Book of the week: You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto

A cool critique of Web 2.0 needs a pedagogic angle, writes Tara Brabazon

February 11, 2010

I am drawn to books written like Liza Minnelli sings: loud, emotional, sentimental and unpredictable. Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget falls into this category. Two people should not read this book: Malcolm Gladwell and Chris Anderson. For the rest of us, this monograph is the intellectual equivalent of a trip to Blackpool. It is raw, raucous and unexpected. It is also a hell of a lot of fun.

There is a romantic core to Lanier's argument: "the words in this book are written for people, not computers. I want to say: You have to be somebody before you can share yourself." It would be easy to dismiss such a statement. Here we go again. Another bloody lapsed hippy who drank too much cider, read Thoreau's Walden and saw the future in the woods.

That is not a description of Lanier, except the part about being a lapsed hippy. Instead, he is a computer scientist and musician and is credited as the person who invented the term "virtual reality". In 2009, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Lanier is part of a special group of computer-science philosophers considering the boundaries of the self, identity and technology.

You Are Not a Gadget is the book that Andrew Keen should have written instead of The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy, leaving out the shock-horror finger-pointing at pornographers, paedophiles and gamblers. Lanier's book does not drip with sermons about sex and violence. But if readers require a gentle, authoritative discussion of digitisation and community, then this is not the book for them. Instead, Lanier is clear in his view: "some of the so-called web 2.0 ideas are stinkers, so we ought to reject them while we still can".

The concept he develops to counter the stinkers is "Digital Maoists". This group is composed of Open Culture, Creative Commons, Linux and Web 2.0 enthusiasts. They are the readers of BoingBoing, TechCrunch and Slashdot. As a phrase, Digital Maoists should become as famous as "The Long Tail". It confirms Lanier's argument that it won't be.

The parts of the book that make my Generation Xer skin crawl are the evangelical celebrations of freedom, individuality, creativity and capitalism. It is like being in a digital Woodstock, rejoicing in the revolution in the mud while warning about the brown acid. Enjoy digitisation, man. Just stay away from the brown wikis.

While celebrating individuality, Lanier reveals the consequences of the digital mob that flames and shames. With the emphasis on file sharing, Twitter updates and (yet another) YouTube video featuring someone falling over in the snow, the disrespect of others is more insidious than words such as "trolls" and "puppets" can convey.

He also exposes the effect of Web 2.0 on popular culture. Lanier describes mashups and remixes as "a culture of reaction without action". He is particularly brutal about current popular music, proclaiming that "the decade from the late 1990s to the late 2000s doesn't have a distinct style - that is, one that would provide an identity for young people who grew up with it".

Sigh. Another author becomes trapped in a past that never happened. Anyone not hearing new great music is stuck in the echo chamber of iTunes' Genius Mixes. He asks: "Where is the new music? Everything is retro, retro, retro." It is time to step off the nostalgia bus. The 1960s are over, Jaron. Sorry. One word can act as evidence for this case. I have heard the future of popular music and its name - so appropriately - is Delphic.

Such assumptions about music reveal Lanier's complex dialogue with capitalism. Arguing that "information doesn't deserve to be free", he describes Google's scanning of library books as "a massive Manhattan Project of cultural digitization". He wants content to have a value. He attacks the "volunteer in the army of the long tail". The problem is that he critiques one version of digital libertarianism with another.

Instead of a metaphoric little red book, Lanier is waving a little red credit card. He attacks the "digital socialists", arguing that "the wrong people take over when the revolution happens suddenly". The question left hanging by such a statement is: what happens when the digital capitalists stay in power because the revolution did not happen at all? The past two years have shown us the answer. Tweets, blogs and YouTube clips fill our time while the fist of inequality crushes the poor, the underemployed, the undereducated and the digitally illiterate.

Lanier's model of capitalism is the key problem in this book. Over the past couple of years, I have been reading (and re-reading) the work of academic and journalist Martin Jacques, philosopher John Gray and social scientist Kevin Doogan. Instead of thinking through and with these writers, Lanier summons Wikipedia editing as a form of socialism and sharing music files as proto-Marxist communitarianism.

Intriguingly, his metaphors are feudal rather than industrial, locating "lords of the clouds, not the peasants". Such metaphors do not probe the digital divide. Access to broadband in Angola is not his focus. His peasants are the 2.0 worker-bee amateurs giving away content while talking about themselves as if they were Johnny Depp.

Education is absent from his arguments. His critique is of web users who "mashup" rather than create. Such attacks are easy. The harder question is how to transform tweets into paragraphs or enable editors of Wikipedia entries to become researchers discovering original content. Finding a way to build from basic socio-technical literacies into forthright, imaginative, rigorous scholarship is the task for those of us interested in promoting social justice through education. That is not the imperative of Lanier's book. But it is a goal for those energised by his project.

Because there is no method to move into a learning culture, Lanier occasionally dips into unreconstructed hippy 1.0. He recounts: "I had an epiphany once that I wish I could stimulate in everyone else. The plausibility of our human world, the fact that the buildings don't all fall down and you can eat unpoisoned food that someone grew, is immediate palpable evidence of an ocean of goodwill and good behaviour from almost everyone, living or dead. We are bathed in what can be called love."

Oh dear. I am with Tina Turner on this one: I'm not sure love has much to do with it. If the answer is love, the time has come to ask another question.

Besides the troubling references to love and socialism (an Alexandra Kollontai novel is trapped in a manifesto of digital dissent), You Are Not a Gadget is a remarkable book punctuated by expansive ideas. Lanier validates what he terms "contrarianism", hoping to create spaces for "an alternative mental environment".

Because of this desire to find alternatives, the book's lack of attention to education is unexpected. The starting point of learning is to acknowledge what we do not know. To read the ideas of others is an affirmation that we require more than personal experience to understand the world. For those who wish to read to think, and read to transform, You Are Not a Gadget is a book to begin the 2010s.

THE AUTHOR

Jaron Lanier has come far since his first job of "independent goat milk and cheese provider". Currently interdisciplinary scholar-in-residence at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology, University of California, Berkeley and partner architect at Microsoft, Lanier is recognised as a pioneer in the field of virtual reality, a term he says he "either coined or popularised".

Although Lanier did not study for a doctorate, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from New Jersey Institute of Technology in 2006.

He has a wide interest in the arts and advised on the 2002 film Minority Report by Steven Spielberg.

Lanier is a keen musician and composer and has a collection of rare musical instruments.

Perhaps his most unusual achievement is that the nation of Palau has issued a postage stamp in his honour.

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto

By Jaron Lanier

Allen Lane, 224pp, £20.00

ISBN 9781846143410

Published 4 February 2010

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