Allen Lane £20 (209pp) £18 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
You Are Not a Gadget, By Jaron Lanier
Friday 05 February 2010
When the history of this decade, even this century, comes to be written, will what happened in San Francisco last Wednesday look more like a zenith or a nadir? Steve Jobs unveiled Apple's iPad device amid a frenzy of acclaim, dissent and dispute that stands comparison with the great religious awakenings of the 19th century: several of which caught fire in California.
In this inspired, infuriating and utterly necessary book, Jaron Lanier, once a pioneer of virtual-reality technologies and still a world-ranking designer of digital aids to surgery and rehabilitation, not only addresses the "romantic appeal" of the machine-worship that he calls "cybernetic totalism". His "manifesto" underlines the truth, hidden to those within the big tent of digital dogma, that their creed – "computationalism" – grants them "all the mental solace... usually associated with traditional religions". But he comes to accuse the false messiahs.
Lanier was there at the birth of our digital dreams and doctrines. In a nugget of memoir, he summons up scenes from his nerdy youth in "an obscure huddle of stucco cottages" near Palo Alto in the 1980s. In this "late hippie" ambience of "creativity and openness", virtual-reality techniques shambolically came into being.
Since those days of rapture, Lanier believes that the digitised culture a company such as Apple serves and creates has gone wrong: so deeply wrong that within it "human creativity and understanding... are treated as worthless". As technology makes machines more like people, so it makes people more like machines.
Much acclaimed as an avant-garde musician, Lanier takes many of his case-studies from music. To him MIDI, which is "the standard scheme to represent music in software", embodies everything that he deplores about "digital reification". MIDI is now ubiquitous: "the lattice on which almost all the popular music that you hear is built". Yet its digital steps betray the spirit of music: "It could only describe the tile mosaic world of the keyboardist, not the watercolour world of the violin".
For Lanier, human beings and their arts and thoughts belong in that "watercolour world" of blurred boundaries and complex states. However, the demands of digital engineering "lock" its users into a strictly limited range of modes, moods and identities. To him, the binary bedrock of all computer code (on or off; one thing or another) seems to offend at some primordial level against the flux and flow of human nature, and indeed of nature itself. So on Facebook (one of his pet hates), "Life is turned into database".
For Lanier, "the network by itself is meaningless. Only the people were ever meaningful". A gadget such as the iPad will no more bring good new things to birth by itself than did the wood-and-iron printing press that partnered a previous age of change. "People, not machines, made the Renaissance." So the consternation or delight that greeted, say, chess champion Gary Kasparov's defeat by the IBM "Big Blue" computer in 1997 is quite misplaced. "People, not machines, performed this accomplishment."
Lanier has even harsher words for the toys and trends of recent years. Far from scaling new heights of individual inventiveness and social harmony, "Web 2.0" applications have cemented suspicion, malice, orthodoxy and the herd instincts of the "hive mind" into the architecture of their networks. He provides, in his assault on the "drive-by anonymity" of online polemic and the "inner troll" who pops up to post abuse in comment threads, the finest diagnosis of the internet's "culture of sadism" I have ever read. To him, the software of online exchange "locks in" a propensity to spite and insult. He even fears that "pack dynamics" may lead to the mustering of "fascist-style mobs".
In this perspective, the cosmos of Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia rewards malice, flattens expression into a "global mush", and freezes taste into a parasitic plunder from the past in which "a mashup is more important than the sources who were mashed".
Meanwhile, the cliches of online liberation echo emptily through an economic landscape where a few over-mighty raptors, from Google to eBay to Amazon, stomp on every rival. "Digital network architectures naturally incubate monopolies." Such corporate masters of the web aim to rob musicians and writers of their livelihood via the great swindle of "free" content. "Free", as it wrecks the press, literature and music by demolishing the principle of paid-for craft, leaves only one content-creator as "sacrosanct". The sole online artists whose work remains sacred, protected and priced will be the advertisers, as they siphon off the secrets of young lives to make a buck. "The Facebook Kid and the Cloud Lord are serf and king of the new order."
Lanier sets out this dystopian stall with all the lapsed-missionary zeal of a convert in reverse, or the de-programmed survivor of a cult. In spite of his scorn for the depleted intellectual repertoire of online rationality, his book – with its page-size chunks of thought, its tangents and digressions, its repetitions and recursions – does have an awful lot in common with screen-based argument. Penguin has given it an ironic cover that resembles an e-reader – on which, like it or not, You Are Not A Gadget would fit quite snugly.
You could, I suppose, maintain that this sort of fragmentary, imagistic philosophy goes back to Nietzsche, and so predates modern machines. Its form does allow for a rhetorical fuzziness quite alien to older modes of evidence-based analysis. He may hate some outcomes of the revolution that he helped to make, but he thinks and feels from deep within its own "hive mind". Lanier also seems to echo other classics on the cultural-theory shelf, whether or not he has read them: Marshall McLuhan in his notion of new technologies as "extensions of ourselves", or Walter Benjamin when he savours the "fully rich and fully real" physical object against its shrunken digital reproduction. And, like them, he feels torn between horror and hope.
For the most part, though, Lanier tells of the loss of a hi-tech Eden, of the fall from play into labour, obedience and faith. Welcome to the century's first great plea for a "new digital humanism" against the networked conformity of cyberspace. This eloquent, eccentric riposte comes from a sage of the virtual world who assures us that, in spite of its crimes and follies, "I love the internet". That provenance will only deepen its impact, and broaden its appeal.
Jaron Lanier: a sceptical pioneer
Born in 1960 in New York, computer scientist Jaron Lanier first came to prominence as the creator of virtual-reality 'avatars' in California in the 1980s. He later developed medical and surgical applications of VR tehnology. His parallel career as a composer has seen him record with artists ranging from Philip Glass to Sean Lennon. Lanier first voiced his opposition to the hubris of computer culture in 'One Half of a Manifesto' (2000), and made waves again with an attack on 'digital Maoism' in 2006.
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