education philosopher

Coming Down From Great Expectations: A Review of Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget”

Posted in Book reviews, Philosophy by KevinCK on February 26, 2010

I’ve just read a really exciting new book by technology (and overall) genius Jaron Lanier. The book is called You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto.” In it, he criticizes the direction of what he calls “internet 2.0” in a way that avoids ludditismThat is, he criticizes the way technology is going, and the way we think about the technology, not necessarily the technology itself. (After all, he did largely create virtual reality!) Below is an extended version of my


The first thing that must be said about Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto” is that it a very intricate book, full of several different arguments and lines of thought. It might be best to say that it is a manifesto containing several submanifestos. His arguments against the current directions in “web 2.0” technology are many and multifaceted, taking us through  questions of the effectiveness of capitalism, how culture evolves, whether there can really be “wisdom in crowds,” and even the nature of what “human” is.

If we have to sum up the book into an overall point or argument, here’s how I’d do it: web technology, which was hoped to lead to vigorous innovation and individualization, has done precisely the opposite. On the consumption side, the idea of the “wisdom of crowds” has made the group (Lanier says “hive mind”) more important and more “real” than voices of individuals. On the production side, the internet has led less to innovative production than to the recycling of old ideas in new forms, while making it hard for inventors/pioneers to make a living being creative. (Yes, I know I am missing some things in this description but, as mentioned, Lanier’s work is very hard to sum up with concision.)

Lanier believes that there are two big reasons for this. First, we are not using our conception of humanity to drive how we shape technology so much as we are allowing technology to shape how we define humanity. A shining example is our faith in the “wisdom of crowds” as exemplified by our increasing obsession with all things wiki. Lanier reminds us that, in reality, there is no such “wisdom in crowds” because crowds are simply collections of individuals making individual decisions. (I would also add that “wisdom of crowds” is a literal impossibility as wisdom can only happen embodied in a point-of-view, of which a crowd has none.)

Secondly, Lanier believes that innovation may be lagging behind expectations because of our belief in the “information wants to be free” model. Yes, this has benefits, like offering information in a way that is accessible to…well…most. But it has the disadvantage of removing the incentives provided by markets out of a market. Lanier often uses the example of music and art: it was thought that the internet would allow more artists to make livings off of their art by removing the middle-men and allowing artists direct access to consumers. But with so much free content and exponentially increased competition, it is becoming even harder for artists to (a) get noticed in the milieu and (b) make a living off of their creativity.

While Lanier does not directly champion capitalism (he does contemplate its goods and bads), I think it is fair to argue that Lanier is championing a market system as the surest spur to innovation. Here, I must quote him directly: “”Why are so many of the more sophisticated examples of code in the online world – like the page-rank algorithm in the top search engines or like Adobe’s Flash – the results of proprietary development? Why did the adored iphone come out of what many regarded as the most closed, tyrannically managed software – development shop on earth? An honest empiricist must conclude that while the open approach has been able to create lovely, polished copies, it hasn’t been so good at creating notable originals.” Lanier is not against the open source movement (think Youtube) altogether, but does present good pragmatic arguments as to why it is severely limited.

I agree AND DISAGREE (shocking to those who know me). On the one hand, one of Lanier’s strongest points is that, economically, the problem with putting music or art on the internet is that one does away with scarcity and, hence, one does away with the market.  And, economically, the problem with taking away the market is that you take away the vehicle by which creators receive compensation and, thus, at least some of their incentive to create. Take music as an example: it used to be that record companies only put out x copies of an artists work at one press, and this was what gave the work monetary value. (That is, copies were limited which is why people paid.) But now, whether through legal or illegal channels, unlimited copies can be made of a digital music file which has the potential to render the work (in money terms) valueless. And if work has the potential to be valueless, why do it?

But, I must first point out that industries – most notably books and music – have figured out a way around this (at least without breaking the law): ebooks and mp3s that have been purchased are most often DRM’ed (Digital Rights Management) which bars the number of copies that can be made, if not copying altogether. Lanier doesn’t bring this up in his book (though I am positive he is aware of it). This oversight makes his cynicism about the market’s ability to graft (or adapt) the old market model onto the new internet model a little bit falsified.

But what about open source platforms like Youtube and the like? Won’t the fact that people can post videos, music, news, etc, for free online diminish or put a halt to their for-profit counterparts? While Lanier writes as if it does, I am not at all convinced that folks’ ability to watch free amateur videos will dent their desires to pay for movies of infinitely higher quality! First, those who post videos for free are not trying to make livings off of the videos and, as such, probably would not invest the time, money, and thought into their productions of the type which make the for-profit productions charge-worthy in the first place! We will pay money to see Avatar but not “funny video of kid doing x” precisely because the former is captivating while the latter is (maybe) midly amusing. The idea that the existence of the freebie (the blog post?) will render people unwilling to pay for the consumer good (the book) somewhat of a stretch requiring more argument than what Lanier brings to the table.

