You Are Not A Gadget
Jaron Lanier’s book “You Are Not A Gadget” is a timely polemic, a cry of the soul in an increasingly soulless Web 2.0 world. I found reading it a frustrating and inspiring experience. For every time I wanted to throw the book at the wall in exasperation there was a time where Lanier spoke to a part of me that the cultural transition from 90s cyberpunk to 2010s cyberpreppy had optimised out.
Lanier is asking the right questions. What happens to our conception of what it means to be human when the way we represent our humanity is reduced to snippets of media on (micro-)blogs and social networking sites? How can we support a middle class of independent artists when the technology and economics of the Internet makes money directly only for the vectorialist media barons of Web 2.0? Will the technologically enabled troll class become a political threat akin to historical fascism?
These are questions that need asking, and Lanier asks them in an intelligent and open way. This is all the more impressive given his background as a champion of cyberculture. Lanier is not fearful or dismissive of the changes that the technology he championed has wrought. He is looking them in the eye and challenging their new proponents to explain the gap between their claims and their reality.
The problem is that Lanier’s answers crash and burn from a lack of detailed knowledge of non-cyber culture. He contrasts the managerialism and capitalism that he mis-identifies as materialism with a naive and easily exploited mystificatory spirituality. He accepts unquestioningly the music recording industry’s claim that the Internet has destroyed the economic and cultural value of music. And his characterisation of commons-based peer production as digital Maoism is wide of the mark.
To address just one of his examples; the cultural smog of the contemporary Internet follows the exhaustion of mass culture, it has not produced it. Napster is not to blame for the X Factor. The Beatles, generally regarded as a cultural highpoint of mass culture, were a reactionary throwback to earlier rock and roll tropes and were identified as such by Cliff Richard at the time. The well of mid-20th century black American music was returned to in the 1960s, 1970s 1980s and 1990s and was dry by the era of the parochial third-order nostalgia of Britpop. Crucially, Britpop pre-dates Napster and mass adoption of the MP3 file format. Lanier’s adopted narrative doesn’t add up.
But I come to praise Lanier, not to bury him in data. His is an ambitious critique, an important challenge to deeply ingrained cybercultural beliefs. We should all be so brave as to face the consequences of what we believe in so directly. And his final conclusions, not those of a disappointed cyber-hippy who should have been careful what he wished for but of someone who has kept faith in the potential of technology for us to realise ourselves, are as inspirational as they are accusatory.
You can google any number of blow-by-blow disagreements with Lanier’s thesis. And his own FAQ on the book is in many ways more convincing than the book itself. But if you have any interest in contemporary culture as it is mediated by technology you owe it to yourself to find your own points of difference and agreement with Lanier and to look beyond that to the spirit of what he is saying.
Which is that we should not be reifying and reducing our selves and our experiences into packets of data that the social robber barons of Web 2.0 can sell to marketing companies and government agencies. We should be using virtual reality and the other affordances of information technology to expand our consciousness and to grow as socialised individuals.
Web 2.0 can be oppressively straight and conformist. It doesn’t have to be like this. Don’t dismiss Lanier’s ambition to create a virtual reality system that could let him experience being an octopus. Wonder what it would be like to try it yourself, and how you would explain it to your friends.
Not the entries on your Facebook Friends list, your actual friends…