Jaron Lanier:

"You Are Not A Gadget" (2010)

(Copyright © 2011 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
Jaron Lanier has the credentials to attack the high-tech fundamentalists that rule Silicon Valley (and influence half the world with their presumed "visionary" ideas). Lanier has been a high-tech guru since the 1980s.

He begins his book in a dramatic way that is certain to capture your attention: "It's early in the twenty-first century, and that means that these words will mostly be read by nonpersons... minced into anatomized search engine keywords... copied millions of times by some algorithm somewhere designed to send an advertisement to some person somewhere who happens to resonate with some fragments of what I say". And he makes the point from the start that his words (any words that end up in the "cloud" of the Internet world) will make the fortune of someone who has found a way to monetize Internet traffic, i.e. the relationship between reader and writer.

The high-tech generation, in Lanier's opinion, is growing up with lower expectations of what a person is and can be: the technology that came with the Internet, smartphones and assorted gadgets is reducing the dignity of human life. Worse: they are growing up thinking of themselves as computer files or programs.

That is the unwanted consequence of a design principle of the World-wide Web: democratizing the Internet so that everybody can write and everybody can read anything.

It all begins with the fact that tools embody an ideology which is often not visible. A tool comes with a vision of what the world is and what the user should do in the world. It is a subtle message that, once absorbed, becomes a philosophy of life.

Lanier thinks that the dominant group today, the ones he calls "cybernet totalists" and that i prefer to call "high-tech fundamentalists" (and that i consider simply the descendants of the futurists of a century ago), are so enthusiastic about machines that they devalue people. They are indirectly sponsoring an ideology that alters "the very idea of what it is to be a person". The users involuntarily get trapped into the design that the engineers chose for their products and therefore spread the plague.

Lanier of course knows that the vast majority of Silicon Valley bloggers aim at improving society, but Lanier thinks that their thinking is fundamentally flawed because it is an "anti-human way of thinking". It conceives of the universe (including human lives) as information. This being the case, it is just a matter of time before humans become obsolete. Lanier, instead, thinks that there is more than information in a human life: "Information is alienated experience", meaning that "you" make the difference between the information that you gained and the experience that gave you that information. There is a human being behind a text, a picture or a video on the Web, and that human being is more than just the text that you read, the picture that you look at, the video that you watch. The "digital flattening of expression" degrades both the reader and the writer.

Lanier makes fun of the practice of using computer metaphors to describe humans. He notes that not long ago thinkers used the steam engine as a metaphor to understand human behavior, implying that the computer metaphor (human life as information processing) will soon sound as ridiculous as that one sounds now.

Lanier's book is a frontal attack against everything that is popular today in Silicon Valley: the Web 2.0, cloud computing, the singularity, the noosphere, artificial intelligence, social networking, Wikipedia, etc.

The overall point that he makes to his friends in Silicon Valley is that degrading human beings is a baseless and retrograde activity no matter how sophisticated your tools are. He makes fun of Silicon Valley thinkers (me too) who pretend to be Renaissance minds when in fact they are just mindless fanatics (again, i think Lanier would compare them to the futurists of the early 20th century if he were familiar with Marinetti and the likes, whom incidentally supported fascism in Italy and communism in the Soviet Union).

There is indeed a general tendency to conceive of quantity as quality, and i think it goes back to the success of the Web and search engines to return answers to all sorts of questions. Quantity did become quality. Lanier points out that this cannot be true in general. Many of us might side with him out of nostalgia, but he doesn't quite prove that quantity never becomes quality.

Worse: he blames the Web for the trend towards quantity instead of quality, but doesn't really prove that the Web has to be blamed for it. For example, he picks on Facebook and its concept of "friend". Obviously the Facebook concept of "friend" is terrifying: those are not friends at all. But Lanier is no sociologist and doesn't see that the concept of friend has been "declining" ever since. Friendship (and relationships in general) have become much more superficial. This trend was already underway before the invention of the Web and way before the introduction of Facebook. Friendship and family ties tend to be strong in poor society with poor infrastructure: you need them to survive. When a developed and wealthy society gives you everything that you need, you don't need friends and family as much. The decline of friendship has more to do with the economic growth since the end of World War II (further accelerated by the end of the Cold War) than by the Web.

He is more credible when he attacks the people he variously calls "cybernetic totalists", "digital Maoists", "stealth technomarxists". These are the "futurists" (to use my term), mostly centered in Silicon Valley, who hail the free-for-all attitude of the Web as utopia come true. Lanier objects that the "open culture" approach is very similar to socialism and comes with the same dangers. In this case the danger is not a Stalin or a Mao, but advertising: the way we pay for all the free services that we get from the Web (electronic mail, street maps, browsing, etc) is by making companies pay to advertise their products on our computer's screens. Again, it is not clear that this is a phenomenon tied to the emergence of the Web. The Web accelerated it, but free magazines had existed before (and caused the same kind of damage to the traditional high-brow magazine). He writes "Culture is to become... advertising". That's precisely what we were discussing 30 years ago when Google hadn't even been born and television programs were being flooded with advertising.

