Sunday, November 11, 2012

You are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier

Rating 2/5

Jaron Lanier has a message for us.

(this is the actual author photo from the book jacket. Caption added by me of course.)

I wish I was a gadget. Maybe then I could understand this book. That said, I'm not really qualified to review it, but I'm going to anyway, because I deserve to have an opinion after suffering my way through this book.

You Are Not A Gadget wasn't written for me. In fact, I think it was written for Jaron Lanier and a few other very smart people of the computer science elite. If you're not already familiar with the conversation surrounding programming (especially as it applies to the internet), you won't get much help from Lanier. There's no glossary, and he regularly explains concepts in terms of other unfamiliar concepts, if he bothers to explain them at all.

Lanier appears to be an expert on everything - computer science, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, philosophy, music, economics, ad infinitum - because he writes with such authority. He's also apparently had more jobs than a hooker gives out during the course of an entire career. I've no doubt his IQ approaches genius levels, but the problem with geniuses writing books is that some of them seem to forget that 99.9% of their readers are not going to also be geniuses. This book is called a "manifesto", which connotes its subject is very important to the author, and so presumably he wants people to understand what he's saying. But he doesn't bother to spell things out in language that most people could easily understand. I mean, I'm no slouch. I graduated with honours from my high school and university and even won a creative writing award. But I had a heck of a time following Lanier's train of thought from hypotheses through analogies to conclusions, because a) I didn't understand most of his references, b) he often uses unnecessarily complicated language (which tells me he places more priority on sounding authoritative than being understood), and c) he assumes his reader has entered the conversation familiar with the topic. There is also a glaring lack of end-note type references that would back up any premises, facts or theories Lanier puts forth.

It's clear Lanier has a sense of propriety towards the internet and computer programming. He had a vision of what the computing world would've accomplished by now, and WE'VE FAILED HIM. Not just programmers, but users too. We've bought into the idea that the "hive mind" way of producing programming and content (through collective effort like Wikipedia), is the best way of doing things, and because of early program designs and internet structures, we are close to being stuck with these things FOREVAH. He has some interesting ideas, and some really wacked out ones. He says we're obsessed with pre-internet media and our content has been reduced to mash-ups of stuff from that era. True creativity is being thwarted because can nobody retain credit for their products - because productivity comes in contributions to the hive instead of individual authorship, media is circulated in context-free fragments without reference to the original, the structure of the internet fosters anonymity, and because it's tough for people to get paid for original content that's available in digital form (eg. piracy). All this leads to the devaluation of individual humans. I'm not going to argue that these things are going on. What Lanier has failed to do, however, is make me give a crap about it. He calls himself a humanist, but he sounds more like an individualist to me. (Yes, I did choose to use the hive-created Wikipedia articles for these links out of spite). I'm not an expert in these ideas, but it seems to me that Lanier assumes individual humanity is of more importance than collective humanity, and his whole argument is based on this premise. I'm not sure I agree. Lanier believes individual or small group efforts are superior to hive efforts, and that we're losing something by having a system that supports the latter more than the former. He seems to blame the lack of creativity in our culture on the structure of the internet. To me, that's like blaming alcoholism on the chemical structure of alcohol.

Poor Jaron. He had dreams, and we've destroyed them by co-opting his internet and using it to make captioned photos of cats (and authors) without any credit or money given to the persons who took the photos. This just isn't how he wanted things to work out. And Virtual Reality was supposed to be a huge thing by now!

My uneducated answer to Jaron Lanier is this: SO EFFING WHAT. Nobody gets to decide the path of humanity's (and humanity's collective creations) evolution. We are "locked-in" to having two arms and legs, but nobody's complaining about that. Or wait a second, you sort of ARE. Lanier talks about how virtual reality (if only someone would make it affordable, lament, lament), can give us extra appendages, or turn us into a blob. I'm sure being part cloud is as mind-blowing as he makes it sound. Does anyone else find it ironic that Lanier is against "cybernetic totalism" while at the same time is fascinated with digitizing his whole physical experience? Lanier is afraid these dreams of his will never come true because the internet and program design constraints are grinding creativity to a halt. And we haven't even been able to invent smell-o-vision yet!

Necessity is the mother of invention. Obviously, as a group, we haven't yet needed to change things the way Lanier wants to change them. Therefore, the collective intelligence of computer-using humanity is inferior to the individual intelligence of Lanier. Maybe he IS a visionary. He certainly envisions a lot of things. Some of which (like the Songle idea) seem ridiculous and untenable to my non-genius yet still critical-thinking mind. I guess there's nothing for Lanier to do but keep stroking his disgruntled and disappointed individual ego (I can imagine it's hard to contemplate giving up attention to yourself when you're an awesome unique creative inter-disciplinary genius) and wait for the hive to decide it doesn't like being a hive anymore. Or maybe the hive keeps on hiving, and someone can make crappy YouTube feature called Last Individual Standing: The Singularity vs. Jaron Lanier.

I honestly don't care.

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