CauseWired Book of the Year: You Are Not A Gadget

“Think For Yourself” would have been an apt subtitle for Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget, my pick for non-fiction book of the year and the most important piece of writing on technology and communications to be published in 2010. Instead, Lanier and his publishers went with “A Manifesto” and it certainly is all of that – bright, opinionated, often meandering, occasionally pedantic, happily confrontational and in its totality a bold red stop sign in the path of wired society’s long march toward a thin, common identity.

Not that I wanted to stop at that particular intersection.

My 2008 book CauseWired chronicled the rise of online social activism and presented a generally (but not entirely) rosy outlook for a socially-networked world with access to information and the digital tools needed to change society. I chose to focus on the development of positive, collaborative platforms like Kiva,, GlobalGiving and DonorsChoose and the creation of networks to fight poverty, disease and genocide. And I saw the ascendancy of vast social applications like Facebook and Twitter as generally benevolent to the movement for social change; greater participation could yield more democratic structures, more authentic power from below – and if more individuals could see a wider view of the injustice in the world, more of them would organize to fix it.

Yet I’ve never embraced techno-utopianism or served time as a social media triumphalist; back in the 90s Jason Chervokas and I would regularly rail in @NY against a form of cyber-libertarianism that argued for a self-regulated technology industry and no societal restraint on anything digital. Where some treated “information wants to be free” as a physicist’s formula, we saw it as a political slogan. Chervokas and I recognized that that the “freedom” some technologists were arguing for was merely a cover for seeking power; in a new world ordered by technology, who would be in charge? Fast forward to the socially-networked Internet of 2010, and it’s no surprise that a few powerful players now control vast amounts of our identities and our content.

Nonetheless, You Are Not a Gadget was a head-snapper for a me. And the intellectual whiplash was worth the collision.

The central tenet of Lanier’s manifesto is the idea that humanistic values are too often lacking in widely-adopted digital technology – that in using online services driven by algorithms and marketing (and what’s better for the programmer and the advertiser), users naturally adopt a less complex online personality, a less nuanced identity. In CauseWired, I relayed the wisdom of my then-16-year-old daughter, who explained that Facebook wasn’t your actual self, it was “your best you.”

Fitting neatly into a Facebook profile is reductive, argues Lanier, who wonders “whether people are becoming like MIDI notes – overly defined and restricted in practice to what can be represented in a computer.” Twitter limits in another way, by placing severe strictures of the actual form of communications. With each message limited to 140 characters (much less with a link and a hashtag or two) it often removes the gray space. The big issues can be reduced to a half sentence and a link, really very little more than a click on the Facebook “like” button. It becomes a fantastic echo chamber, a vast din of repetition with easily-delineated sides like a soccer match. No wonder every single politician and celebrity gravitates to Twitter – the control over the messaging is fantastic (indeed, the comical early mistakes some pols made on Twitter were the exceptions that proved the rule). Marketers now understand the on/off MIDI-like notational quality of short messages – they’re paying six-figures for so-called “promoted” tweets and trends, which are just a fancy and expensive method for Twitter to lie to the very userbase that built the service. Or as Lanier puts it in discussing social networks like Twitter: “Am I accusing all those hundreds of millions of users of social networking sites of reducing themselves in order to be able to use the services? Well, yes, I am.”

Lanier’s point is that by reducing personality and the wide sweep of human thought into chunks that can fit easily into databases and digested through clever widely-popular front end designs, the possibility for horrific “crowd-sourced” activity is that much greater. To put it simply, the good guys don’t always win. Throughout history, they’ve often been shouted down by crowds. While it’s impossible to argue with the sunny opening lines of the introduction to Yochai Benkler’s seminal Internet text The Wealth of Networks – “Information, knowledge and culture are central to human freedom and human development” – and to sympathize with a point of view that argues that great access to those qualities improves the lot of mankind, Lanier’s warnings also seem in tune with the times.

It’s not crazy to worry that, with millions of people connected through a medium that sometimes brings out their worst tendencies, massive, fascist-style mobs could rise up suddenly. I worry about the next generation of young people around the world growing up with internet-based technology that emphasizes crowd aggregation, as is the current fad. Will they be more likely to succumb to pack dynamics when they come of age?

That kind of thinking flies in the face of a more utopian view of free information, embodied in hacker philosopher Richard Stallman’s famous ’90s proclamation that when “information is generally useful, redistributing it makes humanity wealthier no matter who is distributing and no matter who is receiving.” I’d naturally ask “what does generally useful mean?” and Lanier goes a step further, noting that the free flow of information also brings large-scale vitriol to arguments between semi-anonymous actors on the Net. “What’s to prevent the acrimony from scaling up? Unfortunately, history tells us that collectivist ideas can mushroom into large-scale social disasters.”