In other words, Lanier's points are valid but the target might not be the correct one: the Internet/Web has accelerated processes that were underway. Many of them were accelerated by the success of capitalism, and in practice by the new technology that capitalism enthusiastically embraced. Hence when he writes that the decline of the highly-educated opinion press causes problems to society because it removes an important viewpoint, he is correct, but blaming it on the free blogs alone sounds unfair. Those free blogs are mostly much less professional than the well-respected newspapers of old times, and their existence weakens the power of those newspapers to continue their work, but the weakening had already started with the free newspapers and magazines distributed in countless newstands. The business model for media was already shifting from subscription-based revenues to advertising-based revenues, with the obvious consequence that serving the community of advertisers was becoming more important and serving the community of readers was becoming less important.

He also views another kind of danger in the open-culture approach of the Web, which is eerily reminiscent of countless intellectuals of the past mourning the debasing effects of the democratization of culture. Lanier doesn't like the idea that everybody will be free to download music and videos and books for free. He thinks that music labels, for example, provided a positive service. As a professional music critic who spent decades blasting the music industry for promoting garbage over art, i whole-heartedly welcomed the decline of the music industry. I blame the music industry for killing the career of thousands of great artists and brainwashing the public with dozens of ridiculous pop stars. That Lanier and myself have a wildly different view of the effect of big business on culture is obvious: he mentions Gershwin and the Beatles as examples of good things, whereas to me they embody all the evils of marketing. Now that people can download so much music for free they are more likely to realize what kind of junk the music labels are selling them and what kind of great music has been hidden from them for so long. Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Britney Spears and Lady Gaga are cultural aberrations as much as Hitler and Mao are political aberrations. Whatever evil is coming with the "free download", it can't be any worse. Lanier writes that "flatness leads to blandness and meaninglessness" but what i have seen is that the music industry as it was led to blandness and meaninglessness on a very large scale. (Incidental rant: instead of conducting a witch hunt against harmless kids for copyright violations when they copy their music to friends, the music industry should simply change business and start selling hard disks. You can cheat someone sometimes but you can't cheat everybody forever with your terrible music).

I also disagree when Lanier claims that no new musical genres have been created in the last few years. It all depends on definitions. One could claim that no new genres have been created in rock music since the day that Chuck Berry cut his first rock'n'roll single. Someone else might claim that there are dozens of genres within the genre of heavy metal alone. Every few months a new term is coined to label a type of electronic dance music. Music is evolving at such a rapid pace that we may run out of words to label it. I don't think that Lanier has a valid argument to claim that musical creativity is lower today than it was yesterday.

Lanier sees this free services as embodying the spirit of socialism against the concept of private property. Again, the moment you evoke the spectre of socialism people freak out thinking of Stalin's gulags and Mao's cultural revolution. The latter is, in fact, an appropriate metaphor: when the new futurists want ordinary people to dominate the Web, it sounds very similar to Mao's program to give power to the peasants. Mao's program ended up causing the death from starvation of millions of peasants, and Lanier is wise to warn against the effects of a similar program on the Web.

Lanier proposes methods to have people pay for bits, so that bits have value: you would pay when you visit a website, and people would pay you when they visit your website. There is something to be said about having people pay for a service, so that people actually appreciate its value, and so that advertising is no longer the only financial support for content. For reasons that i don't quite understand Lanier doesn't like the simple traditional idea of making people pay for accessing content, just like we pay for a good magazine when we want better articles than the ones found in free magazines. Either way sounds reasonable to me: if my Internet provider had a way to remove all advertising from my Internet experience, i would be willing to pay a higher monthly fee for Internet access. However, this sounds like a complicated scheme (and it still smells a bit of socialism). It is much easier for each website to simply charge for access, just like we pay a subscription to receive a good magazine at home.

Lanier is not completely opposed to "computationalism", the philosophy that studies the world (including people) as a computational process. He just thinks that it should be used only for scientific investigations. Technology, instead, should treat people like people, not like files, and therefore assign people a special place in the world.

Inspired by the ability of cephalopods to morph, Lanier has embarked in a "phenotropic project" to create a more profound form of communication.

Out of such an apocalyptic book, i don't think that Lanier emphasizes the danger of advertising-driven revenue models loud enough. Google and Facebook, to name the two biggest success stories in 2011, are advertising platforms. They long lost any technological value: they are old boring trivial technologies that happen to serve a lucrative business. They are as innovative as the billboards along the highway. The fact that they can make so much money out of other people's content is, first of all, somewhat amoral: millions of Web users create content (texts, images, videos) and then Google makes (almost) all the money by providing traffic to them. Secondly, it stifles innovation because it focuses resources on building billboards and not on inventing new technologies. Thirdly, it may lead to a distortion of traffic: it is just a matter of time before search engines decide to route browers to websites based on what maximizes their advertising profits, not on what maximizes the browser's experience.

Lanier's writing is sometimes cryptic (i did not understand much of the chapter on "What is a person"). Some of his key concepts remain vague because of poor choices of words ("the mystery of the existence of experience").

Nonetheless, overall the book is one of the most stimulating essays on the digital culture, and certainly a lot more interesting than the trite paeans of the digital futurists.