Information is alienated experience.

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.


Filed under Essays, Politics

15 responses to “Information is alienated experience.

  1. This is a really fascinating topic, one that I’ve griped about more than once. Technically, I’m a “Millennial” but I didn’t actually have access to the internet at home until 2009, so I’ve lived much of my life without Facebook, Google, etc. I accessed email from school or the library and most of my friends knew they could only reach me by phone (a land line, not a cell). For the longest time, I paid my bills at the bank. Even though I’m only 30, I kinda feel like a grandma blogger in my approach to technology. I can appreciate how the internet opened a window to the world, and yet I’ll always always prefer face-to-face interaction.

    I can see your point…but I can also see Lanier’s. Do I agree with it all? No. Argument needs evidence and a lot of his statements are just that: statements. Intriguing statements…

    I think you’re absolutely right about the smart phone, for sure. There’s something unnerving about everyone (on the bus, at a restaurant, at the mall) with their heads bent, fingers moving across a screen.

    Great and thought provoking review!

  2. I think I’d be less frustrated with the book if I didn’t have a degree of instinctive sympathy with it. I do think there are massive downsides (as well as huge upsides) to our new tools, and that we do have to be careful we don’t make fundamental societal choices without knowing what we’re doing (though we always do just that and always have).

    Many people feel uncomfortable dealing with the firehose of information that we have access to now, with the degree of personal accessibility that comes with it and the difficulties it presents of turning off and tuning out. Many people feel their online interactions are somehow negatively impacting their wider relationships. This is important stuff.

    All of which means it merits a careful analysis and critique. Lanier though, he relies too much on his own sense of what’s right and on his own authority as an expert. In a way the paragraph on music sums up the book. Lanier doesn’t like electronic music, so he dismisses it and thinks it’s without content. It’s lazy thinking, very much as if I were to dismiss classical music as a bunch of 18th century tootling. There’s nothing wrong with disliking, hating even, online culture or a form of music or whatever. If you want to actually critique it though, rather than just say it’s not for you, you have to put the work in.

  3. Sometimes I stop and think what the world was like when I was a child: the corner shop, no supermarkets in town, no internet (of course). We didn’t have a telephone, no bathroom and the toilet was in the back garden. (We were very poor btw).

    We live in fantastic times and I feel lucky to be here to experience it. At the same time, I find facebook appalling (for the laxity of individuals who place private and personal items up front for the world to see and who then whine for the explosions caused). Don’t get me wrong, facebook has its uses and can be a good thing, but for some reason, people overuse it and then wonder what went wrong.

    I hate listening to conversations in the supermarket on cell phones concerning which flavor ice cream someone should buy as they list all the bloody options, but cell phones are a great thing when your car breaks down on the side of the road.

    Point being–as with everything, there’s good and bad.

    I get tired of people complaining about the changes in society. Of course there are bloody changes! It’s the 21stC. I can remember my mother washing clothes by hand and then putting them through the mangle, so let’s move on and get done with it.

    There will be things lost and things gained. That’s the way it is.

  4. That’s what I was getting at with my last line Guy. It’s the future. Yes, some of it isn’t as good as what was. Some of it is better though. What’s more, which bits are worse and which better varies person to person, and even situation to situation.

    People sometimes ironically complain that the future has no jetpacks. “We were promised jetpacks!” they cry (seriously, I’ve actually heard that line a lot oddly enough). The future though is amazing it turns out. I have a computer in my pocket more powerful than anything I even contemplated back in the early ’90s. I can keep in touch with my uncle who emigrated, talk to people halfway across the planet. This is an age of miracles and wonders.

    It’s not though of course a utopia. It never is. Most of us sit on public transport each wrapped in our own micro-world, screening out those around us (though that in itself isn’t a wholly bad thing, if it were we wouldn’t do it). We do vast environmental harm shipping foodstuffs across the planet and export our cheap labour to the developing world sacrificing their children’s health for our trainers. We close our eyes every day to all manner of injustices and needless stupidities (though the alternative would be a life dedicated to social change – admirable but more than most of us could or would want to sign up for).

    Lanier’s right that we should engage with what’s happening. We can shape the future, not just be shaped by it. Ironically though in his plea to remember the importance of the individual I think it’s just that he overlooks. Our tools shape us, but we shape them too.

