Tuesday, July 6, 2010

You Are Not a Gadget: a Manifesto / Jaron Lanier -- NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010

Jaron Lanier was among a handful of virtual reality pioneers, and so you would think that he would be excited about the prospect that a global network of computers, programs, and computer users might allow us to transcend the limits of our pre-internet understanding of the world through the development of a transcendent silicon-based intelligence, but such is not the case. In You Are Not a Gadget Lanier expresses his discomfort, even horror, at the de-humanizing effects of what he calls "cybernetic totalism," i.e., the "ideology" that intelligence, even consciousness, can be explained through computationalism and that the developing global network of computer connections will eventually evolve into a super-intelligence or conscious being.

Lanier offers little argument against this view, except that it is based on the romantic hopes of cybernetic totalists. In the meantime, the popularity of cybernetic totalism has meant that computer engineers are designing hardware and software that dismisses the contributions of human individuals and "locking in" a computer infrastructure that requires devaluing their contributions. Lanier suggests that the computer industry has and is turning its back on many more creative and valuable lines of development in pursuit of cybernetic totalism.

Early in the book, he criticizes Web 2.0 technologies as doing to people what MIDI did to music, i.e., identifying aspects of music that are useful in defining notes, without succeeding in capturing the whole of musical experience. For Lanier, MIDI has homogenized music, forcing it into the constraints of a computer program. Simialry, Web 2.0 technologies have led us to represent ourselves in pre-packaged ways, chopping up our selves into smaller and smaller encodeable fragments that can be captured in cloud computing for the benefit of the "Lords of the Cloud," or those who can mine the collective data made available on the Web by the "Peasants of the Cloud."

The benefits that might accrue to the Lords of the Cloud depend on the truth of a hypothesis advanced by James Surowiecki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds. (See this blog for a review of The Wisdom of Crowds. Surowiecki claims that very often the aggregated (or averaged) opinions of a large number of lay people will be more accurate than highly educated expert opinion. If this is true, then the Lords of the Cloud can employ "crowd sourcing" to generate a more accurate understanding of the world than was possible prior to the advent of the Web. Lanier's response to this is nuanced. While he recognize that a collective opinion is more valuable in many instances, a small group of people organized around an individual's vision or inspiration often can produce a much superior outcome. Lanier's case is surprisingly strong here.

Lanier's colorful language makes You Are Not a Gadget an entertaining read, but his book is strong on assertions and weak on arguments. In his introduction to the final chapter he tellingly writes, "This is about aesthetics and emotions, not rational argument. All I can do is tell you how it has been true for me, and hope that you might also find it to be true." Unfortunately, much of what he asserts is amenable to rational argumentation. Hopefully, his provocative presentation will prompt others to provide it.

Lanier also skips from subject to subject at astonishing speed. Sometimes the work appears to be more a collection of blog posts than a coherent, extended book-length argument. He appears to have been affected by the very atomization of discourse that he laments. He takes up metaphysics, epistemology, political philosophy, psychology, sociology, language, and music among other topics. Clearly, he recognizes how his work in computer science has important ties to all of these fields, but it is difficult to know how grounded his conclusions are. Certainly his treatment of metaphysics and political philosophy is at best extremely superficial and at worse sophomoric. Nonetheless, he bravely advances views on issues that deserve more serious consideration than they have received.


  1. Nice last paragraph--his themes sound interesting if undeveloped & run-roughshod-over. I think I'd like to read *a small bit* of it rather than the whole thing. Not sure about Lanier and 'the wisdom of crowds.' [insert social-sciency-disgruntled sound].

  2. Yes, Surowiecki's thesis in The Wisdom of Crowds seems quite important in thinking about the success of Web 2.0 applications. Lanier seems on target when it he calls on us not to accept a dumbed down verison of Surowiecki's thesis, pointing out the limitations that Surowiecki himself recognizes, but I think a lot of valuable work could be done in understanding when a crowd is more effective than experts in arriving at justified beliefs. I suspect a really good analysis of these relationships would show just how to incorporate expert opinion into a wider decision making process.