Monday, March 17, 2014

You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier

Lanier is something different altogether; he is an original. It took longer than I expected to read this book, but I loved learning that there was someone who was thinking about our human connection by electronic device. Computer expression is a result of, and limited by, human biology. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate to consider them together.

Lanier discusses the possibilities inherent in technology, as well as the concepts of the Singularity, the hive mind, and the “wisdom of crowds.” He discusses the constraints of technology as we know it today. He explains that as a humanist, he is worried about a subculture of technologists he calls “cybernetic totalists” or “digital Maoists.” This terminology comes with a whole set of cultural connotations but Lanier takes care to say he is talking conceptually, and not specifically, about members of the group: “the members of the tribe are my lifelong friends, my mentors, my students, my colleagues, my fellow travelers. Many…may disagree with me…[but] the groupthink problem I am worried about isn’t so much in the minds of the technologists themselves, but in the minds of the users of the tools the cybernetic totalists are promoting.” Which is where we come in.

Lanier put his finger on a couple of things that had been in the back of my head but, not knowing everything about the world, I couldn’t possibly assert the truth or validity of these notions. For the same reason, I am not sure he can, either, but we have noticed the same things. For instance, this paragraph deep in his discussion, after the bit about the Singularity and hive minds:
”Take a look at one of the big cultural blogs like Boing Boing, or the endless stream of mashups that appear on YouTube. 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. This is embarrassing.” (p. 131)

It is almost as though we are constantly surprised by the technology we use, but not by what it can convey. In a sidebar he concludes “You need locality to have focus, evolution, or any other creative process.” (p. 141) This, and many other basic truths punctuate this book and perhaps because it is presented in an organic manner, it is more difficult to summarize quickly and succinctly. It is an important book to read, however, whether or not we agree with him. Agreement is not the point here. The point is he has valid observations and he amuses and enlightens us with what he has been able to glean from his experience. His concerns are not insignificant, and I am pleased he bothered to engage us with this book at all.

There is an impassioned and important section in this book about fostering and feeding the creative mind by finding new ways to monetize the value of creativity. This seems a critical point, and not the completely-obvious statement it appears at first blush. It has everything to do with where we go from here.

I love what he says about humans…that we have been highly evolved through millennia of hard knocks but that neoteny is what separates us from cephalopods, those fellow giants of evolution. By this he means that humans can actually pass on what we have learned and step on the shoulders of those who have come before, while cephalopods rely on instinct. Following this thought, though, comes a fear. Neoteny in humans is lasting longer—does anyone disagree with this?—and often true, original, out-of-the-box creativity comes in that interstice between childhood and adulthood. Is that target area shrinking, or is it just my imagination? Can we blame it on economics or anything so banal?

Lanier explodes my brain just a little when he talks about the synecdoche of smell—how a smell needs additional input from other senses to compute. Lanier starts with technology and ends with biology, which if you think about it, is exactly as it should be.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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