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Book Review: You are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier

The ascendant tribe is composed of the folks from the open culture/Creative Commons world, the Linux community, folks associated with the artificial intelligence approach to computer science, the web 2.0 people, the anticontext file sharers and remashers and a variety of others. Their capital is Silicon Valley...their favorite blogs include Boing Boing, TechCrunch, and Slashdot, and their embassy in the old country is Wired.

The hive mindThus Jaron Lanier describes the "cybernetic totalists" or "digital maoists" whose rising influence Lanier fears is leading us down a path of online culture where appreciation for humanity is displaced by blind trust in technology. In You are Not a Gadget Lanier laments recent trends in the online world - belief in the wisdom of crowds, reliance on algorithms for recommendations rather than people,  mashups and other piecemeal appropriation of others' content, templated web 2.0 designs - and argues that this failure to appreciate individual expression in the web world may have grave consequences for creativity and culture.

Lanier presents a variety of compelling examples of the web 2.0 platforms that online users now rely upon as well as basic structural elements designed decades ago that help drive to the characteristics that he fears most: fragmentation, anonymity, abstraction, plagiarism, and uniformity. He is most skeptical of many technologists' excitement over tapping into collective wisdom or consciousness: "Emphasizing the crowd means de-emphasizing the individual humans in the design of society, and when you ask people not to be people, they revert to bad mob-like behaviors."

He also strikes hard against the claim that "information wants to be free," focusing on Google's project to digitize the world's books. He fears that if the user interface of this project in the cloud encourages cutting-and-pasting and mashing up, then the result will be like the Bible: an anonymous single book. Such a scenario seems overly hysterical, but I am glad to see a strong stand for the value of content and the people who produce it. I agree wholeheartedly that information does not deserve to be free. But in arguing for a humanistic approach to technology, Lanier laments that "authorship - the very idea of the individual point of view - is not a priority of the new technology." This is hard to defend - the concept of shaping your online identity - one that is not psyeudonymed - and contributing via it online has never been stronger. People use their full names as their Twitter handles, they use their real names as they blog, they create Facebook profiles that connect them publicly with other real people. The movement to me seems to be in the opposite direction than Lanier describes - towards honesty and transparency rather than away from it. Sure, anonymous trolling still exists, but in mainstream online culture, that behavior is nearly universally rejected.

I was surprised that Lanier omitted crowdsourcing from his list of complaints. Given his concern for the "artistic middle class" that he views as assaulted by a file-sharing and mashup culture, I would suspect that he would be sympathetic to the arguments of the NoSpec! movement that lobby for online designers. These anti-crowdsourcers hold that the work of designers is constantly devalued by sites like 99designs that use contest formats rather than an interactive format between client and designer. Such interactions produce two outcomes that Lanier loathes: 1) stale and predictable web 2.0-ish logos and websites, and 2) only a small chance of compensation for the artists who produce them.

The book is a manifesto for humanistic creativity and quality online. He is right that much of the content on the web is repackaged, mashedup junk and he makes some suggestions about how people who contribute to the content of the web can improve it: designing a website that says something about who you are that isn't templated, creating an online video that took 100x longer to make than to watch, and writing a blog post on something you've been thinking about for weeks.

But the point that struck me the hardest and that I have been thinking about since I finished the book two weeks ago was around the web's influence on music. This challenge of Lanier's has inspired me to undertake conversations with every fellow music-lover I know:

Popular music created in the industrialized world in the decade from the late 1990s to the late 2000s doesn't have a distinct style - that is, one that would provide an identity for the young people who grew up with it. The process of the reinvention of life through music appears to have stopped.

Lanier himself is a musician and makes this accusation soberly. As evidence, he points to his own "experiment" to play varied songs to members of the "Facebook generation" and ask them to identify the decade that it was created. His observation is that people can do very well for the decades 1940s-1980s (clearly gansta rap didn't exist in the '50s and Depeche Mode is a definitively '80s sound), but that even true fans have a hard time telling if an indie rock or dance track is from the 1990s or 2000s.

In response, I began furiously attempting to brainstorm examples to prove him wrong.  I have failed.  Even the bands who I admired in the 2000s for their fresh sound - Arcade Fire and The National for instance - could plausibly be bands that emerged in the 1990s. But later conversations challenged me to view the absence of a single distinct musical style to be an asset rather than a weakness. Online music has opened up access to entirely new worlds of music to its listeners and if that diversity leads to an inability to clearly identify an artist's sound as "characteristic of the late 2000s" then so be it. I blame my terrible taste in music in the 1990s partially on the limits of the taste of my immediate networks and partially on the limits of traditional curators of content at the time. For their weaknesses (which I wrote about recently), Pandora and last.fm still serve as an amazing discovery engine. I am into more diverse types of music than ever before - I am better for it and so are the artists whose music I purchase daily. Yes, I agree that the mashups he critiques are a total bore, but I think that trend has passed. Musicians are drawing upon a variety influences just as they always have but that doesn't make them "retro".

Though I don't agree with some of his conclusions and I could do without some of the grand philosophizing asides of You are Not a Gadget, Lanier's challenges regarding current online culture are provocative and important. There are real weaknesses of online culture worth confronting (especially when we see them penetrating beyond the web as covered in today's NYT article on plagiarism as the new mashup-like "technique" in fiction writing). But what I see now in the rising online communities are people interacting as individuals and striving to engage thoughtfully in content and these trends promise a brighter online future.

Flickr credit: glennharper

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Reader Comments (1)

When I heard the premise of this book, I wanted to read it. I think this post convinced me not to.

A quote out there goes something like "Technology is all the stuff that doesn't quite work yet." Technology, almost by definition, has not yet recognized the difference between its natural and awkward uses. The wisdom of crowds, UGC, and other trends have been over-extended, for sure, but they're only a few years old. They'll find their rightful place soon enough.

One very real, here-to-stay consequence of the internet, however, is the hyper-awareness it affords everyone of everything. Just as languages have been dying and new ones no longer formed because the boat and then plane have flattened the world, napster and now youtube are eroding the possibility of up and coming teenage bands incubating in a local music subculture, or creating a distinct blend of the only one or two older genres they're exposed to.

But, we see more rapid evolution and proliferation of new words as people from various places and backgrounds all shape English to meet their own cultural and practical needs, and I think we see the analagous in the "English" of music, the rock/pop supergenre I hear everywhere. While the general sound has become universal, the sheer number of active rock/pop bands has led to a rapidly changing music and fragmented music scene within the supergenre. In some ways, this yearly change makes the evolution more gradual and harder to perceive. We are no longer in a world dominated by mega bands and pop-stars who pass the baton from one to the other: the Beatles to the Rolling Stones, then to Led Zepplin, then Michael Jackson, U2 and Madonna. Gen Y does not have any "defining" bands because the music landscape has become too dynamic and scattered.

I think if we single-mindedly focused on Arcade Fire or The National we'd create the sense of a new genre around them. A genre is not a thing in itself, it is just as much shaped by perception and context as it is "objectively" perceived Now that we no longer have to sit around the same radio or TV, we no longer create megabands and defining genres. We don't lift up one form of music innovation, by one/a handful of bands and proclaim "this is it, this is the new thing".

That's not a blight on today's music. I think there's a lot of new sound, its just dispersed. I can't imagine hearing Arcade Fire much earlier than when they came out. Sure, maybe the late 90s, but not 1990 or earlier.

March 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTim
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