  5. Awesome take down. This sounds like a truly, bafflingly point-missing book.

  6. Terrible, terrible book indeed. Lots to problematize with new technologies from being nexuses of conspicuous consumption to being instruments of mass surveillance. But Lanier is simply a Luddite.

  7. In a way it’s worse Tomcat, because he does get the point> Unfortunately, as Karlo says he’s essentially a bit of a luddite so it gets lost again along the way.

    Something I didn’t touch on is a bit where he talks about how computer professionals sometimes publish exploits, ostensibly to help improve security. If you dig deeper though there’s a question about whether those exploits would ever have been found by criminals, rather than software professionals with access to huge government labs.

    As I write this there’s an example in the press regarding hacking car computers, which potentially permits a hacker to take over certain high end sports cars. The research showing it can be done though involved very highly qualified individuals who spent a lot of time and used state of the art systems to achieve their hack. To publicise it isn’t to give notice of a hole, because in real terms it wasn’t a hole – the work involved to discover the hack was greater than would be credible for any but the most professional criminals and wouldn’t be worth the time of those criminals.

    Once it’s published though, well, now others know it can be done. His point was that they’re essentially counting coup, and what looks like a public service (“look, we found an exploit”) actually comes closer to a public disservice. It’s a perfect example of how technology can become divorced from its social impact.

    All interesting stuff, which then sadly meanders into a pile of nothing.

  8. leroyhunter

    There’s a good book (several, probably) to be written about these issues, but this ain’t it, clearly.

    The design issues he starts with are interesting, but hardly unique to IY. I’ve seen pretty wacky concept cars 9for example) over the years, but Big Auto and (more importantly) the car-buying public are weddedd to 4-wheels, 4-doors, so that remains the dominant design template.

  9. leroyhunter

    Yikes! Typo-tastic. Sorry.

  10. In French we have a saying “there aren’t any bad tools, only bad workers” that’s basically how I feel about technology. It’s not the technology, it’s what we do with it. And I agree with Guy, thinking that it was better before is forgetting how it was. Every generation thinks young people aren’t as good as they were. (Just read passages about this in Waugh’s Vile Bodies)

    Take professional emails on your webphone. It only becomes alienation when your boss sends emails on weekend and expects you to answer. Otherwise, it’s great and you save time.

    This book sounds more like a rant than like a constructive argumentation.

    I can only recommend A Virtual Love by Andrew Blackman, who challenges and addresses the impact of social media in our lives. It’s a novel, it’s thought provoking.

  11. Leroy, yes, it’s another example in a way of his apparent solipsism. He has the Word to bring us, so it wouldn’t occur I think that it might not be unique to is his sector.

    Emma, we have the exact same phrase in English, and I agree. My blackberry sometimes means I get interrupted when out of work, but it also sometimes means I can go home rather than waiting for an email when that’s all I have to do. It’s double edged, it’s a tool.

    I recall your review of that Blackman and it’s on my TBR list as a result of it.

  12. I know I’m not going to read this book and that it’s such a rant is deplorable.
    On the topic of YouTube comments – I never read them normally but I did a while back for the first time and was truly astonished how profound they were. I’m not joking. I have to add that it was a comment thread on a piece by Arvo Pärt and the comments were very heartfelt and emotional. Overall, I agree but since then I occasionally look up favourite music like Pärt or Olafur Arnalds and rad the comments and it’s interesting.

  13. Interesting. All the ones I’ve ever seen are virulently racist, misogynistic or homophobic. Sometimes several of those at once.

    The oddest I saw was a fairly detailed rant under an SF film that was made available on youtube, talking about how it was a propaganda piece for Zionism and Israel and about the symbolism of a ((perfectly innocuous) t-shirt in the film. The film had nothing to do with Israel or Judaism or Zionism or, well, anything remotely connected to any of that. It was about psychics fighting each other in Hong Kong. I suspect whoever left the comment was mentally ill, and that had expressed itself somehow through virulent anti-semitism, but it was unpleasant whatever it was.

    Don’t know Arnalds, but since I do know Pärt (a bit at least) and rate him highly I’ll take a look.

  14. Generally there is a lot of hatred in these comment threads.
    Olafur Arnalds isn’t a classical composer but there are some similarities because he uses the piano in a similar way. I wold also compare him to Max Richter, even to some elements of Philip Glass.

  15. Pingback: The Impersonal Digital Era « The Work-Life Journal

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