An arrow key on my laptop broke last week, and I had to send it away for a few days to be fixed. One of the unexpected consequences of being without it was that I kept finding myself itching for a book to read. Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget came highly recommended by several friends and colleagues, and it’s manifesto-like call for a future where individuals mean more than machines seemed like a good choice to fill the gap left by constant, easy access to the files and software on my computer.
I didn’t share my friends enthusiasm. It’s not a bad book. It’s thoughtful, wise even. It is also very well written, with a wry humour and succinct style. Lanier manages to be provocative in an outspoken whilst also humble way; as if he just wants you to think about an issue, rather than necessary agreeing with him. The book’s central thesis – being critical about technology is not simply a destructive act but can be utilised in a hopeful way, to construct a better future – is one I agree with. I also agree that technological change can be stressful, and that decontextualised information, on it’s own, is pretty inert. Plus, I think that it’s worth questioning, as Lanier does very neatly, the way crowdsourcing and the idea of a ‘hivemind’ may collectivise thinking in negative as well as positive ways, and the problems of a free-at-the-point-of-click economy (including social inequalities such economics might entrench/ create).
I just did’t get much more intellectually from reading Lanier than I did from The Social Shaping of Technology (1985 and 1999) and Life on the Screen (1995). I admit I read around those books, synthesised ideas and disagreed with some too. I also appreciate they aren’t the most mainstream of titles, whereas Lanier’s book a popular work aiming at a broad audience. As I thought about Michael Brooks’ Free Radicals, it’s all very well yawning and saying ‘some of us knew this years ago’, but that’s of little good if no one outside my little bit of the Ivory Tower noticed. Still, I do also suspect I might also have got a lot of what Lanier says from the a fair bit of science fiction too, perhaps supplemented with a re-reading of Animal Farm and David Quantick’s old 1980s prediction that pop will eat itself.
Something I did think was important was the book’s reference to political ideologies embedded in digital culture, although I’d have liked to see this discussion extended. Under the heading ‘everything sounds fresh when it goes digital – maybe even socialism’ Lanier notes a fair amount of ‘stealth socialism’ in digital circles’ (p104). He says he isn’t necessarily opposed to this, but ‘if socialism is where we are headed, we need to be talking about it’ (p103). I totally agree, though I’m unsure Lanier is talking about socialism. Or if it is socialism, I’ve missed some big discussion on economic inequality. What, to my reading, Lanier seemed most worried by was the difference between doing things on one’s own and doing so collectively. This may well connect to aspects of socialist thought, but is maybe better considered in terms of the longer history of modernity, bringing in a critque of capitalist uses of mass action too. Generally, I was surprised by the book’s lack of explicit discussion of modernity (including its late, post and liquid variants) as it seemed to relevent to so many of Lanier’s arguements.
Personally, I thought the book’s inclination to distrust a hivemind seemed to my reading to be rooted in an ideological commitment to individualism over the collective which needed as much unpacking as any notion of ‘stealth socialism’. Further, I’m not sure it is all that hidden under an apparent cloak of Silicon Valley liberalism, as Lanier suggests. Or at least we need to unpack the various liberalisms associated with online cultures a bit. I also think we need to talk about the scientific history of much of today’s digital culture. The web was born at CERN, and in many ways builds on what Merton called the communalism of science. It’s simplistic to draw a direct comparison between communalism and communism, but there are both quite real historical and key philosophical connections between the aspects of socialism and aspects of scientific culture which we do need to keep in mind. Especially important to Lanier’s argument, I thought, is post-war science’s commitment to the sense that the work of many can achieve more than that of individuals (the latter half of this interview with Tim Berners-Lee provides some nice context). The collective work of ‘Big Science‘ can just as easy be made to read as post-war science’s connection to capitalism, I should add. It’s all quite slippery, which is precisely why we need to talk about this more (and modernity should have been mentioned more).
The thing that frustrated me most about this book, however, was Lanier’s continual need to tell us that he is optimistic about technology really, that he isn’t a simple pessimist; as if the obvious default setting is either pro or anti innovation as some coherent whole (which ‘innovation’ really isn’t, no more than ‘science’ or ‘stuff people do’). In many respects, Lanier has produced a call to think beyond the binaries and I appreciate it’s not his framing; rather one he works within. Still, I wish he’d simply ignore it. Because ‘what do you do when the techies are crazier than the Luddites?’ (subheading, p28). Well, you stop simplifying the world into Luddites and techies for a start, and take time to spot the more complex and often overlapping networks of debates instead.
So, for me, the scariest thing about the prevalence of machines in contemporary life is not the idea of people might think of themselves gadgets, or that I find it hard to cope without my laptop for a few days. It is that even expressly bold, creative and independent thinkers such as Lanier may be hesitant on their critique technology, and still so keen to frame ideas as nightmares set against hopeful daydreams. I’m not a gadget, neither do I want to be, even if I enjoy using them. To quote another manifesto on the topic, one several decades older than Lanier’s: I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess (a critical user of technology). I think a lot of us feel that way, whatever words we happen to use to say it.