Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget
An argument that people have altered their expectations to sync with technology
It’s easy to write off most jeremiads about the dire potentialities of online culture as the work of Luddites and old fogeys (not to mention thinly veiled reprisals like Lee Siegel’s Against the Machine). But you’d have to twist yourself into some serious knots to paint Jaron Lanier as anti-tech. A dreadlocked computer scientist who helped pioneer the notion of virtual reality, Lanier is hardly a stick in the mud. But as someone who’s been involved in internet culture since the free-form early days, he’s disheartened by the way Web 2.0 evangelists glorify the wisdom of a disembodied hive mind at the expense of individual identity. Where early homepages were vacant lots on which users could build a potentially infinite variety of structures, Lanier argues that social networking sites like Facebook are the equivalent of prefab housing. The details may differ, but one page is fundamentally the same as another.
The primary targets of Lanier’s manifesto are those he dubs “cybernetic totalists,” scientists and entrepreneurs who argue that sites like Wikipedia have effectively made authorship obsolete. The elevation of anonymous contributions, in Lanier’s view, absolves individuals of any sense of responsibility for their actions, enabling the pernicious behavior of online trolls. Disembodied information only becomes meaningful when filtered through the prism of an individual consciousness. “Information of the kind that purportedly wants to be free is nothing but a shadow of our own minds, and wants nothing on its own,” he writes. “It will not suffer if it doesn’t get what it wants.”
Using MIDI’s digital approximation of pitch as a metaphor for the way digital culture subtly filters out the idiosyncrasies of human experience, Lanier argues that people have unwittingly altered their expectations to sync with technology. Rather than admitting the limitations of standardized tests, the No Child Left Behind system forces teachers to school children in the best ways to convince a computer of their intelligence. The ideology of Lanier’s cybernetic totalists forces humans to adapt to machines rather than admit the fallibility of their systems.
In spite of the vast advances in technology over the last few decades, Lanier points out that we still understand little of how the human brain actually works: how reason functions, or meaning. Computers excel at repetitive tasks, but they cannot approach the complexity of a single mind. What we need, he says, is a way to distinguish situations in which the wisdom of crowds functions well from those in which it fails, and foster an online culture that values individuality as much as collectivism. His is only one voice, but it is all the stronger in its solitude.