Humanism 2.0. A (late) Review of Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget
This review was written for a class I am currently taking at the University of Toronto called Foundations in Digital Communications Strategy & Social Media
“Merely quantitative differences, beyond a certain point, pass into qualitative changes.” – Karl Marx, Capital
“A fashionable idea in technical circles is that quantity not only turns into quality at some extreme of scale, but also does so according to principles we already understand. Some of my colleagues think a million, or perhaps a billion, fragmentary insults will eventually yield wisdom that surpasses that of any well-thought-out essay, so long as sophisticated secret statistical algorithms recombine the fragments. I disagree.” – Jaron Lanier, You Are Not A Gadget
Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget¸ published back in the pre-historical (by today’s standards) year 2010, offers a welcome return to a humanist critique of media technologies that has been abandoned by critics across the ideological spectrum. In an age that endlessly waxes poetic about social networks, we are apt to ignore the important role that we – individual human beings – play in these networks.
Lanier is both a visionary and a 21st century Renaissance Man. He is a computer scientist known as “the father of virtual reality”, a composer of symphonies and ballets, a visual artist, and an author. Despite being a founder of the virtual revolution, he has turned a critical eye to the achievements of the revolution, and has become a heretic. Notwithstanding this, Lanier is one of the most influential voices in the technology world, and lectures the world over. He maintains an old style personal website, refuses to partake of Web 2.0., and does not have a Facebook account. But despite his heretical status, he is currently partner architect at Microsoft Research.
You Are Not A Gadget is the best kind of criticism, one that emerges out of the belly of the beast, from a disciple turned apostate. The book brings to mind critiques of the Soviet Union by writers like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Czesław Miłosz, which are of an entirely different order than critiques of the Soviet Union by North American conservative writers. Lanier has on his side the lived experience of having been an architect of the digital revolution.
Lanier argues that the fundamental ideology of the digital revolution – which he calls “Cybernetic Totalism” – is a dangerous failure. Cybernetic Totalism is the belief held by influential technologists that everything in the world can be understood as a cybernetic pattern, even human beings. This has led to the widespread use of metaphors borrowed from computer science being carelessly applied to the rest of reality, and the common belief that information can ‘want’ something (i.e. to be free), as if the bits themselves were real and alive. Cybernetic Totalism, Lanier argues, has been a disaster spiritually by denying the mystery of experience and the specialness of human beings, behaviorally by privileging the anonymous crowd over the individual person, and economically by concentrating control of the internet into a few Lords of the Cloud who live off content produced by the intellectual/cultural middle class. This last concern is the topic of Lanier’s upcoming book Who Owns the Future, which surely develops his observation that “The Facebook Kid and the Cloud Lord are serf and king of the new order”.
Lanier urges the reader to consider what “so called web 2.0. ideas are stinkers”, so we can reject them before they can be “locked in”. We can tell a bad idea, because it engenders technologies that reduce both what a human being is and the variety of the world. His key example is the audio format MIDI which replaced auditory experience with discrete notes on a grid. What happened to musical notes, Lanier writes “could happen soon to the definition of a human being”. Practical suggestions include: encouraging users to put some of themselves into their Tweets, instead of passively describing things; discouraging anonymous posting; creating websites that don’t fit in the dominant social networking templates; posting a video once in a while that took you one hundred times longer to create than it takes to view; and writing blog posts that have taken time and reflection.
What is refreshing about Lanier’s position is that he accuses both the technophile left (the open culture/creative commons crowd) and the technophile right (the libertarian capitalists of Silicon Valley) of being seduced by what he calls “Digital Maoism”. Digital Maoism celebrates hives, swarms, anonymous collectives and crowd mentalities at the expense of individuality. Lanier stakes out a third – humanist – position, accusing both left and right of the Maoist urge to chop individuals up into an anonymous abstract mush.
Lanier attacks the technology world’s most cherished ideals about open culture, creative commons, AI, and file sharing, with an iconoclastic fury that may be overwhelming to some TED-loving readers. But it is an important book for anyone interested in a better direction for the web both theoretically and practically in their daily content production.