Category Archives: Internet

Book review: You Are Not a Gadget

You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto

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.

What everyone seemed to get wrong about the Bitcoin crash

It was certainly a dramatic story. On 19th June, a matter of weeks after the anonymous crypto-currency Bitcoin began to make waves in the wider world, it experienced a crash that made the 2010 Flash Crash look like a blip. Bitcoin critics, even the normally measured Tyler Cowen, couldn’t resist a bit of self-congratulation. When things seemed to have settled down a few weeks later, the commentators started to ask whether Bitcoin was recovering from the crash.

The thing is, there never was a currency crash. There was a security breach at Mt Gox, one of the largest Bitcoin trading houses, which had dire consequences for their customers. But the journalists who wanted to analyse the impact on the Bitcoin market didn’t get any further than tracking the prices at Mt Gox, the very exchange that had just been cracked, and in the process mistook a bank run for a sovereign default. Limiting their view to this, it looked like the Bitcoin economy was in ruins. Looking beyond the Mt Gox exchange even briefly would have shown the rest of the economy was largely unaffected. Retailers continued retailing, exchanges continued exchanging, and coins that weren’t in your Mt Gox account were as safe as they ever were. If you considered Bitcoin to be a reasonable medium of exchange on the 18th of June, there was no reason to change your mind (though double-checking your encryption and backups wouldn’t be a bad idea).

There seems to be one sensible message to take away from the Mt Gox crash: the cyber-criminals have arrived. If Bitcoin ever was lucky enough to fly below the criminal radar, it certainly no longer is. Optimists will probably say that this moment was inevitable, and may even validate how seriously it’s being taken.

Bitcoin has very real, very interesting economic and usability difficulties that probably mean it will never be a viable currency. Suggesting that the recent security flaws in a single exchange undermine it is just lazy journalism.

Fanboys

Marco Arment has this to say:

fan•boy |ˈfanˌboi|

noun

  1. informal derogatory: a term used to describe people who bought a product that competes with the one you bought, which is probably more popular than your choice, for reasons that you wish to discredit or diminish because you’re secretly afraid or upset that you made the wrong choice.

ORIGIN from fan + boy.

Several things irritate me about this. For a start, the pretence that it is about anything other than Apple fanboyism. Does this definition apply to the Kirk vs. Picard debate? If my buddy says that GNU Hurd is better than Linux, and I say he’s a fanboy, is that because I’m secretly worried that Hurd might be a better OS kernel? Of course not, this is about Marco defending himself and others like him against their critics. Strip away the aura of objectivity and it’s just an ad hominem. Admittedly one aimed at defending against another ad hominem, but two wrongs don’t make a right.

Like it or not, fans exist. A lot of them are boys. Conflating the two into a convenient label might be lazy, but it seems prima facie to be a valid term.

But I think there’s a deeper meaning to the charge of fanboyism, and one that would leave us all slightly poorer if we were to attempt to excise the concept from our consciousness. The fact is, we’re very bad at basing our conclusions on the evidence. Much worse than we think we are. If you think you don’t have biases in your reasoning based on particular companies, ideas or causes you have a soft spot for then you’re probably deluding yourself. One particular facet of this is confirmation bias: the tendency to give more weight to evidence that supports the conclusions you already believe. It seems to me that this is pretty close to what we mean when we dismiss someone as a fanboy.

Accusing someone of fanboyism may be lazy, and it may be overused. But there’s a difference between the fallacy of ad hominem argument and a rational accusation that someone is suffering from confirmation bias. If Marco’s suggesting that the distinction doesn’t matter then he’s dead wrong.