Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Book Review - "You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto" by Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier’s new book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, is a criticism of many emerging technologies and beliefs which Lanier finds dehumanizing. In this long, rambling critique, Lanier’s targets include open-source projects, crowd-sourcing mechanisms such as wikis and prediction markets, and “cybernetic totalism.” If Lanier was not one of the founding fathers of virtual reality, it would be easy to label him a luddite, but he insists that he merely wants to help steer the course of technological development rather than inhibit it. But compared to the vast majority of third culture futurists, Lanier comes across as extremely conservative and reactionary. While I knew before I picked up the book that I would disagree with almost everything Lanier had to say, I think it is important to give a fair hearing to contrary ideas from intelligent people to avoid the echo chamber effect. The world always needs gadflies.

Lanier believes that crowd-sourcing tools are causing people to rely too much on the hive mind. He rejects the notion of the “wisdom of the crowds,” viewing wikis as error-prone and bias-prone compared to more scholarly texts. This may or may not be true (the empirical evidence is mixed), but ultimately it is irrelevant. While Lanier laments the fact that Wikipedia has become the central repository for human knowledge, he offers no convincing solution. “Stop relying on Wikipedia” is a poor excuse for a solution. If it were that simple, Wikipedia would never have become so popular in the first place. It’s no accident that people prefer Wikipedia to Encyclopedia Brittanica.

He criticizes “cybernetic totalism,” which he defines as the belief that human brains are nothing more than complex computer programs, and will one day merge with computer technology. This seems like a thinly veiled swipe at transhumanism in general, and specifically the Singularity (the belief that one day soon we will create a computer smarter than we are, which will create an even smarter computer, which will endow us all with godlike powers), which is the dominant mindset among most computer scientists. I have my own criticisms of the Singularity, so I really wanted to root for Lanier in this section of the book. But ultimately, I think that Lanier’s conclusions are just as irrational as some of the more wild claims of Singularity enthusiasts. Rather than question the plausibility of this worldview, Lanier attacks the desirability of a man-machine merger. I think he is barking up the wrong tree here. If this is plausible and most people view it as beneficial, it will almost certainly occur eventually regardless of whether Lanier thinks it dehumanizes us or not. Once again, Lanier offers no solution as to how to avert this technological outcome, or suggestions on how we could steer technological progress toward a goal he views as more desirable.

On the rare occasions when Lanier does suggest an alternative solution, his recommendations are so laughably impractical that they are difficult to take seriously. For example, he considers the evolution of music from a physical product (e.g. a record, tape, or CD) to a digital file as a small tragedy. He believes that this encourages piracy and destroys the incentive to create songs, and that as a consequence we have entered a musical dark age. That’s a perfectly valid opinion, but what is his solution? For us all to go back to physical music products! He suggests “songles” – little trinkets like bracelets, necklaces, or coffee mugs that could unlock our music when they are physically near a computer. Aside from the sheer ridiculousness of this, Lanier seems oblivious to the fact that we moved away from physical music products because people didn’t WANT physical music products. They simply want to be able to listen to their music whenever they want to, with as little hassle as possible.

Ultimately, my biggest problem with this book is Lanier’s presumption that we can simply choose to not walk down a certain path of technological development if most of us agree it is detrimental. He is clearly a technological determinist, whereas I’m more of a technological fatalist. In my view, anything that CAN be developed WILL be developed, provided that enough people view it as beneficial, the technology is diffused enough to make it impossible to ban, and the economic incentives exist for its development. Ultimately, Lanier falls victim to what my good friend Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “the illusion of control.” While it may be comforting to Lanier to believe that we can guide technological development so directly, this seems to be nothing more than wishful thinking. Don’t get me wrong; we absolutely need to have ethical debates about technological progress. But ultimately the naysayers will need to propose actual solutions instead of merely lamenting about the undesirable consequences of technology.

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto is only 192 pages but feels much longer, given the disjointed, rambling nature of the chapters. It’s worth a read for anyone interested in futurism, for the simple reason that Lanier is one of the few contrarian voices in the third culture. But don’t expect to be convinced by many of his arguments.

3/5 stars

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