You are not a Gadget

You are not a Gadget (2010) by Jaron Lanier is a strange, sprawling book where Lanier takes on ‘Cybernetic Totalitarianism” or Technological Utopianism which Lanier sees as people who think the Singularity is soon coming and that the internet has drastically improved everything and led to an explosive improvement in human thought.

Lanier is an extremely accomplished guy, after working at Atari and creating the first successful ‘art’ game he went on to coin the phrase Virtual Reality and has been involved with major universities and companies ever since. I saw him speak at a VR conference where he very intelligently criticized the grand dream of medical VR at the time with aplomb.

The book heavily criticizes ‘Web 2.0’ style collaboration as not producing a lot of great value. Lanier makes the point that if you’d told people in 1980 that an amazing new network of computers was going to write a new encyclopedia with entries on pop culture and rewrite UNIX they may not have been that impressed. Lanier points out that a lack of isolation leads to a lot more group think and the creation of a lot of low value information. Lanier also laments the rise of anonymous trolling, or really griefing, as being a sad consequence of online activity.

Lanier goes further and launches into an attack on Singularity type folk and people who see the internet as being everything.  Lanier is here arguing against something that most don’t come into contact with. Lanier himself lives in a world where these ideas are more strongly put forward and doesn’t seem to realise the lack of impact that these ideas have had outside a small clique. He goes on to argue that the elevation of computers in this clique makes people less human in a meaningful sense.

The book is difficult to read as it zooms from one topic to another and the thesis seems to be an aside at some parts of the book. The headings of the sections feel like a strange game of buzzword bingo of some kind. They really are quite clever. Lanier also clearly has a huge ego, few books are peppered with as many ‘I and famous person’ as this one. Lanier does, however, have something to say. It’s a pity the book isn’t shaped better. It may have been edited into the current form from something even more strange but even as it is it could really do with refinement. It is, however, well worth reading for people who are interested in the internet, computers and who are skeptical of the hyperbole that surrounds them.

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