Review: You Are Not A Gadget, Jaron Lanier

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You Are Not a Gadget, US CoverBy Stephanie Anderson, Manager, WORD Brooklyn

You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto
by Jaron Lanier (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010; ISBN 978-0-307-26964-5)

Let’s just get this out of the way: I really like this book. This book changed the way I think about the Internet and intellectual property, and I think could change a lot of minds, but only if a critical mass of people start reading it and talking about it. So this is my Queen’s Gambit.

There are too many ideas in this book that I underlined and starred and ?ed and yes!ed to count. I’m just going to touch on a few, and especially the ones that made me think of books and publishing.

Probably the most interesting idea in this book, especially for the book world, is how the Internet’s push towards the hive mind (also known as the noosphere, a word so creepy that I almost become a Luddite every time I read it) has already damaged and threatens to essentially destroy art as we now experience it.

As Lanier puts it:

“The central mistake of recent digital culture is to chop up a network of individuals so finely that you end up with a mush.”

A thing, I’m sure we can all agree, that is not great for writing, which pretty much lives and dies by things like the strength and believability of an author’s individual voice.

“Authorship—the very idea from the individual point of view—is not a priority of the new ideology.”

Which is pretty well borne out by a quick glance at Wikipedia (an entity to which I am not opposed, by the way). The argument on behalf of the hive mind is that many many people working together will come up with a better answer, and faster, than individuals working alone. Lanier pretty conclusively demonstrates that this is not always the case, even for things to which humanity already knows the answer.

And what about novels, of which there is no clear question, let alone a clear answer?

Most interestingly, Lanier talks about how hive mind thinking has interacted with advertising to create an entirely new hierarchy of creativity on the web.

“The combination of hive mind and advertising has resulted in a new kind of social contract. The basic idea of this contract is that authors, journalists, musicians, and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind. Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion. Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising.”

In other words, we’ve decided, or been persuaded to decide, that original content is not worth paying for, very often with the justification that the corporations that mainly provide that content are dinosaurs who can’t keep up with technology or don’t distribute the money fairly anyway (both of which are valid points, sometimes). Ironically, though, we’ve also elevated the only artistic output of non-media corporations, advertising, to a sainted level. We expect ads on websites, blogs, nytimes.com and Pandora to pay for our content instead.

Eyeballs on content: worth less and less with every $9.99 e-book.

Eyeballs on banner ads: expected to prop up an entire Internet’s worth of information commerce.

This is something I wonder about constantly. Writing has never been a reliable way of making a living, as anybody who reads biographies will tell you. But there has always been the (somewhat) rational expectation that if you wrote something good enough that other people would enjoy reading it, or be enriched by it, somebody would eventually pay you for it. Very few people have ever gotten rich as writers, but many people have eked out a living.

The (d)evolution towards hive mind thinking and writing makes that more impossible with each passing day.

“This trajectory begs the question of how a person who is volunteering for the hive all day long will earn rent money.”

(As an aside, this is not just important to booksellers because we sell the fruits of creativity, although that’s not to be ignored. But also because what we do is something that has been increasingly crowdsourced, via Amazon’s odd algorithms and reviews, and a million other ways besides, including my willingness to share book recommendations for free on Twitter with people who have neither the willingness nor the ability to reward my professional expertise with a purchase. On my cynical days, I wonder where it all will end. Will we all be expected to work at jobs to which we’re indifferent so we can come home and do the things we love for free online? If creativity is at the heart of most careers that people love, how many of those careers will disappear as we make the group decision that creative talent is no longer something to be financially rewarded? Is this potential insanity something that can be avoided? Lanier seems to think that yes, it is. I hope he is right.)

Jaron LanierThere’s another quote in here that I think can be fairly well applied to independent bookstores, but would be interesting even if it couldn’t be. “No one’s ever been able to offer good advice for the dying newspapers,” Lanier writes, “but it is still considered appropriate to blame them for their fate.”  You could substitute publishers in there for newspapers, or independent bookstores, and the sentence reads fine.

