book review: you are not a gadget

Jaron Lanier is a nerd. A computer nerd and a music nerd. He was one of the people who were working on the internet back in the early days (not the real early military days, but the beginning of the Silicon Valley uprising and the dawn of personal computing). So when he writes a book complaining about the way technology and the internet has developed it has a bit more credibility than someone who has trouble with sending an email. That’s what You Are Not A Gadget is about.

There are a couple of things he takes aim at. One is the idea of lock-in. The way programming works is that small programs are easy and can work in ideal ways. As you start making a program do more complicated stuff, you have more complicated code. To make anything work you have to build on top of what has gone before, which is why software is buggy. It’s all the complicated interactions with the way things are already done.

The problem is when we don’t see this lock-in as the result of choices made by people and don’t recognize that things could be done differently. But doing things differently requires tearing everything down again and remaking it. If you want electronic music that is less about discrete notes like a piano and more like a violin, you can’t do that using the programming we have today, because the choice was made that MIDI would act like a keyboard. (I don’t know enough about digital music to know how using recording samples works in this context.) If you want your digital sound to sound like a violin you have to make the file go against how it was designed. You are adapting to the technology rather than having the technology work for you.

He also talks about the file metaphor, which is so ingrained into how we think of information because of our computers. We don’t think of clusters or smears of information; we think of discrete chunks that can be manipulated. When we summarize ourselves down into these clumps of interests and employers for the vast database that is Facebook, he argues that we are diminishing ourselves as humans, making ourselves more like the computers so that we can pretend they’re getting smarter.

The other big thing he gets mad at is the idea of crowdsourcing. Wikipedia and Linux are fine for what they do, but he argues that the whole design by hivemind will never create anything really wonderful. It’s good at refining, but not at helping us live up to our potential as innovators. Back in the day the pioneers of the internet wanted to see what awesome new art could be created with all these connections. A dodgy encyclopedia and a refined version of UNIX were not the pinnacles of their dreams. The things that change our lives aren’t designed by the hivemind. He laments the passing of the old idiosyncratic days of the web, where things were ugly, but you had the chance of finding something new. Nowadays when you’re doing casual research how often do you just grab whatever that first wikipedia result is? The future looks more and more like a “one book library” and it doesn’t need to be.

There are also bits about cephalopods, our nostalgic music culture and the economic crisis (the book was released in 2010, so it’s timely enough). It was a great read, and will be good contrarian fuel for discussions about the future of technology.

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