You Are Not A Gadget, by Jaron Lanier
This is a terrible, terrible book.
Jaron Lanier was a major figure in the development of virtual reality technologies, and is now something of a techno-philosopher. His 2010 book You are not a Gadget was well received (though how baffles me), and addresses the relationship of the individual to the new information technologies that are so rapidly developing around us. It’s an important subject, one that concerns a great many people. Unfortunately, the only reason to read this book is if you’ve already made your mind up that the new digital technologies are a bad thing and would like your biases confirmed without having to go to the bother of actually examining them first.
The problem with Lanier’s book isn’t immediately apparent. In fact, it starts well and opens with some genuinely fascinating thoughts regarding technological lock-in and how seemingly small choices made in the early development of a field can later seem like laws of nature. Lock-in is a problem because design choices are made before their consequences are wholly apparent, but the nature of the technologies involved may make it extremely difficult to later change course.
As Lanier notes “Lock-in … removes design options based on what is easiest to program, what is politically feasible, what is fashionable, or what is created by chance.” Among his examples is the the seemingly fundamental concept of the file:
Once upon a time, not too long ago, plenty of computer scientists thought the idea of the file was not so great. The first design for something like the World Wide Web, Ted Nelson’s Xanadu, conceived of one giant, global file, for instance. The first iteration of the Macintosh, which never shipped, didn’t have files. Instead, the whole of a user’s productivity accumulated in one big structure, sort of like a singular personal web page. Steve Jobs took the Mac project over from the fellow who started it, the late Jef Raskin, and soon files appeared. UNIX had files; the Mac as it shipped had files; Windows had files. Files are now part of life; we teach the idea of a file to computer science students as if it were part of nature. In fact, our conception of files may be more persistent than our ideas about nature. I can imagine that someday physicists might tell us that it is time to stop believing in photons, because they have discovered a better way to think about light—but the file will likely live on.
Lanier focuses on the downsides of the online space. He talks of how “Anonymous blog comments, vapid video pranks, and lightweight mashups may seem trivial and harmless, but as a whole, this widespread practice of fragmentary, impersonal communication has demeaned interpersonal interaction.” I don’t actually think it has demeaned interpersonal interaction, but I think there is an ugliness to much of online culture which is profoundly unappealing.
That last quote though illustrates where Lanier goes wrong. He mistakes assertion for argument. Are our communications online fragmentary and impersonal? Some evidently are, youtube comments (never read them, seriously, never) and newspaper comment sections are good examples. Others though are persistent and relationship based. Blogging is one example of that, but so too are many specialist-interest web forums where regular users carry on conversations sometimes over years. Other media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, can be used in a fragmentary fashion to leave random comments about celebrities or can be used to keep in touch with friends and to make new ones.
There’s an argument to be made that online culture is fragmentary and impersonal, but there are counter-arguments too. Lanier makes no reference to them. Even if he’s correct (and I’d argue mobile phones have done more to atomise us than the internet), it’s far from clear that it has demeaned interpersonal relationships more generally, the vast bulk of our contact with other people after all continue to take place in the real world.
Lanier argues that the digital realm edits us, squeezes down our personalities to fit into pre-defined boxes and marketing categories. He sees this as a truncation of the individual. He sees the individual diminished too in the rise of an online philosophy that places its faith in the wisdom of crowds – the use of sites such as wikipedia to replace individual view points.
When developers of digital technologies design a program that requires you to interact with a computer as if it were a person, they ask you to accept in some corner of your brain that you might also be conceived of as a program. When they design an internet service that is edited by a vast anonymous crowd, they are suggesting that a random crowd of humans is an organism with a legitimate point of view.
That’s a nice quote, but I’m not sure any of it is true. He contrasts Facebook with its predetermined fields to enter information into with Myspace where anyone could enter pretty much anything. He’s absolutely right that Facebook is a much more curated experience, and that Myspace gave more freedom for individualism. He ignores though that most of us lack anything by way of design skills, and that the result is that Facebook while constrained is usable while for many Myspace was an unreadable mess.
In that light Facebook isn’t necessarily a downgrade of the individual over the prepackaged, but an acceptable (to most, I don’t actually like it much) trade-off between personalisation and utility.
As for wikipedia, I simply don’t agree that there’s an implicit suggestion that a random crowd has a point of view. In fact, I think that’s a fundamental misreading of the philosophy underpinning that site. There are real issues with wikipedia, not least how easy it is to manipulate and how much weight users tend to place on it, but we kid ourselves if we think that the encyclopedias it replaced were themselves free of bias or occasional error.
Lanier makes further points regarding how we reduce ourselves in order to fit in to machines’ programmed/emergent expectations of us, but again he does so by simply stating his views as fact, without providing any evidence for them:
People degrade themselves in order to make machines seem smart all the time. Before the crash, bankers believed in supposedly intelligent algorithms that could calculate credit risks before making bad loans. We ask teachers to teach to standardized tests so a student will look good to an algorithm. We have repeatedly demonstrated our species’ bottomless ability to lower our standards to make information technology look good. Every instance of intelligence in a machine is ambiguous.
