Sunday, June 26, 2011

Book Review: Jaron Lanier, "You Are Not a Gadget"

Jaron Lanier (Wikipedia)
If I were to summarize Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), in a sentence, it might be: Freedom is more than the freedom to post your current meal on Facebook. To be fair, Lanier's book is a far more complex and nuanced reading of the contemporary digital world and social communications media than my epigram implies, but at the same time, it epitomizes at least part of his argument, which is that as computer hardware and software develop and advance, and social communications media grow ever more omnipresent, we are increasingly surrendering key aspects of our humanity, often without recognizing that we are doing so and far too often without resistance. Or, to put it another way, Lanier, one of the pioneering computer scientists of the late 20th century and a major figure in the field of virtual reality (VR), suggests that an anti-humanist perspective, which he does identifies as integral to the open culture/free internet ethos and cloud computing/hive mind approaches, has increasingly taken hold, to that extent that we are conforming ourselves to the whims of computers and computer software—and anti-humanist designs and perspectives—rather than the other way around.  We do not have to be gadgets or be unduly influenced by them, in other words.  Yet computers and social media are shaping us more so than vice versa, and Lanier, who takes frequent pains to note that he is not only not a Luddite or technophobe, but deeply embedded and implicated in the digital world's development, stresses repeatedly: this is a very serious problem.

One analogy Lanier gives for this is the development of the MIDI technology, which has revolutionized musical production over the last 30 years. It would be hard to imagine the digital music we listen to today without MIDI's foundation, yet Lanier suggests that this program, which developed based on the limitations of the piano keyboard, which is to say, a particular percussive instrument, cannot capture the auditory and sonic shadings of a violin, let alone a human voice, and it is hard to imagine the digital and digitized music that might be possible if MIDI had not become "locked in" as the dominant musical technology when it did.  The dangers of lock-in, not just in technological terms, but in social, political and economic terms, which are all intimately interlinked, underpins Lanier's larger argument. We are told constantly that Net's democratizing power is good thing, as it has opened up possibilities for far more people than ever to express themselves in ways they could not before to audiences they could not reach before. This undoubtedly is true. Lanier returns to the notion of the lock-in, however, in suggesting that as certain technologies—like Facebook, say, or Twitter or Wikipedia—become dominant, the alternative forms die off, standardizing, systematizing and normalizing certain types of expression in favor of others. The announcement earlier this year that blogging was falling off might provide an example, in that some creative bloggers had forsaken the expressive possibilities of that form for the more succinct—and standardized, and also firewall-privatized—spaces provided by Facebook, or even less text-heavy and more image-dominant blogging formats like Tumblr. Lanier, as a hortatory counterweight, presents a short list of recommendations that in one sense might serve to challenge the trends above, but at a more basic level imply a perhaps naïve, but I think necessary, spur towards a humanity that at times appears to be vanishing before our eyes.

The issue is not so much users—which is to say, consumers—as it is the people and corporations behind the cloud/free/open culture approach. Lanier offers series of cautionary thought experiments, beginning with the Turing Test, which I would boil down to our mistaken belief that computers can be human, or that we might not be able to tell the difference between the two—and MIT's Sherry Turkle, a longtime advocate of computer technology, has begun to sound warning bells of late about this very issue—and moves into related areas, invoking Franz Kafka and others, to argue that the cloud approach may appear superior to more individualistic and autonomous approaches, but history and reality suggests the converse. The cloud/hive mind, he points out, despite all its advocates' rhetoric, cannot resolve certain problems better than collective efforts led by skilled and talented individuals. Though he does not cite them, I thought immediately of countless literary works that no hive production could create (see again Kafka's "A Report to the Academy"), as well as triumphs like Andrew Wiles' solution of Fermat's Last Theorem or Grigori Perelman's brilliant proof of the Poincaré conjecture, which is not to say that computers cannot carry out calculations that it would take humans centuries to solve, but that the most powerful computers still cannot equal the human brain or human brains in concerted but structured effort. It also results, he suggests, in the sort of intellectually and philosophically muddled discourse of Wikipedia, which has become the preponderant online encyclopedia resource.

In its worst guises, Lanier argues the hive mind approach can spur or provide the conditions for the sort of anonymous contumely and cyberbullying that many critics have decried. Alongside these problems, the open culture approach taken to its extreme has resulted in the sort of piracy and demonetization of, and thus devastation of certain fields, some of which, like the music industry, have provided vital entertainment for decades, though others, like journalism, are key to our democracy and civic culture. At the same time, nostalgic reappropriation and recycling predominate over original aesthetic invention. In other words, as the open culture approach has negatively affected middle-class employment, we have increasingly rationalized theft and plagiarism, as well as artistic mediocrity, and, as we cede more information and individuality to the cloud and the corporations and wealthy, fortunate individuals who control them, we cede more social, economic and political power as well. The private has become public and privatized.

More than once Lanier describes the hardcore advocates of cloud and open culture approaches as "Maoist," which marked one of the places I most took issue with his argument. This line of argument arises out of his 2006 Edge article, "Digital Maoism," which critiqued the authority of collective wisdom and the erasure of individuality. On the one hand, he argues that a certain kind of Utopianism, though not exclusively leftist, has underpinned the conceptualizations of what we call the Internet and Web. On the other hand, however, he repeatedly discusses the role of corporations and their capacity to concentrate wealth, which is to say, capitalism, in the determining how we ultimately have come to experience the Net and Web. To Lanier the dogmatism of many key open culture advocates resembles Maoism, but as I read the almost continuous merging of the corporate and the individual, the commodification of every aspect of our lives and of our subjectivities, the reduction or transformation of our humanity into bytes geared primarily to be monetized on behalf of a very few, I think of something more along the lines of technofascism. What does it mean when corporations and the government are fused and working in cahoots to extract more and more information from us to convert it into greater powers both of surveillance and capitalization, the latter not to our individual or even collective benefit?

Lanier's fear is the old one of collectivization, whose multiple meanings he unfortunately fails to disarticulate. This leads him to push for political and economic approaches that would counter the trendlines we are now on, but it strikes me that many of these, such as Net neutrality and government support for and regulation of monetization, are progressive, rather than conservative or neoliberal. I wonder sometimes if we have gone too far, if it is ever going to be possible to, say, remonetize the net and regulate net use at a level that would make it truly affordable to everyone, prevent monopolization via cloud control by a few corporations or corporate-government entities, preserve privacy while also ending the worst aspects of anonymity, and champion the range of expressive, and most importantly, aesthetic, social and political possibilities, that the net promises. Lanier's book provides more than a few suggestions and thus marks a crucial starting point which all our government policy makers, as well as corporate net titans, should reference, and from which they should proceed.

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