You Are Not a Gadget

A Manifesto

Lanier’s manifesto brings attention to the many ways in which human behavior is being mechanized by technology. One point stands out: that the internet as it is today is not biologically determined, but a result of decisions people made in the recent past. We needn’t accept it as it is; it is within our power to make it better.

Reading notes

Authorship

Four decades after Barthes’ Death of the Author, Jaron Lanier notes a different kind of death may be upon us:

The approach to digital culture I abhor would indeed turn all the world’s books into one book.…Google and other companies are scanning library books into the cloud in a massive Manhattan project of cultural digitization. What happens next is important. If the books in the cloud are accessed via user interfaces that encourage mashups of fragments that obscure the context and authorship of each fragment, there will only be one book. This is what happens today with a lot of content; often, you don’t know where a quoted fragment from a news story came from, who wrote the comment, or who shot a video. A continuation of the present trend will make us like the various medieval empires, or like North Korea, a society with a single book.

Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget, page 46

Indeed, an author and her publisher have recently defended such mashups as what the kids are doing today, seemingly oblivious to how that statement makes all authors and publishers obsolete.

The ethereal, digital replacement technology for the printing press happens to have come of age in a time when the unfortunate ideology I’m criticizing dominates technological culture. Authorship—very idea of the individual point of view—is not a priority of the new technology.

Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget, page 47

It’s that individual point of view that matters; Wikipedia imposes a single voice on all topics, as if there could be a single, agreed-upon, crowd-sourced view of everything. The problem being that once you attain the god’s eye view, you lose your ability to interrogate it; you lose your sense of self.

Friendship

First authorship, then friendship:

What computerized analysis of all the country’s school tests has done to education is exactly what Facebook has done to friendships. In both cases, life is turned into a database. Both degradations are based on the same philosophical mistake, which is the belief that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships. These are things computers currently cannot do.

Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget, page 69

I’ll take this a step further: these are things computers should not do. Technology is supposed to improve our lives, not replace them.

Advertising to the crowd

With regards to advertising, perhaps the crowds aren’t so wise after all:

The centrality of advertising to the new digital hive economy is absurd, and it is even more absurd that this isn’t more generally recognized. The most tiresome claim of the reigning official digital philosophy is that crowds working for free do a better job at some things than paid antediluvian experts. Wikipedia is often given as an example. If that is so—and as I explained, if the conditions are right it sometimes can be—why doesn’t the principle dissolve the persistence of advertising as a business?

A functioning, honest crowd-wisdom system ought to trump paid persuasion. If the crowd is so wise, it should be directing each person optimally in choices related to home finance, the whitening of yellow teeth, and the search for a lover. All that paid persuasion ought to be mooted. Every penny Google earns suggests a failure of the crowd—and Google is earning a lot of pennies.

Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget, page 82

One response: part of the purpose of advertising (perhaps the most significant purpose) is to persuade you to purchase things for which you have no need whatsoever. Perhaps the crowd does not guide you towards the best tooth whitener, not because it is unable, but because it rightly sees no need for that.

One true book

On why we can do without Wikipedia:

It seems to me that if Wikipedia disappeared, similar information would still be available for the most part, but in more contextualized forms, with more visibility for the authors, and with a greater sense of style and presence.

Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget, page 143

But isn’t this a fact of Wikipedia’s namesake—the encyclopedia—as well? There’s a reason that once you reach high school you are no longer permitted to quote from the encyclopedia: it’s an inferior resource. It would be dangerous to forget that.

Whether they are cordial or not, Wikipedians always act out the ideal that the collective is closer to the truth and the individual voice is dispensable.

Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget, page 144

Elsewhere, Lanier calls this the “one book” philosophy: the idea that all the world’s knowledge could be collected into one true book. Which naturally leads to there being no books—and no truths—at all.