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Books and Culture

Adam D. Thierer
The Digital Skeptic
Though overly pessimistic, Jaron Lanier raises important concerns about our technological future.
12 March 2010

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier (Knopf, 224 pp., 24.95)

Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto is a provocative—and ultimately quite pessimistic—assessment of the influence of the Internet and digital technology over our lives, culture, and economy. Like other Net skeptics, Lanier worries about diminished individual creativity, the rise of “mob” behavior, the dangers of “free-culture” fanaticism, and the emergence of a new sharecropper economy in which a small handful of capitalists purportedly are getting rich off the backs of free labor. A respected Internet visionary, a gifted computer scientist, an expert on virtual reality, and a talented wordsmith, Lanier deserves serious attention, even from those who don’t share his lugubrious worldview.

Lanier’s critique of the free-culture movement is trenchant, and it’s especially biting when he calls out the extreme Internet Pollyannaism of many Silicon Valley luminaries and ivory-tower cyber-law scholars. Lanier castigates the quixotic techno-utopianism (which he labels “cybernetic totalism”) of extreme digital-age futurists such as Ray Kurzweil and Kevin Kelly, who enthuse that a beneficent “hive mind,” technological “singularity,” or “noosphere“ is approaching. Theirs is a vision of the Net as an organism powered by the wisdom of crowds, coming together in a single, collective consciousness.

Lanier argues that such thinking is largely bunk, but he fears it could have dangerous ramifications for humanity anyway. He wants to refocus the inquiry about the Internet’s impact on society and culture around the question of whether it has bettered the lot of individual human beings, not collectives or crowds. The early cyberspace dream, he laments, was guided by “a sweet faith in human nature,” but this “has been superseded by a different faith in the centrality of imaginary entities epitomized by the idea that the Internet as a whole is coming alive and turning into a superhuman creature.”

Referring to these thinkers as “digital Maoists,” Lanier argues that their movement “starts to look like a religion rather quickly.” In pushing back, he takes as his guide the rough equivalent of a Kantian categorical imperative for the digital era, arguing that our “first priority must be to avoid reducing people to mere devices. The best way to do that is to believe that the gadgets I can provide are inert tools and are only useful because people have the magical ability to communicate meaning through them.” Though laid on thick at times, Lanier’s concern is worth heeding: there are some moral dimensions to technological progress that deserve careful attention.

Lanier also argues powerfully that—contrary to what some free-culture and open-source advocates would have us believe—personal expression and proprietary models of production have driven some amazing recent innovations, from spectacular video games to Pixar movies to the iPhone. But his critique is too sweeping at times, as he refuses to acknowledge the many legitimate innovations associated with open-source software or Web 2.0 technologies. Blogging platforms (WordPress), web browsers (Firefox and Google’s Chrome), operating systems (Linux for PCs and Android for mobile), and web-server software (Apache) are just a few of many examples of free and open-source applications or platforms that have bettered consumer welfare.

Lanier gets so caught up in his critique of the free-culture movement that he unfairly indicts the entire digital generation, claiming that most modern culture is moribund and little more than “a petty mashup of preweb culture.” But we’ve heard similar claims before, and they’re typically unwarranted. Cultural critics routinely make highly subjective, even elitist, claims that our best days are behind us and that the current good-for-nothing generation, with its newfangled gadgets and culture, is steering us straight into a moral abyss.

Indeed, Lanier and other Internet critics—including Neil Postman (Technopoly), Lee Siegel (Against the Machine), and Mark Helprin (Digital Barbarism)—are guilty of a form of hyper-nostalgia about some mythical “good ol’ days” when all was supposedly much better. But despite the hand-wringing and occasional “techno-panics,” we somehow evolve and endure—and our culture grows more diverse, too. Moreover, Lanier’s claim that most modern culture is nothing more than a “mashup” of previous culture isn’t supported by any evidence and ultimately comes off as an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy rant.

Lanier’s caustic critique of social networking and advertising is also largely unpersuasive. Like Nicholas Carr, author of The Big Switch, Lanier fears that the masses’ online efforts are tantamount to free, exploitable labor and “will contribute to the fortunes of those few who have been able to position themselves as lords of the computing clouds.” Further, Lanier seems to think that Google, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and other Web 2.0 sites are all just part of the hive-mind indoctrination scheme. Or, at a minimum, they’re turning our brains into Jell-O by sapping our individuality.

Here again Lanier is guilty of excessive nostalgia, in this case for the floppy-disk era when websites were supposedly more organic and genuine. But the Web 1.0 world wasn’t any better than today’s cyberspace; it had its own share of problems, and certainly far fewer options. And today’s social-networking platforms and leading cloud companies aren’t exploiting us or manipulating our minds by offering great platforms or free services. To the contrary, they’re providing wonderful new avenues for self-expression and interaction—again, usually at little or no cost. Meanwhile, individualism is alive and well online (perhaps too much so at times).

More generally, Lanier’s view of the modern Netizenry as mindless sheep being led to the commercial slaughter is unjustifiably bleak. Social-networking sites, he suggests, are manipulating people and “violating privacy and dignity.” “The whole artifice, the whole idea of fake friendship,” he claims, “is just bait laid by the lords of the clouds to lure hypothetical advertisers.” But nobody’s forcing us to join social-networking sites or to use free online services. Indeed, Lanier’s labeling the free-culture movement “digital Maoists” is ironic, given that he’s trotting out classic Marxist themes about consumer manipulation and false consciousness.

Lanier seems unwilling to leave room for a middle-ground position that rejects techno-utopianism and the most extreme elements of the free-culture mind-set but simultaneously acknowledges that there is much good to be found in modern digital culture and online life. Still, You Are Not a Gadget is one of the most important information-technology policy books of recent years. It represents the most sincere and credible elucidation yet of modern techno-pessimism.

Adam Thierer is president of the Progress & Freedom Foundation (www.pff.org) in Washington, D.C.

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