Friday, February 05, 2010

Review - You are not a gadget

I just finished reading "You are not a gadget" by Jaron Lanier. The book is very much in the same tone as an article he recently wrote the Edge called "DIGITAL MAOISM:
The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism". Very few other books made me want to say "No!" out loud so many times while reading it. I enjoy reading opinions that run contrary to my own because I think it is important to challenge our ideas. This is why I like reading Rough Type. This book, however, was extremely confusing too me. It reads mostly as a collection of essays and often deviates from the path. I still think it was an interesting book to read because of the importance of the topic.

If you read the essay linked above you will get the general feeling conveyed in the book. As Lanier writes in the end of the first chapter:
"So, in this book, I have spun a long tale of belief in the opposites of computationalism, the noosphere, the Singularity, web 2.0, the long tail, and all the rest. I hope the volume of my contrarianism will foster an alternative mental environment, where the exciting opportunity to start creating a new digital humanism can begin".

I think these sentences summarize well what he set out to do in this book. To counter the rising open culture / web 2.0 movement and create some "alternative mental environment" for the future of the web culture. Some things he talks about I fully subscribe. If you believe that the singularity is near and that we are about to merge with the machines in the next couple of years you are about as bonkers as the rapture people. The wisdom of the crowds can do a great job at annotating images but it will not cure cancer. Also, the rise of the open culture (free content, mash-ups, etc) is hurting content producers and we can't just say that they are the dinosaurs and let them figure it out while we pirate their goods. Journalism is fundamental to democracy and we need to figure a way to make it work.

What I dislike about the book is the overly negative tone. How many people really believe that "wisdom of the crowds" can solve the worlds problems ? How many people have even heard of the term ? I would risk saying that Lanier spends too much time around silicon valley geeks. Sure, there is an open culture on the web but I pay more for content today that I ever did before (The Economist, Nature Reviews Genetics, Netflix, iTunes, Amazon on  Demand, Pandora One, etc). The web 2.0 mash-up craze peaked when the Times nominated "You" as the person of the year (twitter is not content ;). Also, I like youtube clips like anyone else, some of them can be just amazing (ex. Kutiman's mash-ups) but I still want to pay to see Avatar again in glorious 3D IMAX.

One idea that he mentions often is that of the technological lock-in. As media formats might get locked in with use by the majority Lanier argues that concepts and ideas can be equally locked-in. An example he gives is the concept of files on the computers. That we are no longer free to experiment with the way information is stored in a computer system because this has been locked in.

What I guess Laniear was trying to say with this warning about technological lock-ins is that we run the risk of getting trapped in a set of ideas of the web that decrease the value of humanity and the content we produce and give too much value to the cloud of computers that underly the net. Even if I was to agree that current web culture tends to devalue content and humanity I don't think these lock-ins can be that powerful. We see net culture changing everyday before us and we have so far gained much more than we lost.

In summary, I would say that the problems he talks about are important but the book is overly pessimist about our current web culture.