Book Quote:

“Resist the easy grooves [digital creative materials] guide you into. If you love a medium made of software, there’s a danger you will become entrapped in someone else’s recent careless thoughts. Struggle against that!”

Book Review:

Review by Devon Shepherd  (APR 18, 2011)

You Are Not A Gadget is a passionate and thought-provoking critique of Silicon Valley from behind its ramparts, and a must-read for anyone interested in the ways technology is affecting our culture. In his first book, Jaron Lanier, a visionary leader in the development of virtual reality technology (and the man who popularized the term), sounds the alarm: our humanity is under digital attack as the software that increasingly governs our lives impoverishes what it is to be a person.

Not only does software express ideas, making it “impossible to work with information technology without engaging in social engineering,” technology extends “your being, like remote eyes and ears (web cams and mobile phones ) and expanded memory (the world of details you can search online). These become the structures by which you connect to the world and other people. These structures in turn can change how you conceive of yourself and the world.” This need not be a bad thing, however, if these structures expand what it is to be a person. However, Lanier argues, the ideas and philosophies implied by the code, by the software – anonymity, the wisdom of crowds, the emergent intelligence of networks, be they the neural networks of the brain or the networks of cyberspace and the noosphere- undermine the “quest,” the “mystery,” the “leap of faith” that it is to be a person.

The Web 2.0, with the rigidity of Facebook profiles, Blogger templates, and Twitter’s 140-characters, effectively restricts our range of expression. As our online presence becomes our social, economic and professional avatars, as we carry out more and more of our lives online, there is a danger of defining ourselves “downward.” Just as the entrenchment of the MIDI format, originally developed to “express the tile mosaic world of the keyboardist, not the watercolor world of the violin,” reduced the richness of musical expression, and just as UNIX’s command-line interface (and the influence this structure had on all subsequent operating systems) artificially divides and parcels time, our Web 2.0 identities are impoverished versions of ourselves, a reduction with increasingly dire consequences as our world becomes increasingly digital and our online personas increasingly us.

Moreover, the economics of software development means that design decisions are often subject to “lock-in.” As a piece of software grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to make changes, especially if other programs are relying on it to run.

So software presents what often feels like an unfair level of responsibility for technologists. Because computers are growing more powerful at an exponential rate, the designers and programmers of technology must be extremely careful when they make design choices. The consequences of tiny, initially inconsequential decisions are often amplified to become defining unchangeable rules of our lives.

However, Lanier suspects, some of these same computer scientists might actually want to degrade our personhood in order to reduce the distance between human consciousness and computers. On considering Alan Turing’s famous test for machine consciousness – if a computer could fool a human to believing they were conversing with an actual person, that computer should be considered conscious – Lanier brilliantly writes:

“But the Turing test cuts both ways. You can’t tell if a machine has gotten smarter or if you’ve just lowered your standards of intelligence to such a degree that the machine seems smart. If you can have a conversation with a simulated person presented by an AI program, can you tell how far you let your personhood degrade in order to make the illusion work for you?”

Considering that many technologists eagerly await the Singularity, a time when computers begin to design themselves, producing machines with capabilities far exceeding our own, a time which “would involve dying in the flesh and being uploaded into a computer and remaining conscious,” they might “cease to design technology to serve humans, and prepare instead for the grand events it will bring.” Whether they realize it or not, many technologists have transferred their faith and fear of death to the machines they work with, hoping “to make the transition from the old religion, where you hope God will give you an afterlife, to the new religion where you hope to become immortal by being uploaded into a computer.”

As humans just become another element in the all-important network, troubling cultural and economic effects emerge. Online anonymity has bred cyber bullying and trolls. The reduction in individual responsibility allowed by the digital world likely contributed to the nesting of abstract financial products implicated in the financial meltdown. Authorship is devalued with the ascendance of the open-source movement and the popularity of crowd-sourcing. The result is that it becomes increasingly difficult to convince consumers that producers of culture should be paid for their work. Some of Lanier’s ideas on how to reintroduce compensation for digital expression – 3-D video-conferencing gigs – are more interesting, and likely more obtainable than, others –music embedded objects, such as jewelry, called songles.

Lanier excels in the depths of philosophy, rather than in shallows of practicalities. His “realistic” approach to computationalism, that the “cybernetic structure of a person has been refined by a very large, very long, very deep encounter with reality” so that the information processes that create consciousness are a part of reality, their “pattern hewn out of so many encounters with reality that they aren’t really abstractable bits anymore, but are instead a nonabstract continuation of reality,” are fascinating and feel to me to be right on the mark, and his hopes for post-symbolic communication in a virtual-reality world, where one might morph to express an idea, exciting to think about, although one has to wonder how hoping for a virtual-reality world doesn’t show as least some of the contempt for human reality as the futurist, who hopes of having his consciousness uploaded into a computer.

Jaron Lanier is a deep and original thinker, and no doubt, you won’t agree with everything he says here, but if you’ve ever thought (or worried) about the cultural effects of our rapidly progressing technology, you won’t be disappointed by this book.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 50 readers
PUBLISHER: Vintage; Reprint edition (February 8, 2011)
REVIEWER: Devon Shepherd
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: A look at some of these ideas through fiction:

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sims by Jonathan Coe

And the classic novel in which most of us encountered an uploaded personality:

Neuromancer by William Gibson


April 18, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Non-fiction

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