I’m aware that book reviews tend to season with both praise and criticism in the interests of flavour and contrast, but I’ve decided to tip the scales on this occasion. The multi-dimensional genius of Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and philosopher who coined the term ‘virtual reality’, demands a salute out of sheer respect. I’m a humble technology layman, so I’m inevitably awestruck. I’m going to write a review that’s so greasy with sycophancy that the pixels in your screen will start to bleed into each other until all you can see is an oily roadside puddle rainbow.
You Are Not A Gadget is a rebuke of the assumed godliness of all new technology; it’s a call to arms for us to reassess the way we use technology and reflect on how it can benefit and enable us, rather than making us more forgetful, less sociable, and less compassionate. Lanier’s explanations of the childishness of the internet and the limitations of software really knocked me off my perch, but his solutions helped me climb back on again. Below are two teaser trailers for some blockbuster arguments in his book.
Internet! Get on that naughty step
Lanier twists my perception of the internet into blinding clarity when he says that digital culture is drowning in a puddle of juvenilia. Even though this book was written in 2008, its relevancy is just as vivid now as it was then. We’re still a community of grown adults watching cats moonwalk, playing candy puzzle games and bullying each other in the YouTube comments section of the playground. He’s not saying that being childish is de facto a bad thing; just that, as with all children, you need to nudge them in the right direction with a bribe of a Kinder Egg every now and then. He says kids can also be infinitely imaginative, sweet, playful and optimistic, as well as little s*!ts.
Hands up, I used to duel in YouTube comment wars, writing words so fizzily acidic that I could taste it in my nose. Haven’t we all mate, what are we like, hey? Just a bit of bloody banter, right? Except the dirty raincoat of anonymity the internet gives us seems to override the social contract of civility, with some frankly very serious consequences, such as victims committing suicide. If you see the internet as a tool, we have to encourage people to use it in the right way. There are flaws within all of us that lead to spiky YouTube comments, but we have to use and design websites that encourage us to be good boys and girls.
Lanier reckons that if we alter the delicate balance between absolute anonymity on the one hand, and full frontal identity exposure and privacy violations like Facebook on the other, we might regrow civility online. The internet isn’t a person; it’s a tool used by millions of other people. I reckon if we could try to recreate each social context with as much authenticity to real life, we should be alright on the night. If the real-life equivalent to the YouTube comments section was standing in a room full of strangers watching a video and voicing your opinion, then they may not know your name, but you still wouldn’t tell someone to go f&@! themselves in the p$%&@ and then k!#@£ their h&^£$@ up their neighbour’s b&*£$@ (or at least not that often). If we redesign the internet in this way, we might start to see the other people online as real human beings with feelings and families and bills and shoes, and then we can all hold hands and sing on a hillside in harmony for a Coke advert or whatever.
Shackled in the chains of software limitations
Software is essentially the building in which we live in online. If Facebook only had two rooms to choose from, either ‘In a relationship’ or ‘Single’, you might have to reduce your own nuanced situation in order to slot into a room. Lanier explains the history of MIDI software to illustrate this. MIDI was created by Dave Smith in the early 80s as a way to represent musical notes from a keyboard. Because it was designed for keyboards, it couldn’t describe curvy notes or complex textures created by a saxophone or a singer, he says. MIDI became popular and soon became the standard way to describe music in software. As years of programs get built on top of MIDI and synthesisers are designed to work with it, MIDI becomes locked in to a game of software jenga. No one can edit and reform the original MIDI software, because the whole music world would have to be redesigned. Tough luck, huh. So what’s happened with MIDI is happening with all software: as the complex subtlety of music is reduced to a flat MIDI note, so the complex subtlety of reality reduced in software like Facebook, Instagram and Vine.
I felt a frisson of excitement and wonder when Lanier validated my suspicion that there was more to life than what software describes: there’s a mystery to reality that can’t be captured by software, just as there’s a mystery to aspects of consciousness that eludes science. I knew it! I knew there was more to people than the statistical average collection of likes on their statuses! (Please don’t stop liking mine; I need the approval).
Keepin’ it real
Armed with this new perspective on software from Lanier, I feel reassured that human beings are more than the sum of their tweets. We just need to tweak our online environments, change the furniture around, maybe even buy a rug. Lanier addressed an unnamed fog of distaste I had around YouTube comments, Twitter shaming and fruitless Facebook refreshing, and also managed to clear that fog by the end of the book by drawing attention to reality. And we all lived happily ever after, the end.
Buy it right here, won’t you?