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You Are Not a Gadget: Review

Gadget12Musician and technologist Jaron Lanier offers a blistering critique of the direction digital culture is taking in his new book You Are Not a Gadget, calling for a greater appreciation of the individual. Michela Ledwidge finds his manifesto refreshingly humanist.

Jaron Lanier is an interesting individual. One of the pioneers of Virtual Reality (VR) in the late 1980s, he describes himself as a computer scientist, composer, visual artist, and author.

His recently-released first book, You Are Not A Gadget is a passionate exploration of the state of the human/machine relationship from the perspective of someone intimately familiar with the subject. 

This is someone who has had more than average influence on the modern digital landscape. Lanier's old company, VPL Research was selling virtual reality (VR) products over a decade before virtual world, Second Life came online.

As Lead Scientist with the US National Tele-immersion Initiative (developing technology for remotely working on complex tasks), Lanier has done cutting edge work. Lanier's influence even extends into Hollywood.

The character played by Pierce Brosnan in The Lawnmower Man is based on Lanier (albeit without dreadlocks) and he was one of Spielberg's advisors on the film Minority Report charged with designing some of the (only just) fictional technology seen onscreen.

I first came across Lanier via his writings in the early 90s envisioning a future society where extensive body modifications were commonplace. I wrote to him to express my support for his ideas, only to get a reply enquiring whether or not we were practicising "marsupialism" Down Under. I'm pretty sure this was a joke.

In the early noughties, when most technology commentators had not moved beyond discussion of Gordon Moore's 1965 observation that the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit board doubles every two years, Lanier coined his own frightening vision of the future, "Planet of the Help Desks". 

The book, self-described as a manifesto, offers a blistering critique of the direction digital culture is taking. Lanier walks a fine line between critiquing and downright ridiculing two of Silicon Valley's more treasured memes.

The first is the concept of the technological Singularity - the idea that technological development is accelerating towards the creation of a self-aware machine with more intelligence than humans.

The second is the so-called "wisdom of crowds" - the notion that collective wisdom, accessible via vast collections of online data, is more valuable than any individual's perspective. Lanier questions whether open culture, open source software and Creative Commons licensed media is a threat to more than traditional business models.

It is interesting to read such a strident condemnation of machine intelligence from someone so intimiately involved in virtual reality projects. 

In the spotlight is Web 2.0, including online social networks, crowd-sourced applications, media and data mash-ups, and open culture (free remixable media and software). Lanier's perspective is surprisingly scathing. He argues that the destruction of traditional business models is more damaging than is commonly acknowledged.

He rails against what he calls 'digital Maoists', who relish putting the boot into the old ways of commerce without providing any alternatives. You could read this either as sour grapes from someone who has failed to commercialise their art on the new frontier or as a good reality check.

The book uses MIDI, the aging but still widely used digital music technology, as a case study in how modern design does not always provide rewards. Prior to MIDI, Lanier argues, the idea of a musical note in human culture was a relatively abstract entity. Music existed everywhere but the interpretation of music varied widely.

But once a MIDI note was defined in the concrete terms that different computer instruments needed (e.g. pitch, attack, decay, volume) the evolution of musical forms in modern culture appears to have stagnated. You don't have to agree with Lanier's condemnation of much of modern music to recognise that there is some truth in his observations. 

Digital culture does tend to adjust itself to the capabilities of computers rather than the other way around. We accept the limitations of current computing technologies and filter our behavior to match.

Lanier illustrates how computers have yet to live up to the hype and encourage self-delusion. Clicking on a web page link to 'Add As Friend' does not bring with it the usual layers of context associated with friendship in the real world.

Jaron_LanierLanier is at heart a technologist and his vision of a 'flat open system' (created by freely available content and technology that discourages innovation and rewards average expectations) sounds no more appealing than what is currently on offer from the top-heavy corporate media giants.

He positions empathy and locality (grassroots connections) against what he calls the blandness of global context and accuses the sprawling diffusion of the internet as contributing to mediocre developments.

He identifies the true winners in the new digital economy as the "Lords of the Clouds". Cloud computing, the trend towards centralised online applications and services, is undoubtedly putting more control into the hands of the few, regardless of open culture.

There is something refreshingly humanist about his perspective. At its core, You Are Not A Gadget is a call for greater appreciation of the individual and for positioning people at the core of technological innovation.

Lanier's position is simple: Whether through delusion or corruption, current trends do not bode well for creativity and innovation.

As part of his research for the book, Lanier claims to have conducted wide-ranging enquiries as to how many artists are better off in the digital eco-system than under the old system. His conclusion was that, despite the hype, few individuals or groups are making ends meet. 

As a Microsoft partner, Lanier does grudgingly admit to using open source software. It weakens his arguments somewhat but despite this, the note of warning he sounds rings true.

Every free culture advocate should read Lanier's argument and consider what happens after the demise of Big Media, when business models are replaced with a vacuum. 

Ultimately Lanier's perspective could be read as one man's frustration with the difficulty with which musicians make a living from their art. You get the sense that for all his fame as a technologist, Lanier would be happier if he could live off his music.

He acknowledges Ted Nelson (the man who coined the term 'hypertext' in the 60s) as a visionary who proposed a markedly different global system from the World Wide Web. Nelson's Web-like vision was more of a global registry, with no need for copies. The value of personal expression was codified in this system. 

Creatives today are unlikely to have an easy ride. Perhaps the recorded media industry this past century was simply an historical glitch.

Lanier however scorns the idea of a return to the patron system which nourished the likes of Bach and Michelango. He questions whether artists like Nabakov and the Beatles would ever get a patron to support the kind of work they did. But doesn't art only becomes popular when it plays a valued role in the context of the time?

To dismiss those with power as being incapable of acting as a patron to unconventional and challenging creativity is perhaps unhelpful. My experience is that patronage does exist in the modern world and that we should encourage its spread in the face of decreasing revenues through commercial avenues.

While Lanier's alternative vision is somewhat abstract, this book is packed with expertly articulate ideas. He describes three exciting personal projects that provide meaningful and positive contributions to the digital eco-system.

Those of us who work and play in online spaces accept that we live in a transitional time between the old and the new. Jaron Lanier makes it clear that he is not willing to wait until the dust settles.

He also makes clear the need to stay vigilent and see digital reality for the artificially designed space that it is. And how often do you get to read a book whose jacket resembles an E-Book, complete with USB port and headphone jack printed on the spine?

You_are_not_a_gadgetYou Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier is published by Knopf Doubleday internationally and Penguin in Australia.

Michela Ledwidge (@michela) is an artist, entrepreneur and technologist. She is the founder of production company MOD Films and teaches Remixable Media at the University of Sydney.

Main image: US National Tele-Immersion Initiative.


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