I want to take this a tad further. Since I am posting this review on a blog and understand that users will not be giving me money to read it, one more thing must be said. First, those who create web content for free (blogs, youtube videos, free music) are, by definition, amateurs that are not doing it for money. They may be doing it out of vanity, desire to share something with someone, or even out of conviction that their content is not worth charging for. Whatever the reason, Lanier is indirectly suggesting that users should not be the ones in charge of setting the terms of the transaction. But I don’t WANT to charge readers to read this post! My compensation is (a) the validation of knowing that someone read my work, (b) the gratification of knowing that I can express my views in a forum where others can read them, and (c) a bit of vanity. Who is Lanier to tell me that these terms of exchange are invalid because my posting for free may damage someone else’s ability to make a profit?

Another criticism I have of Lanier’s viewpoint is this: arguing that the internet has failed to reach expectations can either be an argument against the state of the internet (as Lanier has it) OR the loftiness of the expectations! I have a feeling that some of Lanier’s criticisms have more to do with the latter. Here’s an example: while he bemoans the fact that much music created in the past 15 years (with technology) hasn’t been wholly innovative, I would remind him that such whole-cloth innovation has always been rare. Jazz, he says, was innovative, as were the Bealtes experiments with multi-track recording. Why nothing like that now? Well, Jazz used the same musical forms and concepts of Dixieland before it and ragtime before that. And the Beatles multitrack experiments didn’t sound THAT different from the rock and roll which preceded it. Similarly, Lanier bemoans the fact that Wikipedia is simply the combination of the existing ideas of the encyclopedia and usenet. Okay, but couldn’t it just be that the encyclopedia and usenet were such good ideas, that combining them is better than scrapping them and inventing from whole-cloth? Long and short, Lanier expected the type of whole-cloth invention out of the internet that never really existed before the internet. So, is it really the internet’s fault that whole-cloth creativity of the type Lanier (wrongly) thinks was plentiful before the internet never materialized? Or Lanier’s expectations that they would?

I also want to criticize Lanier on another, related, point. Lanier argues that, in various ways, ignores or marginalizes the fullness of humanity. My counter is that ANY medium of communication – television, the written word, an audio recording, a telephone call – will fail to grasp the fullness of humanity. To use Lanier’s own beautiful words: “What makes something fully real is that it is impossible to represent it fully to completion.” That means that encapsulating an image in words (or audio, or files, or pictures) ignores some elements of the thing represented. So, yes, when I am on facebook, I am an avatar, a profile, some pictures, and some comments. And yes, this is not sufficient to encapsulate me. But if Lanier is arguing against current internet technology because it reduces us in some way, then I think his standard of what the internet is supposed to do is something that NO technology could ever meet. (After all, what is impossible to represent FULLY to completion is not fully real.)

There are several other areas where I think Lanier’s arguments are weak (and several places where I think he argues against “straw man” positions held by only a few). But that is enough for now.  What I will say is that I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. Even though I am sure everyone will find areas of agreement AND disagreement with Lanier, every reader will think very deeply as a result of what he writes. He is neither a luddite nor a techno-utopian, neither a reductionist or a mysterian, and neither a techno-anarchist or techno-Maoist. But he is a challenging thinker who deserves to be thought about.


2 Responses

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  1. David Gerard said, on February 27, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    Jaron Lanier: Why people should pay more attention to me and not Web 2.0.

  2. John Glassmyer said, on July 18, 2010 at 1:26 am

    I’m left with a bit of uncertainty as to the focus of the book after reading your review.

    The examples you give in the second 2/3 of the article seem to focus on the distribution of *instances of content*: the blog posts you write and give away for free, the music that people can now download for free, the movie Avatar as compared with the funny kid video. Yet the way you started out in paragraph 2 sounded more like Lanier was focusing on *forms* of technology, and on some influence that the Web has had to reduce innovation in *new forms* of technology.

    I was reading “hive mind” and thinking of e.g. the way Facebook has moved from letting users write their own lists of interests on their profiles to making users link to communal interest “pages” instead. I see this as a *form* of online expression and/or interaction, and an orthogonal type of issue as compared with concerns about the distribution of *content* or the resulting originality or lack thereof of content. So was it “hive mind” in that online applications do not support self-expression enough, or was it “hive mind” in that we are all subscribing to the same content providers? How much time did Lanier spend focusing on the one type of concern versus the other?

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