Wednesday, July 27, 2011

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier, famed pioneer of virtual reality and virtuoso of exotic musical instruments, has become known in recent years as an skeptic - on deep philosophical grounds - of what many in Silicon Valley say is the future, particularly the open source movement, free culture, and 'Web 2.0'.

In You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, the dreadlocked one lays out his philosophy and the reasons why he takes a dim view of what the Internet is becoming. He calls his book a 'manifesto', although I think you'd have to look at it sideways and squint a little to really see the resemblance. What it is, is a collection of ideas that made me stop and think. Even if you disagree, if you read his book with an open mind, you may stop and think too.

So what is his argument?

Basically, that the prevailing ideology driving much of contemporary online culture devalues human individuality in favor of a vast anonymous collective. Social networks encourage us to present simplified versions of ourselves, the better to fit ourselves to the existing options the sites give us. The free culture movement is devaluing individual creativity; despite the claims of free culture advocates, it is still difficult to find evidence of a diverse and solid middle class of musical artists using online tools to make a living directly from their fans. And although the open-source movement may have done some good, promoting incremental progress across a wide spectrum of disciplines, it has also probably hindered major innovation.

The Internet didn't have to develop this way, Lanier says. It still doesn't have to develop this way. Our future is still open, but because of the phenomenon of 'lock-in', in which design decisions that seem minor and temporary today become more and more difficult to change as technology progresses, the direction we're headed in is getting entrenched. But we can't let contemporary prevailing ideology blind us to the full range of choices that we have.

Specifics? Well, people often cite him as a Wikipedia skeptic. He doesn't hate Wikipedia, but he thinks it's has been given an exalted respect that it does not deserve, and indeed would not deserve even if its myriad trivial imperfections were all addressed and fixed.

The fact that it is such a common go-to for information, and is more often than not the first result a search engine gives you, means it has marginalized other, more idiosyncratic online sources of information -- ones which weren't 'just transferring material that already existed into a more regularized, anonymous form'.

Wikipedia regularizes and anonymizes individual effort on a massive scale and turns it into a product that millions of people find convenient to use. It's a triumph of the open-source movement. Lanier doesn't outright condemn the open-source movement (aside from flashes of rhetoric, he doesn't actually issue many blanket condemnations) but he finds it overrated and thinks its adoption as an ideology is stifling creativity.

The two great triumphs of open-source are Wikipedia and Linux, and neither is an entirely new thing -- he calls Linux a 'superbly polished copy of an antique' (UNIX). The open-source movement has not shown itself to be capable of true innovation.

Lanier is a musician, and he writes unhappily that the past decade has been the least innovative in the history of recorded pop music. Even the biggest music geek, he contends, upon hearing an unfamiliar song, is unable to discern whether it was recorded in 2008 or 1998. He's not denigrating the individual creativity of musical artists working today; they're being failed by their cultural environment.

It's not just music. If you look at artistic expression as posted on big cultural blogs such as BoingBoing, 'it's as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump'.

I dearly love BoingBoing, and Lanier's criticism deeply hurt. It hurt because I can't deny he has a point. It just so happens, by luck, that the day I read that sentence for the first time, this work of art was at the very top of BoingBoing.

It's a gorgeous picture, as I think even Lanier would have to admit. And I can't think of any bit of modern artistic achievement that would help his argument more. Thank you, Mr. Lanier, for helping ruin BoingBoing for me a bit.

Lanier is not an ideologue. (One theme he keeps returning to is how he hates ideology.) Unfortunately, this isn't always obvious.

I suspect he's done himself a disservice with his propensity for saying things that make him sound like a fuddy-duddy conservative reactionary. Then, in the next few sentences, he either softens his tone considerably, or he explains that despite the way he makes it sound, he actually doesn't mind what these kids today are doing.

This is fine if his reader is receptive to his ideas, but given that there are people reading him looking for things to criticize, he hasn't done himself any favors.

Also, I really wish he hadn't invented the term 'Digital Maoism'. I understand the logic behind it, but I think it's tone-deaf and teases the edges of Godwin's Law. But then, I've got an interest in Chinese history, and the words Maoism and Maoist to me evoke the horrific realities of 20th century Chinese existence more than an abstract ideology being debated in a coffee shop in the West. So my sensibilities are not everybody's.

Lanier knows full well he is inviting criticism. I've already read a couple of commentaries on his opinions, many of them written by people who seemingly intended to cut him to ribbons even before they read a word he wrote. More reasonably, Michael Agger wrote a review for Slate that is not unfair, although he is unconvinced. He writes in the penultimate paragraph:

But his critique is ultimately just a particular brand of snobbery. Lanier is a Romantic snob. He believes in individual genius and creativity, whether it's Steve Jobs driving a company to create the iPhone or a girl in a basement composing a song on an unusual musical instrument.
I know snobbery's supposed to be a bad thing and all, but I honestly can't figure out what's supposed to be so horrible about the attitude Agger's describing as snobbish.

I'm not qualified to comment critically on many aspects of Lanier's argument. Don't ask me what I really think of free culture or the open source movement; I tend to be most persuaded by whoever I read most recently.

So my frustratingly vague verdict is that one may certainly quibble with many of Lanier's statements, but his arguments have value and if we don't hear them from him, we're sure to hear something similar from someone else. Lanier may well be the best possible person to raise these points. He's not dissing Web 2.0 in order to advance some objectionable ideology, and although some of his rhetorical flourishes make it seem otherwise, he doesn't think in intolerant absolutes. He's friends with many of the Silicon Valley thinkers he criticizes.

Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine, who said things Lanier criticized in his book, gets thanked non-ironically in the acknowledgements, which I hope has confused the hell out of many single-minded online commenter types.

You don't have to agree with everything a person says to take their arguments seriously. Lanier is someone who we need to take seriously.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Happened to be drifting by - interesting commentary on an interesting topic.

One thought that occurred, looking at the cathedral picture & Wikipedia & juxtaposed with the accusation of snobbery: perhaps Agger's point (or perhaps not, but still an interesting one) was that Opensourcing (& c) are genuinely communal acts of creation - as the original cathedrals were.