This is not to say that newspapers and publishers and independent bookstores have all been taking advice well, certainly. Obviously, it’s not necessary for me to recount the many things that failed bookstores might have done to stay in business. But sometimes (again, on cynical days only) I wonder if even everything we’re doing at WORD, and these are all at the top of all thinking people’s bookstore advice lists, will be enough: having an online store, curating our book selection to suit our neighborhood, hosting grand events, special ordering out the wazoo, and free shipping over $50, and great customer service, and all the rest.

Can any of those things matter if creativity is no longer valued because the general belief is that the product of the group is superior to the product of the individual? I suspect they will not matter a whit if that is the case. And that is the case that Lanier worries we are heading for.

I’ll mention just one more thing that piqued my interest: the ways in which our creative culture has stalled since the prevalence of the Internet. I can’t put it better than Lanier when he writes:

“Certainly with enough time, culture will reinvent itself. But how patient should we be? I find that I am not willing to ignore a dark age…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.”

And it’s true that mash-ups and re-mixes have become one of the pre-eminent forms of art of late. Lanier points out that while most of the decades of the twentieth century have their own distinct musical styles, due to rapid leaps and changes in the possibilities of music over the course of the century, there’s very little that distinguishes that last ten years or so of music from the ten years previous. There’s a lot of throwbacks, a lot of retro music—and not all of it necessarily bad, and some of it quite good—but also not the overhauling quirks of imagination that propelled music forward several decades ago.

I don’t know that I agree with all the conclusions that Lanier draws from this observation, but I think it’s a very good point.

Again, it’s also echoed in the book world. For all the expansion of book technology, there’s been precious little expansion of writing formats. I’ve always wondered why the main focus of e-readers has been a fancier version of reading a .pdf one page at a time on a screen small enough to fit in my purse. Even things like the Vook seem to me like the offspring of a book and the jump scenes in a video game, to be honest. Emily Pullen at Skylight has written movingly about her desire to see the boundaries of this new medium pushed a little. Writing and storytelling themselves seem also to be at a relative standstill; “it’s all been done already” echoes off every bookstore wall and writing garret.

There are also a few things in this book that I disagree with; namely, Lanier’s characterization of (and subsequent dismissal of) social media rankles, for me.

Perhaps this is because I’ve had a uniquely good experience with social media, but I doubt I’m the only one. His main argument against its ubiquity? Its calculated personalities: we spend an absurd amount of time crafting our online personas, and there are few true friendships to be found in social media.

“A real friendship ought to introduce each person to unexpected weirdness in the other.”

It would take more than one person’s anecdotes to disprove his belief, I guess, but let me be the first to say that I have formed several true and important (and unexpectedly weird) friendships due to social media. This is partially because I experience it through the existing book community, and probably also because that community is full of fantastic people who I am predisposed to like. Nevertheless, here is a short list of people I never would have met, let alone shared booze and good times with, if not for social media spurring the whole thing: Jenn! Suzanna! Melissa! Michele! And for Pete’s sake, Josh and also Liberty, neither of whom I’ve even met in person yet, but who I would invite to my wedding if I had one tomorrow.

My friendships with these people are almost exactly like many of my real world friendships, except that we type with each other more than talk.

You Are Not a Gadget, UK CoverFor those six reasons and many others, I feel that Lanier is wrong to write off social media as he does, although I understand why he does: like many of the things he talks about in the book, it’s a tool that is not always well-wielded. Which is not to say that everybody should use social media the way that I do, just that a lot of the anxieties and potential problems he sees in it are non-existent for me and I suspect a lot of other people. (Aside from the “favorite music” prompt on Facebook. I hate that section.)

This is an especially odd problem because Lanier so clearly draws a line between the capabilities of tools/means of communication and what people actually do with them elsewhere in the book, especially with his emphasis on the importance of the individual voice and authorship.  Different types of communication are best served by different forms of media, but a person can retain their individuality and sense of self in all of them if desired. Social media is still developing in that regard, but I think Lanier is too focused on the primary implementations of it.

In any event, I would recommend this book to anybody reading this review. If I were Oprah, I would pick this for my book club.

