Sunday, March 7, 2010

#12: You Are Not a Gadget

"The words in this book are written for people, not computers." So declares Jaron Lanier, in the preface to his self-described "manifesto" on the impending doom of Web 2.0 and its digital companions. In You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Lanier confronts the brooding technological nightmare with revolutionary fervor, decrying with gusto the horrifying destructive potential of...of...of Wikipedia. In what amounts to an elegy for the creative spirit, Lanier warns against the dangers inherent to the "hive mind" by lashing out against humanity's self-imposed subjugation to technology.

Let's be fair here. Lanier seems like a smart enough guy, even if his choice of hairstyle -- he appears on the book's flap in a thinker's pose, with his dreadlocks running past chest level and on to the great beyond -- is more suited to an aspiring grunge artist than an Internet visionary. Fittingly, then, he actually enjoys playing the oud and even frequents an online forum that serves as a virtual community for the instrument's fan base. Of the forum, he says, "There's a bit of a feeling of paradise about it. You can feel each participant's passion for the instrument, and we help one another become more intense."

Indeed, Lanier's intensity -- his passion for rescuing the individual voices from the clutches of impersonal cyberspace -- is to be admired, even if the object of his rigor is perplexing. His thesis, that the digital era's explosion has created ways of thinking about and interacting with technology that portend disaster down the road, is not particularly convincing. And while he could never be accused of boring his readers, one could easily charge him with alarmism.

The author ably explains the dangers of "lock-in," the process in which an arbitrary digital convention -- organizing computer data into virtual files and folders, using MIDI as the industry standard for digital music representation, etc. -- becomes so ingrained in culture and thought that it is nearly impossible to reverse. What Lanier never quite masters, however, is just why certain accepted standards, most notably the open-source movement and crowd-sourcing, are so malignant. Technology's purpose, he lectures, is to adapt to and serve human beings; he worries that the sudden and widespread advent of the Internet has given rise to the opposite being the case, as we have now become willingly subservient to machines, adapting to their whimsies instead of demanding tools that do not require a degradation of human intelligence.

It is in this vein that he alludes to Wikipedia, a site he admits to using himself but whose implicit founding principle -- the more contributors, the more closely we approach truth -- he derides with vivacity. "The 'wisdom of crowds' effect should be thought of as a tool," Lanier writes. "The value of a tool is in accomplishing a task. The point should never be the glorification of the tool...There's an odd lack of curiosity about the limits of crowd wisdom." He has a point, but not much of one. It is true, for example, that, as Lanier notes, most breakthroughs in modern technology have been delivered under the auspices of for-profit corporations (i.e. Microsoft Windows, the iPod, digital camera, etc.). And that such innovations are sorely lacking in the domain of open-sourcers is cause for reflection, although not necessarily concern.

However, what the author consistently misses (or perhaps chooses to ignore) is the innate ingenuity of human beings, regardless of their provided tools. In a section discussing the impact of the file-sharing era on musicians, Lanier writes, "If we choose to pry culture away from capitalism while the rest of life is still capitalistic, culture will become a slum." Above all, he is concerned with our collective loss of free spirit, but he fails to notice, for example, the consistent ability of the young to bypass and defeat ever more stringent regulations by those in the business of enforcing digital rights management. First, there was Napster; after being brought low, it emerged as a legal, paid music service. File-sharing clients sprouted up one after the other, with new entrants following quickly on the heels of those brought to an end via litigation. Even Radiohead's novel idea of giving away music for free, which Lanier claims does not "fill me with hope for the future," is actually proof that people are continuing to exhibit an entrepreneurial spirit by forming new and inventive solutions to existing problems. These are not the products of unqualified and inexpert crowds, but the brainchildren of creative, ambitious individuals. Jaron Lanier may not be a Luddite, but his dire warnings of future doom are a bit anachronistic. I can only wonder what he'd think of the iPad.