Monday, May 28, 2012

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, by Jaron Lannier

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Computer scientist Jaron Lannier was at the forefront of computer innovation in the 1980s and 90s, but now feels something has gone awry with the open Internet culture of Facebook, Google and even Wikipedia. In this fascinating manifesto, he argues that Web 2.0 culture has reduced expression and narrowed human potential. In the 2000s we consume an increasingly infantilised web content.

Jaron Lannier is a pioneering computer technologist and scientist. His main claim to fame is as the innovator of Virtual Reality. Spiritually and philosophically he belongs to the pre-Web 2.0 period, before social media became dominant. In the 1980s and 90s he was at the forefront of the digital revolution, and held high hopes that computer technology would make the world a better place. He dreamt of mass audiences for artists and writers, who would be able to make decent living selling their product online.

He believed that digital communication would herald an era of heightened consciousness and intellectual achievement, as everyone exchanged ideas at a greater velocity. Alas, little if any of this came to pass according to Lannier. Instead the Internet has produced an abundance of content, which has considerably lowered it value (think of all the free downloads that are now taken for granted). Intellectually, we don’t exchange ideas so much as shout abuse, often anonymously.

Reading Jaron Lannier you get the impression of a dreamily idealistic utopian. His basic argument in You Are Not a Gadget is that Web 2.0 culture has reduced expression and narrowed human potential. In the 2000s we fit our personalities into Facebook profiles and consume an increasingly infantilised Internet content.

This is certainly a contentious book, and readers will find much to challenge and argue about. What is so fascinating about Lannier is that he from within the computer culture, but is also critical of its mainstream thinking. An open web culture does have its downside.

Lannier writes in a soft, musing tone, often making interesting philosophical digressions. He aims to persuade by careful argument, and is ever ready to anticipate and concede the reader’s objections. This is a book for deep intellectual involvement, not easy black and white answers to complex questions.

While You Are Not a Gadget doesn’t really provide any answers to the myriad of problems that its author outlines, it certainly does leave a lot to think about. Lannier is obviously widely read and has thought long and hard about his subject. You Are Not a Gadget reads like the first philosophy book of the Internet age.

For those who despair of the mind numbing aspects of Web 2.0 culture, this book may provide a degree of solace. Computer boffins should find the book interesting too, as Lannier is also a computer scientist. Heavy Facebook and Twitter users may wonder what all the fuss is over.

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, by Jaron Lannier. Published by Allen Lane, 2010. ISBN 9780141049113. RRP: $22.95