If you love technology and are excited about its future, you need to read this book, because there are a lot of things you and I haven’t thought about yet. You won’t agree with all of it, but at the end I think you will agree with me on this point: we are not hearing enough voices talking about human interaction with technology. We hear a lot of “it’s fantastico!” and a lot of “it’s an abomination!” and not much in-between.

For that alone, this book is very important.

So too, if you do not like technology, or are nervous about it, I think you should also read this book. Lanier is one of the first technophiles I’ve ever read who acknowledges and treats as valid many of the anti-tech arguments I hear on a regular basis. Primarily, I thought often of a point that Jonathon of Talking Leaves…Books made in a discussion about e-books at NAIBA in 2009. Though I didn’t agree with everything he said, I did agree when he cautioned everyone in the audience to keep an eye on who is the greatest champion of e-books, and what they have to gain from the success of e-books. (Obviously, this applies more to Amazon than Booksquare.)

This same idea—who gains from the current and coming technological changes, and what do they gain?—is a crucial underpinning of this book, and I will never regard digital advances in the same way because of it.

I’m sorry this review was so long and rambling. Scarily, it was originally twice this length! There’s just so much to talk about wrt this short little book. (On that note, though: a $23.95 hardcover for 200 pages about, you know, changing the way we look at the digital world? Wowza, would I ever have played that one differently). Anyway, one of the things I’m most excited to see in the coming months is the responses of many other people to this book and the ideas therein. I encourage all of you to get your hands on it, read it, digest it, and comment on it as well.

[This review was originally published at Bookavore.com and has been reprinted with Ms. Anderson's permission.]

Stephanie Anderson is the manager of WORD Brooklyn, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and a “voracious reader with a certain verbal attitude”.

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7 thoughts on “Review: You Are Not A Gadget, Jaron Lanier

  1. I know it’s tacky to disagree with the premise of the author in a review, but since you went a little first person in your review, there’s a fantastic interview / debate between Jaron and Nina Paley archived from WNYC here – http://www.wnyc.org/shows/soundcheck/episodes/2010/01/19/segments/148276

    Interestingly, Nina Paley has a great article called “The Cult of Originality” and really exposes how, though it’s not necessarily so obvious, we all act as part of the hivemind anyway. As writers, our current work draws inspiration from every piece of writing, every song, every film, and the moments of our lives. http://blog.ninapaley.com/2009/12/28/the-cult-of-originality/

    This raises the question which is worse individuals contributing to the hivemind, or individuals drawing from the hivemind?

    And then there’s the false premise that people today don’t value individual creativity, or creativity at all. The upside of the digital revolution? We live in the most creative period in history.

    • Bradley—thanks for the link to the interview, will listen to that later today. I very much like that post of hers. And actually agree with it! I do think there is a difference between 1. drawing common experiences and feelings from the hivemind to create something, and 2. creating something that will become part of a larger work of art/hivemind creation. But I’m not convinced that one is any better (or worse) than the other. I’ll hold saying anything further until I get to listen to the interview, though.

  2. Although I haven’t read his book, I am almost positive I will disagree with many or most of Jaron Lanier’s points. The digital world is continuing to go through a phase of rapid growth and a severe realignment of how we all think and interact. This is bound to create uncertainty and discomfort. It is the most creative period in history. Instead of being scared like Lanier, a better attitude is to embrace it, learn from it, and be part of it. Sure, there are bad things but these should be identified and dealt with as small a scope as possible and with constructive solutions.

    So Lanier thinks authorship is going out of fashion and the reviewer seems to think that Wikipedia is a good example of that. However, I find that the reverse is true. Old time print encyclopedias do not generally identify authors of articles but might list itseditorial board in the fine print at the front of the book. While one might be able to contact these people, there is a significant barrier to doing so. One has to really want to do so. With Wikipedia, on the other hand, one can identify individual changes to each article and who made them and actually engage in dialog with the collection of authors at the page level. Authorship is stronger, not weaker.

