You Are Not a Gadget – a review

Before starting to criticise Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget”, I have to state clearly that this is an important book that should be read by anyone interested in debating the role the Internet plays in modern society. However one may want to criticise its content, and there are plenty who have been doing just that, one cannot ignore the clarity of writing and the strength of some of Lanier’s opinions. This is just one of the various books that one could class as the New Luddism, which includes authors like Nick Carr and Andrew Keen. However, Lanier towers over these other authors because he has bona fide geek credentials, as well as having been a developer and inventor himself.

This will be a limited review. The work moves from one technology to the other, and his scathing criticism range from gadget-worship to Web 2.0, going through the Singularity and open source software with equal gusto. I just want to concentrate on a couple of specific points because to deal with all of the themes would produce a much longer blog post than I intend to write.

The first thing to notice is that Lanier’s style can be seen as a bit annoying and condescending. There are so many categorical statements uttered from a mindset that is completely certain of its rightfulness that it can come across as a bit preachy, but also there is an anti-authoritarian nerve in me that cannot avoid being put off by some of the comments. It is however a testament to Lanier’s powerful writing that even despite this I found myself nodding in agreement in several parts of the book. But similarly, there were passages that seemed so outrageous that I was tempted to throw the book against the wall and start screaming expletives at it. For the record, I like books that do just that.

The main problem with “You Are Not a Gadget” is that Lanier seems determined to paint an idyllic picture of the early days of the Internet, and then contrasts current developments to that almost entirely mythical ideal that he has stored in his memory. This reminded me of Mircea Eliade and the mythological construction of in illo tempore, the long-gone times at the beginning of everything where things were perfect. In illo tempore is the period before the fall, everything was better in the past before the corrupting forces tainted the perfection. Lanier seems stuck in those mythical times where men were men, bots were bots, and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri. The problem with this, as with most mystifications of the past, is that it is a fictitious account. When the Internet was smaller, everyone knew each other, all of the developers were probably working within walking distance of one another, and therefore there was a strong sense of community. The early Internet was quirky and small because it was a tiny boys club where the geeks could make decisions that were disproportionately important to future developments. Nowadays development is widespread and, dare I say, more democratic. Lanier seems to resent that.

That brings me to some criticisms about the content. Lanier reserves some of his most cutting invective against Web 2.0 in general, and specifically about user-generated content and mash-ups. Wikipedia and Linux are not to be praised because they are not that original, Wikipedia is just an encyclopaedia and Linux is just another version of UNIX. Lanier here is mind-bogglingly wrong, to say that Wikipedia is just another encyclopaedia is like saying that the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is just another church. YouTube is summarily dismissed as the repository of schlock, the online version of “America’s Funniest Home Videos”. It is true that there is endless schlock on YouTube, but there are also some amazing innovative expressions; Sturgeon’s Law holds here, it is true that 90 percent of user-generated content is crud, but “Ninety percent of everything is crud.” It is unforgivable that Lanier uses this defunct argument to criticise web 2.0, it is as if I were to criticise literature because of Jordan’s autobiographies and Fergie’s children’s books. Mashups can be very innovative and creative, and failing to realise this is more a matter of taste than an indictment on the entire idea of the participatory Web.

I was rather surprised as well that Lanier does not like Creative Commons. He says the following:

“I’ve gone back and forth endlessly with ideological new music entrepreneurs who have asked me to place my music into Creative Commons or some other hive scheme.
I have always wanted a simple thing, and the hive refuses to give it to me. I want both to encourage reuse of my music and to interact with the person who hopes to use some of my music in an aggregate work. I might not even demand the ability to veto that other person’s plans, but I want at least a chance at a connection.
There are areas in life when I am ready to ignore the desire for connection in exchange for cash, but if art is the focus, then interaction is what I crave. The whole point of making music for me is connecting with other people. Why should I give that up?
But no, that option is not currently supported, and the very notion is frowned upon. Creative Commons, for one, asks you to choose from a rich variety of licensing options […] I realize the whole point is to get content out there, especially content that can be mashed up, but why won’t Creative Commons provide an option along the lines of this: Write to me and tell me what you want to do with my music.”