All that sounds good, but again is it true? Bankers mostly trusted other bankers. The senior management trusted the departmental managers, who placed their faith in quants whose work they didn’t understand and in traders running risk models that management didn’t understand. Is that faith in the machine though, or is it just once again forgetting that if something seems too good to be true it probably is?
Are standardised tests about making students look good to an algorithm, or are they rather about trying to be as fair as possible in testing students and seeking to remove local and individual bias? Is it an ideal system? Of course not, but is it about making information technology look good? I’m not remotely persuaded.
By the midway point Lanier starts to really warm to his themes, and it’s here the book becomes truly unstuck. To this point I’d found it frustrating, but Lanier did have some real insights even if he offered no arguments on behalf of any of them. He’s rightly sceptical of the economics underpinning much of the web, depending as it does on future advertising revenue streams that always seem to be just a few financial quarters away but which never quite arrive. He’s good too on how the question of whether something can be done becomes more important than whether it should be done (though that’s far from unique to computer science).
As he moves on though to stress the role of the individual over the technological, Lanier’s tendency to merely assert his views becomes much, much worse. In a particularly bad section he uses the analogy of the printing press, comparing its impact to the modern internet.
He talks of how “People, not machines, made the Renaissance.” I’ve never heard anyone say otherwise. He goes on to say “The printing that takes place in North Korea today, for instance, is nothing more than propaganda for a personality cult.” That’s true, and I’ve yet to hear anyone argue that technology can’t be misused. His next sentence though is “What is important about printing presses is not the mechanism, but the authors.” and while it’s absolutely true that what’s written is what matters that doesn’t mean it’s not also true that the printing press was a hugely important invention.
What he’s doing here is presenting an utterly false dichotomy. To say that the printing press revolutionised the dissemination of knowledge and opinion isn’t to diminish the authors who wrote what those presses printed. The internet, like the printing press, can be a tool both for propaganda and for revolution. The point is that it’s a tool, and the tools we have matter. Acknowledging that doesn’t mean diminishing the importance of people.
Lanier thinks it does diminish them, but again it’s assertion. He says “An individual who is receiving a flow of reports about the romantic status of a group of friends must learn to think in the terms of the flow if it is to be perceived as worth reading at all.” That’s wrong again though, he has cause and effect backwards. People don’t receive relationship updates because Facebook tells them to, Facebook provides relationship updates because gossip about who’s with whom has been a fundamental part of human social experience for as long as there’s been human social experience.
Eventually it all starts to seem like a classic old man’s whinge. The youth of today have no respect, the world’s going to hell in a handcart, music today doesn’t have proper melodies. I’m not joking about that last one by the way:
There are new styles of music, of course, but they are new only on the basis of technicalities. For instance, there’s an elaborate nomenclature for species of similar electronic beat styles (involving all the possible concatenations of terms like dub, house, trance, and so on), and if you learn the details of the nomenclature, you can more or less date and place a track. This is more of a nerd exercise than a musical one—and I realize that in saying that I’m making a judgment that perhaps I don’t have a right to make. But does anyone really disagree?
I loathe the arrogance of that “does anyone really disagree?” with its implication that even if we don’t admit it we know deep down he’s right. I’m a huge fan of electronic music. Distinguishing between dub, house, trance and so on is not a nerd exercise rather than a musical one, these are different (though related) forms. If one has no interest in classical the difference between baroque and romantic likely seems wholly academic (and in fact I don’t know which is which). Similarly if one has no interest in dance music there’s no reason one should be able to (or indeed wish to) distinguish between trance and house. That doesn’t, however, make them the same thing.
From complaining about modern music Lanier goes on to explain about how he helps neurologists with their research. Some of this is frankly Pooteresque in its self-importance: “Sometimes I am designing tools for people to use, while at other times I am working with scientists trying to understand how the brain works.”
Here he makes the classic error of assuming that expertise in one field lends itself to other fields. He talks at one point about how swearing functions as a brain activity:
There are specific neural pathways associated with this type of speech; some Tourette’s patients, for instance, are known to swear uncontrollably. And it’s hard to overlook the many swear words that are related to orifices or activities that also emit pheremonic olfactory signals. Could there be a deeper connection between these two channels of “obscenity”?
The first sentence there is correct. The second is mostly true, though he ignores the fact that swearing is culturally specific and that many cultures have extensive profanities based on animal comparisons or religious references. The third sentence is utter speculation. Lanier is now just free associating without any real knowledge of his subject matter and armed with an assumption that he has some peculiar insight that others lack.
He uses the last part of the book to speculate on matters as diverse as neurology, the evolution of language, and why cephalopods didn’t assume the ecological niche which humanity has taken. Each time his lack of specialist knowledge in the relevant field is painfully obvious. It reads, ironically, like a poorly researched blog.
Lanier is absolutely persuaded of his own insights. That’s the problem. He knows he’s right, so he doesn’t bother to show how he reaches his conclusions. Perhaps if he had he’d have examined them a little more, and they would be more than mere prejudice. As it is he presents his views to us like tablets from the mountain. The shame of it is he’s published a book, received positive reviews, and in the end it’s nothing more than the classic complaint of every person who’s got older and found the world no longer as it was when they were young. Stop the future, Jaron Lanier wants to get off.