Lanier’s “digital Maoism” may be the intellectual equivalent of crying “fire!” in a crowded theater, especially one filled with venture capital-backed tech companies, media conglomerates and telecommunications outfits all mining profits from the social gold rush (not to mention the trade press that loves them). And Lanier’s is a particularly well-aimed attack on geek culture: “The new twist in Silicon Valley is that some people – very influential people – believe they are hearing algorithms and crowds an other internet-supported nonhuman entities speak for themselves. I don’t hear those voices though – and I believe those who do are fooling themselves.”

You Are Not A Gadget also warns against an Internet-based democracy, a world of governing chaos in which “superenergized people would be struggling to shift the wording of the tax code on a frantic, never-ending basis.” The remedy is our current actual democracy – “the slower processes of elections and court proceedings” – which are like calming bass waves in Lanier’s musical metaphor. They reduce “the potential for the collective to suddenly jump into an overexcited state when too many rapid changes coincide in such a way that they don’t cancel one another out.” It’s dull and it doesn’t make a handy retweet. And it also argues against some of the aspects of the latest techie cause célèbre – Wikileaks, a secretive organization that claims it represents the interests of more open government but renounces public accountability. Three weeks ago, I wrote that I didn’t think “Wikileaks advances the cause of more accessible government or international justice.” And Lanier didn’t win too many allies with his essay in The Atlantic last week that argued for more skepticism toward Julian Assange and his shadowy organization, while taking “nerd supremacy” to task for the near lock-step support of Wikileaks at the cost of traditional avenues of trust:

“The strategy of Wikileaks, as explained in an essay by Julian Assange, is to make the world transparent, so that closed organizations are disabled, and open ones aren’t hurt. But he’s wrong. Actually, a free flow of digital information enables two diametrically opposed patterns:  low-commitment anarchy on the one hand and absolute secrecy married to total ambition on the other.”

In a spirited Atlantic response to Lanier’s piece, Zeynep Tufekci (who by chance I happened to sit next to on the stage for our panel at the Personal Democracy Forum’s Wikileaks symposium on Dec. 11) argued that he “makes the fundamental conceptual mistake of conflating individual human beings and powerful institutions, like governments and corporations.” In other words, those large organizations stand opposed to individual liberty – which the free flow of information can help to guarantee. And that idea also infused some of the criticism of You Are Not A Gadget, especially reactions to Lanier’s dystopian view of a purely crowd-sourced social commons, his somewhat alarmist suggestion that “collectivist ideas can mushroom into large-scale social disasters.”

Frankly, it’s part of the deeply romantic view that so many technologists hold of the Internet (I’m not immune to this) and it’s an especially American viewpoint. We tend to view corporations and big organizations and “the state” as monoliths, rather than collections of many individual humans working toward a loose common cause – and we tend to welcome the new frontier than disintermediation brings. In 1997, in a column for The New York Times, Chervokas and I wrote:

For more than 200 years Americans have been driven by the myth of the frontier, the feral, boundless space beyond known civilization where opportunities are infinite, where homesteaders can discard identities of birth and inhabit instead their own identities of mind, and where law is what you make it. This libertarian, romantic myth has informed a lot of the national discourse about the Internet — America’s new “freer, vast, electric world,” to borrow a phrase from Walt Whitman.

That “freer, vast, electric world” still holds tremendous promise, in my view. Questioning our direction does not mean losing that promise or ending the Internet experiment. Yet Lanier’s point of tends to get lumped into naysayer’s category. In a tweet today, NYU press watcher Jay Rosen posited that as they age, digital people tend toward the insight that “de-excites.” Some keep going, he wrote, while others “become professional debunkers.” Challenged by Jeff Jarvis, he named Jaron Lanier as one of the latter – but I think that’s a bit off the mark. If you dig into You Are  Not A Gadget, the sense of wonderment at the possibilities of this digital age remains intact. Lanier is more than a professional debunker. And in my view, the very questioning of the impact of crowds and networks on the social commons is welcome.

“Next to the many problems the world faces today, debates about online culture may not seem that pressing,” writes Lanier. “We need to address global warming, shift to a new energy cycle, avoid wars of mass destruction, support aging populations, figure out how to benefit from open markets without being disastrously vulnerable to their failures, and take care of other basic business. But digital culture and related topics like the future of privacy and copyrights concern the society we’ll have if we can survive these challenges.”

I agree. You Are Not A Gadget didn’t change my thinking, but it made me a think a lot more. It’s the book of the year for 2010.

Note: cross-posted at Tom Watson’s personal blog.

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