Lanier, Jaron. You Are Not a Gadget. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. ISBN 978-0-307-26964-5.
In The Fatal Conceit (March 2005) Friedrich A. Hayek observed that almost any noun in the English language is devalued by preceding it with “social”. In this book, virtual reality pioneer, musician, and visionary Jaron Lanier argues that the digital revolution, which began in the 1970s with the advent of the personal computer and became a new foundation for human communication and interaction with widespread access to the Internet and the Web in the 1990s, took a disastrous wrong turn in the early years of the 21st century with the advent of the so-called “Web 2.0” technologies and “social networking”—hey, Hayek could've told you!

Like many technologists, the author was optimistic that with the efflorescence of the ubiquitous Internet in the 1990s combined with readily-affordable computer power which permitted photorealistic graphics and high fidelity sound synthesis, a new burst of bottom-up creativity would be unleashed; creative individuals would be empowered to realise not just new art, but new forms of art, along with new ways to collaborate and distribute their work to a global audience. This Army of Davids (March 2006) world, however, seems to have been derailed or at least delayed, and instead we've come to inhabit an Internet and network culture which is darker and less innovative. Lanier argues that the phenomenon of technological “lock in” makes this particularly ominous, since regrettable design decisions whose drawbacks were not even perceived when they were made, tend to become entrenched and almost impossible to remedy once they are widely adopted. (For example, just look at the difficulties in migrating the Internet to IPv6.) With application layer protocols, fundamentally changing them becomes almost impossible once a multitude of independently maintained applications rely upon them to intercommunicate.

Consider MIDI, which the author uses as an example of lock-in. Originally designed to allow music synthesisers and keyboards to interoperate, it embodies a keyboardist's view of the concept of a note, which is quite different from that, say, of a violinist or trombone player. Even with facilities such as pitch bend, there are musical articulations played on physical instruments which cannot be represented in MIDI sequences. But since MIDI has become locked in as the lingua franca of electronic music production, in effect the musical vocabulary has been limited to those concepts which can be represented in MIDI, resulting in a digital world which is impoverished in potential compared to the analogue instruments it aimed to replace.

With the advent of “social networking”, we appear to be locking in a representation of human beings as database entries with fields chosen from a limited menu of choices, and hence, as with MIDI, flattening down the unbounded diversity and potential of human individuals to categories which, not coincidentally, resemble the demographic bins used by marketers to target groups of customers. Further, the Internet, through its embrace of anonymity and throwaway identities and consequent devaluing of reputation, encourages mob behaviour and “drive by” attacks on individuals which make many venues open to the public more like a slum than an affinity group of like-minded people. Lanier argues that many of the pathologies we observe in behaviour on the Internet are neither inherent nor inevitable, but rather the consequences of bad user interface design. But with applications built on social networking platforms proliferating as rapidly as me-too venture capital hoses money in their direction, we may be stuck with these regrettable decisions and their pernicious consequences for a long time to come.

Next, the focus turns to the cult of free and open source software, “cloud computing”, “crowd sourcing”, and the assumption that a “hive mind” assembled from a multitude of individuals collaborating by means of the Internet can create novel and valuable work and even assume some of the attributes of personhood. Now, this may seem absurd, but there are many people in the Silicon Valley culture to whom these are articles of faith, and since these people are engaged in designing the tools many of us will end up using, it's worth looking at the assumptions which inform their designs. Compared to what seemed the unbounded potential of the personal computer and Internet revolutions in their early days, what the open model of development has achieved to date seems depressingly modest: re-implementations of an operating system, text editor, and programming language all rooted in the 1970s, and creation of a new encyclopedia which is structured in the same manner as paper encyclopedias dating from a century ago—oh wow. Where are the immersive massively multi-user virtual reality worlds, or the innovative presentation of science and mathematics in an interactive exploratory learning environment, or new ways to build computer tools without writing code, or any one of the hundreds of breakthroughs we assumed would come along when individual creativity was unleashed by their hardware prerequisites becoming available to a mass market at an affordable price?

Not only have the achievements of the free and open movement been, shall we say, modest, the other side of the “information wants to be free” creed has devastated traditional content providers such as the music publishing, newspaper, and magazine businesses. Now among many people there's no love lost for the legacy players in these sectors, and a sentiment of “good riddance” is common, if not outright gloating over their demise. But what hasn't happened, at least so far, is the expected replacement of these physical delivery channels with electronic equivalents which generate sufficient revenue to allow artists, journalists, and other primary content creators to make a living as they did before. Now, certainly, these occupations are a meritocracy where only a few manage to support themselves, no less become wealthy, while far more never make it. But with the mass Internet now approaching its twentieth birthday, wouldn't you expect at least a few people to have figured out how to make it work for them and prospered as creators in this new environment? If so, where are they?

For that matter, what new musical styles, forms of artistic expression, or literary genres have emerged in the age of the Internet? Has the lack of a viable business model for such creations led to a situation the author describes as, “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.” One need only visit YouTube to see what he's talking about. Don't read the comments there—that path leads to despair, which is a low state.

Lanier's interests are eclectic, and a great many matters are discussed here including artificial intelligence, machine language translation, the financial crisis, zombies, neoteny in humans and human cultures, and cephalopod envy. Much of this is fascinating, and some is irritating, such as the discussion of the recent financial meltdown where it becomes clear the author simply doesn't know what he's talking about and misdiagnoses the causes of the catastrophe, which are explained so clearly in Thomas Sowell's The Housing Boom and Bust (March 2010).

I believe this is the octopus video cited in chapter 14. The author was dubious, upon viewing this, that it wasn't a computer graphics trick. I have not, as he has, dived the briny deep to meet cephalopods on their own turf, and I remain sceptical that the video represents what it purports to. This is one of the problems of the digital media age: when anything you can imagine can be persuasively computer synthesised, how can you trust any reportage of a remarkable phenomenon to be genuine if you haven't observed it for yourself?

Occasional aggravations aside, this is a thoughtful exploration of the state of the technologies which are redefining how people work, play, create, and communicate. Readers frustrated by the limitations and lack of imagination which characterises present-day software and network resources will discover, in reading this book, that tremendously empowering phrase, “it doesn't have to be that way”, and perhaps demand better of those bringing products to the market or perhaps embark upon building better tools themselves.

June 2010 Permalink