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YOU ARE NOT A GADGET by Jaron Lanier


A Manifesto

by Jaron Lanier

Pub Date: Jan. 12th, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-307-26964-5
Publisher: Knopf

Quirky but sprawling indictment of our Internet-dominated society.

Lanier, an iconoclastic speaker, columnist, computer scientist, musician and innovator of virtual-reality experiments in the 1980s, skewers the degeneration of the modern digital world. The author convincingly argues that changes in digital and software design affect human behavior, just as small changes in virtual-reality simulations modify the player's experience. One of the problems with the modern Internet culture, he writes, is that people get locked in, or confined, in their responses by the software they use, and hence lose their sense of individuality. They must conform to pre-defined categories in Facebook, and get automatically directed by Google search engines to Wikipedia entries that are bland and uninspiring. Lanier is particularly incensed by the “hive mind” mentality, which posits that group-think articles in Wikipedia are better than a creative, inspired article by someone who is a true expert on the subject. The flat structure of the Internet not only results in mediocre content, but allows for trolls, or anonymous users, who use their anonymity to behave badly and to trash others. It was also a blind belief in technology, Lanier asserts, that led to the financial debacle, as rogue traders relied on sophisticated computer algorithms without understanding what they were doing. The author is less convincing when he moves to a larger systemic argument about how an advertising-focused capitalist system directs money where the most clicks go, instead of toward individual talent. It's a difficult argument to prove, and his example of how pop music is less innovative now compared to music in the 20th century, while intriguing, seems a bit removed from the wider claims he makes about the creativity-stifling effects of big business. The last section, in which Lanier describes some inspiring potentials of modern computing, is a disjointed attempt to put a positive spin on a pessimistic view of modern technological culture.

A well-intended and insightful but messy treatise.