, some of his conclusions, especially when it comes to music, suffer from the myth of transience.  This is the idea that an earlier time was somehow better or more complete than the time we are currently living in.  We see this myth commonly applied to the 1950s.

Another criticism would be the disconnected style of the writing, but I understand, from the front cover, that this is a manifesto, so perhaps that style is used purposefully and with the intent of lacking cohesion.  Also, I want to accept what he wrote as true and researched, but his comment on Tourette’s syndrome (p. 165), among other comments, is ill-informed and could use some more authoritative information to back it up or remove it from his examples.  I have a good friend with Tourette’s who has a memoir coming out on May 2 (called The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and The Power of Family), and over the past decade, I have learned from him that swearing is a minor and very rare form of Tourette’s.

I appreciated Lanier’s honesty and his definition of terms that I am not familiar with, but I am not sure how much of his words I can trust because of the comments and problems I already mentioned.  I know that it would be rash to throw the baby out with the bath water, but I don’t know which is which.

Photo of Jaron Lanier performing at the Garden of Memory Solstice Concert June, 2009 by Allan J. Cronin

Photo of Jaron Lanier performing at the Garden of Memory Solstice Concert June, 2009 by Allan J. Cronin

I guess what really put me off of this book, after finding some value in other parts of it, was the last few sections that talked about cephalopods and their potential for helping us to understand and use 3D technologies.  It didn’t make much sense and seemed pretty out there, as far as science and academia is concerned.  And I know, if you are having the urge to defend Lanier from me right now and say, “Well, he’s not an academic,” I know that already.  Believe me, I know.  But what gets me was his claim in the book to be writing academically.  At one point, he apologizes to his readers for presenting his ideas in a way that was too academic, and all I could think was, “Come again?”

Obviously, I did not like this book much.  As I say, there is some value, but overall it is disjointed, strange, full of logical fallacies, and meant to appeal to the masses.  I guess that sums it up.  I won’t be using this for my comprehensive exams at school, but I may apply his ideas of personhood online and try to remember those ideas while blogging.