Technologists who wish to talk about the big picture can sometimes find themselves in a difficult situation: In order to be taken seriously, they have to express a bold vision of the future. But predictions aren’t made in a vacuum, and the opinions of the twittering classes have gathered enough momentum that it’s dangerous to be seen contradicting them. Criticisms of the social web are terribly vulnerable to the rejoinder that the critic just doesn’t get it.
None of this seems to bother Jaron Lanier, whose 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget is a timely and much-needed analysis of the downsides to the Web 2.0 movement. Lanier, though he has form as a technological pioneer of Virtual Reality, is vulnerable to the claim that he is a hippie throwback who belongs in an earlier age. His dreadlocked appearance, humanistic philosophy and love of obscure musical instruments may seem a poor fit for the brave new world of Facebook and Google, but I believe we ignore his insights at our peril.
The book covers a lot of angles, but the overarching theme is a reaction against cybernetic totalism, the view that computer software can and should become at least as important to the world as humans, at its most extreme reducing us to components that serve a hive mind. The most approachable manifestation of this in today’s world is the way that user-generated content (in the form of blog posts, tweets, images, videos, Wikipedia edits and the like) is stripped of context and personal relevance and digested into a stream of data to be fed through algorithms, ultimately making billions for the “lords of the cloud” with zero return to the humans who produced the content in the first place. Genuine creativity is stifled in favour of endless regurgitation and mash-ups.
There’s a more fundamental point behind his argument, and one that’s more tightly bound to the nature of technology: People have forgotten, or never properly understood in the first place, that this is not the only way technology can be. As a technology evolves, choices are made that are hard to reverse, leading to a sense of inevitability where there oughtn’t to be. People have come to believe that computers are the social web, and that the social web is Facebook, or at least something not too dissimilar. This adds a note of pathos to the argument: it’s one thing to desire the hive mind as your future, quite another to believe that it’s inescapable.
To my mind, closer analysis of the argument about technological lock-in threatens to unseat Lanier’s claim that cybernetic totalism is the cause behind the problems he discusses. Where he sees a Silicon Valley elite who are prepared to sacrifice human values to speed the inevitable singularity, I see merely an unplanned marketplace that has hit upon local maxima in the field of methods to extract money from the web. It seems to me that the problems are economic, not political.
Even if cybernetic totalism is something of a straw man, the book overall remains a cogent critique, raising thought-provoking issues that are rarely seen elsewhere. This is definitely not to be missed.