bioephemera

You are not a gadget

Virtual reality trailblazer Jaron Lanier has a somewhat curmudgeonly, critical new book out called You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. Here’s an excerpt:

If you want to know what’s really going on in a society or ideology, follow the money. If money is flowing to advertising instead of to musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than with truth or beauty. If content is worthless, then people will start to become empty-headed and contentless. The combination of hive mind and advertising has resulted in a new kind of social contract. The basic idea of this contract is that authors, journalists, musicians, and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind. Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion. Culture is to become precisely nothing but advertising.

And here’s a little bit from an interview with Lanier at Amazon.com:

On one level, the Internet has become anti-intellectual because Web 2.0 collectivism has killed the individual voice. It is increasingly disheartening to write about any topic in depth these days, because people will only read what the first link from a search engine directs them to, and that will typically be the collective expression of the Wikipedia. Or, if the issue is contentious, people will congregate into partisan online bubbles in which their views are reinforced. I don’t think a collective voice can be effective for many topics, such as history–and neither can a partisan mob. Collectives have a power to distort history in a way that damages minority viewpoints and calcifies the art of interpretation. Only the quirkiness of considered individual expression can cut through the nonsense of mob–and that is the reason intellectual activity is important.

On another level, when someone does try to be expressive in a collective, Web 2.0 context, she must prioritize standing out from the crowd. To do anything else is to be invisible. Therefore, people become artificially caustic, flattering, or otherwise manipulative.

It’s pretty clear that Lanier hasn’t drunk the Web 2.0 Kool-aid. But is he too cynical? I don’t think so. . . but then, I haven’t read the book yet. I’ll have to see how vehement he gets.

More:

Slate Review
Bookavore Review
Jaron Lanier’s homepage

Comments

  1. #1 llewelly
    January 29, 2010

    On one level, the Internet has become anti-intellectual because Web 2.0 collectivism has killed the individual voice.

    Personal web pages, blogs, and so forth, allow more individuals than ever before to have an individual voice. It is true that there are many anti-intellectual parts of the web that are ridiculously popular – but at the same time, there are many intellectual parts of the web that are also very popular. Scientists are better able to make their work available and understandable to the public than ever before, and modern Internet technologies play a primary role in this.

    Lanier is entirely wrong to say that “collectivism has killed the individual voice”. He is also wrong to characterize the Internet as anti-intellectual. It enables intellectual messages as well as it enables anti-intellectual messages.

    It is increasingly disheartening to write about any topic in depth these days, because people will only read what the first link from a search engine directs them to, and that will typically be the collective expression of the Wikipedia.

    Wikipedia has its flaws, but it is far more accurate than any traditional encyclopedia except Britannica, and it is far more comprehensive than all traditional encyclopedias combined, including Britannica. And if one is interested in the individual voices that went into a Wikipedia page, one need only read the references, and the history page.

    Any technical discussion on the internet will make it abundantly clear that many very talkative people make many searches, follow many links, some of which were not on the first few pages of results returned by the search engine, and then provide these links to the rest of the community. At the other extreme, there are many people (a disproportionate number of them employed as journalists, judging from the content of Faux News, AP, NYT, Reuters, etc) who do no internet searches at all. It’s true that many people do not use modern search engines as carefully as they should – but Lanier’s mischaracterization ignores the large minority of people who do use modern search engines carefully and thoroughly.

  2. #2 Dhoa
    January 29, 2010

    This author’s criticisms are certainly provocative…I’m interested in his book. However, I’m unclear about where the anti-intellectuallism of the Internet comes from…anyway great post!

  3. #3 Tyler DiPietro
    January 29, 2010

    You could look at this as a societal transformation where the dominant position of power has flown from the content producers to the content organizers. The former, of course, are crying foul.

  4. #4 Size
    January 30, 2010

    Maybe the web isn’t anti-intellectual… maybe it just rewards a different kind of intellect. For example, maybe a new component of intelligence isn’t being good at remembering things (since you can look up anything at any time), but being good at sorting through a huge pile of search results.

  5. #5 Jessica Palmer
    January 30, 2010

    You know, Size, I think people really underestimate how much skill/experience it requires to search for things efficiently and effectively. I’ve noticed that I’m a lot better at Googling things than some of my colleagues, so it’s usually faster for me to re-find things than to bookmark them. But I’ve also noticed that when it comes to databases that use proprietary suites of terms and connecters, I’m TERRIBLE – which is not good, because Google doesn’t have access to everything. But there’s a tendency to feel like “searching” is the same activity no matter where or how you do it.