    • Paul: I have to disagree with your assessment of Lanier being scared of technological changes. From the book, I get the sense that he is okay with change as a concept, and is in fact rather fond of it. But he’s not crazy about some of the changes that have taken place (like you say, there are bad things that go with these changes) and thinks we should make efforts to adjust our world to get rid of them (aka, be a part of it). I don’t think that’s being scared so much as assessing a problem and trying to fix it. In other words, to use an example from his book—what if we could make changes to our Internet use that would drastically reduce the number of trolls on news sites, rather than just putting up with and ignoring them the way we do now? That would be fantastic. The driving point behind a lot of the book is just what you’re saying—the online world is realigning incredibly quickly. And so, Lanier says, we are perfectly poised to make it look the way we want, and to think critically about how it is, because this is the perfect time to make changes to it before things become more hardened in their ways.

      You’re right, encyclopedias are not a good example of authorship changes in some ways because it has always been ideal for them to be written in a singular, authoritative voice. That’s the real reason Wikipedia should be taught to students as unacceptable for research—because even “real” encyclopedias were never intended to be resources for research, only starting points to become familiar with material and figure out which direction to take one’s writing. Like I said in my review, I actually like Wikipedia, and a quick look at my browser history would back that up. But Lanier writes very well about the ways in which it doesn’t always work. That doesn’t mean it’s terrible or traditional encyclopedias are better. It works for some things and not for others. The Wikipedia mindset, though, seems to be that the wiki is best for everything, and I just don’t think that’s true.

      I’d encourage you to take a look at the book at a library—the reason I picked it up in the first place is that I was certain I would disagree with it. And while I did disagree with a fair amount of it, it definitely made me think about a lot of things I’d not considered before. I’d be curious to see if you would feel any differently after reading it.

  3. I have ordered my own copy and will post my take on it.

    I do think attention should be drawn to the bad things about the new digital world. I just know from hearing Lanier talk once and reading some other things he has written, that he goes too far. His reactions seem to be more sensationalist and attention-seeking in the same sense as the mainstream media reporting of the air traffic controller who got his kid to speak to the pilots under his control. They sensationally reported it as if the kid was acting as a controller rather than simply saying what his father told him to say. The reports I saw never even mentioned the possibility of the latter. This is the kind of rhetoric that I have seen Lanier engage in. The things he complains about are bad but just not as bad as he makes out.

  4. Thanks for your thoughts and review. I’ve only read excerpts as of yet, but have had exposure to a healthy dosage of Jaron’s material (his output is quite well represented online across many disciplines, venues and projects over the past decade) and am looking forward to receiving his book. Mr. Lanier is a serious original deep and broad thinker and observer of trends in modern culture — enough so that upon those unusual occasions where I find myself not quickly agreeing with an insight of his, I am moved to scratch my head and re-examine my views. (One example is his championing of upping the ante with virtual worlds like Second LIfe, a trend which I find to be depressingly like the probable new mental addiction of the future, while we have mounting First LIfe issues aplenty.)

    He does have his personal idiosyncracies (“weirdness” as he enthuses in one of your review quotes) which tend to put off the more meat-and-potatoes just-the-facts-maam rational left-brainiacs who cannot seem to well distinguish between quantity and quality when it comes to the printed word. You can get around this by noticing he is also a unique artist by temperament and give a listen to some of his quite original music. Unlike the quintessential nerd, Lanier naturally devotes a good deal of attention and reflection to the societal impacts of what he is involved with. And we need this renaissance style re-marriage of humanity and technology in the worst way possible now. I regard JL as one of the heroic pioneers in this, and he is going to take, and has taken, bigtime flack for it.

    I’ll leave with a few recommended links in this vein:

    Jaron speaking last month at London School of Economics on the topic of his book: (podcast) http://www2.lse.ac.uk/publicEvents/events/2010/20100202t1830vSZ.aspx

    His latest CD: http://www.amazon.com/Proof-of-Consciousness/dp/B0033ZP52W/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=dmusic&qid=1263402842&sr=8-2

    A recent EDGE piece by David Gelertner on unhappy web trends and what to do about them.
    Lanier has praised Gelertner’s humanity-within-a-technologist perspective in the past:
    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/gelernter10/gelernter10_index.html

    ~Robert S.

  5. Pingback: Collaboration is the Killer App – #DIYdays | Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

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