Book Review – You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto

I’ve been trying to read recently on topics directly related to technology, technological development, and how technology affects our lives. I think that there is a tendency in the technology and interaction design industry to (consciously or unconsciously) avoid thinking about the philosophical implications of what we make.

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier is a compelling argument against a certain kind of “technological idealism” that pervades silicon valley culture – one that treats computers as if they are perfect (or at least capable of – very soon – achieving perfection) and humans as if they are reducible to algorithms – process that leads to the design of systems based on speculative computational theory and elevating computer “intelligence” at the expense of humanity.

One of Lanier’s many claims to fame is that he was the technological pioneer who coined the term “virtual reality” and was instrumental in developing the first VR technology (including the first “avatars”) – it’s hard to argue with his credentials in terms of technological innovation. His book is fascinating and detailed argument about way that the design of technology has a profound influence of the way that we use it, the way that technology directly influences the way that we think about ourselves and hence society, and the way that current trends in technology are at odds with humanist principles.

“People, not machines, made the renaissance.”

Lanier argues that by idealising computer interactions and using the computer as a metaphor for human experience we in turn make ourselves more and more stupid: Google only “knows” what we want because we ignore the times that it gets things wrong, and we learn to construct logical queries that work for Google. We are all too willing to bend over backwards to accommodate technology designed as if humans are machines, rather than designing technology that treats humans as people.

Lanier is worried about the focus on the “crowd” as a reliable and accurate source of information – its not that the crowd is wrong (it can be right in certain circumstances and for certain kinds of questions), but that the crowd isn’t good at producing new ideas – it just congregates around existing ones. On Clay Shirky’s argument that if we spent just 1% of the time we spend watching television “producing and sharing … that amounts to 98 wikipedia projects”, he shoots back: “So how many seconds of erstwhile television time would need to be harnessed to replicate the achievements of, say, Albert Einstein?”

For Lanier, innovative technological advances are (in nearly all cases) the products of individuals or small closed groups, not of crowds. Perhaps true innovation can’t happen in large groups due to our tendency toward mob mentality. Perhaps the ideology of openness in fact leads to large scale, boring, unambitious projects: How about a new version of UNIX? Or an encyclopaedia!

So You Are Not a Gadget in turn rejects the pervading ideology of “open culture” (a rhetoric that Lanier himself was instrumental in conceiving and has now turned against) as a culture that discounts individual achievement and pushes us toward averageness and mediocrity. Lanier argues instead for a move toward a new model designed around what he instead calls “punctuated openness” – anyone is always free to share, but the system is designed so that everything isn’t necessarily free and equal, mixing together all the time into a “giant mush”.

Something I hadn’t really considered (other than in vague feelings) is something else that Lanier discusses in great detail: The danger that technological lock-in, and fundamental design decisions made when building technology, can have flow-on effects for society. When you assign your “relationship status” on Facebook (a list, he suggests, borne out of an expedient database design rather than any particular insight into human relationships) you are allowing yourself (and everyone who has access) to think of you and your interactions with others within this set of predefined categories – a directly dehumanising act – reducing you to “bits” that can be stored in a particular kind of system rather than part of a continuum of human experience.

I found this argument very persuasive – the fact that designs conceived to erase the boundaries between people (Web 2.0) break down the concept of individual authorship. Wikipedia is designed  to seem oracle like rather than like a collection of individuals (which of course is what Wikipedia actually is).  Or the design of the internet itself (arbitrary multiple copies of data, dispersed and difficult to trace networks) while useful in some ways, makes it difficult to build an economic model for data sharing that benefits the individual producers rather than large content aggregators and gatekeepers (Google, Amazon) or walled gardens (Apple, XBox).

In the way of solutions to these (and other) problems Lanier presents some new (and some old) virtual, physical and economic models for the way that we produce, share and distribute information online (which I won’t go in to here for want of simply copying large passages from the book – suffice to say they are quite compelling).

I highly recommend You Are Not a Gadget to anyone working in any technology related field if for no other reason than to read a different point of view to the “open” advocates that make up most of the technology related media.

Unlike many technologists, Lanier is humble and well aware that he may be wrong. Despite his concerns about the current direction of  technology, Lanier is still extremely optimistic about our future with technology. What Lanier hopes for is that we take care: care with our metaphors (just because we can use computationalism as a metaphor for human experience doesn’t mean that it is right) and care with our designs – because what we create directly affects us and our conception of ourselves. For Lanier, the way to write decent software is to assume that people can’t be reduced to an algorithm – we are much, much more than that – we should be trying to design technology in a way that respects individuals and and treats them with dignity.

For anyone that is interested in any of this I strongly suggest listening to this podcast of a talk he gave on the event of the book’s release. There is plenty more about the book and Jaron’s philosophy at his website.