How short-sighted and wrong-headed! Once again Lanier seems to be thinking of his little community in illo tempore where he knew everyone. Because he wants to remain connected to people, he wants a specific “Contact Me” clause, and dismisses the entire notion of Creative Commons because it does not give him what he wants. This is so arrogant that leaves me gasping. If CC is not for him, then fine, but why indict the entire movement because it does not give Jaron Lanier what he wants?

Finally, one could easily have a drinking game for every time Lanier mentions MIDI as an example of where things went wrong with current technology. For those of you too young to remember, MIDI was an industry protocol used in early operating systems which allowed a computer to play music. MIDI music had a certain charm to it, but it was very limited. According to Lanier, MIDI is the best example of technology limiting real music, and therefore it is a metaphor that describes what is happening at the moment. Social media, Web 2.0, open source and Creative Commons are today’s MIDI because they stifle true creativity and replaces it with blandness. I somehow empathise with Lanier’s argument here, but I believe that his analogy is entirely misguided. MIDI was the result of technological limitations at the time, I do not know the influence that it has today, but I am certain that computer music at present does not rely on MIDI. His criticism is akin to someone complaining that 8-bit colour images limit artistic expression because they pixelate great works of art. Similarly, Lanier seems to believe that humans are capable of unlimited inventiveness and creativity if given the chance. This is not the case, not everyone can and/or wants to create quirky and unique personal web pages, which explains Facebook’s popularity. It is also possible to have layered expressions, one can be amazingly creative in one area, and still use Twitter and Facebook. The idea that choosing to use a bland web application is an indication of overall blandness is just wrong.

Despite these criticisms, I believe that Lanier’s book is very important, and a needed antidote to the dehumanising gadget worship that can overtake some people. When I read nauseating pro-iPad and pro-iPhone pieces, I am tempted to mail “You Are Not a Gadget” to the authors.

Comments 4

  1. Good review. Lanier is asking the right questions (what happens to our concept of what it means to be human in network society, what are the political consequences of social media, how do we pay for cultural production in free culture) but his answers betray a lack of familiarity with areas outside those he is an expert in. Or even those that have moved on since he was an expert in them.

    You are right that Lanier's wrong about MIDI, more and more software either contains its own instruments or uses more modern protocols to communicate with other software, although I don't know about hardware. I think had he been writing in the early or mid 1990s, his criticque of MIDI would have been spot-on. Which may be telling.

    I found Lanier's FAQ about the book more accessible and straightforward than the book itself, possibly it would be better to point people towards that, although doing so would involve a degree of irony.

    I reviewed the book here, although I may be guilty of some of the same nostalgia for lost cyberculture as Lanier –

    "Jaron Lanier's book "You Are Not A Gadget" is a timely polemic, a cry of the soul in an increasingly soulless Web 2.0 world. I found reading it a frustrating and inspiring experience. …"

  2. Don't get hung up on MIDI. A great many reviewers seem to think knocking down examples undercuts the thesis. The right response to Lanier is – "What does the alternative look like?" He didn't answer that effectively, and for that we should hope more essays are coming.

    That said, the MIDI examples struck me too. They can be set aside with two points: variable expression controllers and 1/100th step tuning were there from inception, and other protocols and formats existed early on that covered (and continue to cover) the areas not appropriate to a sequencing format. But many tech writers and futurists write this way. They come up with important questions and prescient warnings, only to back them up with misguided examples. It's fun, in a way: The mistakes work like watermarks when seeing who has lifted ideas and run with them. It's common for people to independently come up with the same ideas, but not the same mistakes.

  3. Hello review author!(sorry, I didn't notice your name)

    Not a bad review overall, though I did wonder whether you picked up the gist of some of Lanier's metaphors, such as MIDI.

    You say:

    "MIDI was the result of technological limitations at the time"

    However, I thought that was Lanier's point. By definition, history will judge all technologies as having limitations when compared with present day technologies. That is, we should be wary of which technologies we choose to adopt and run with (lock in), and, more importantly, how we integrate those technologies into culture. So while there will always be exceptions to the rule, culture should direct technology, not the other way around.

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