Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget” is a rare book, and not merely for it’s comfort in declaring itself - right on the cover – a proper manifesto. Authored by a credentialed specialist with extensive qualifications (primarily computer science, having coined the term “virtual reality” and having worked on such systems ever since), it simultaneously provides insight into his work on the bleeding edge of new technologies (check the sections on “morphing” and body awareness for appetite-whetting glimpses of future tech), while also making profound and novel arguments. First, let’s briefly review what he’s about in the writing of this book.
I. Core arguments
To me, Lanier’s most fundamental point echoes that made by Gregory Bateson (and others) about the framing consequences of epistemology (“the difference that makes a difference,” in Bateson’s phrasing). Specifically, when dealing with computational systems – “technology,” in the broadest sense – we have a terrific tendency to become “locked-in” to design assumptions that were made early in the development of the underlying tech. Some of these design decisions may prove prescient, others prove terribly wrongheaded with the benefit of hindsight; Lanier provides numerous examples of both.
In parallel, Lanier expands on Marshall McLuhan’s work on media structures (albeit without directly citing McLuhan’s work), and on the role of structure in shaping “content.” This leads him to agree that the trend towards structure subsuming “content” as the primary container within which meaningful information is conveyed in electronic communications is all but unstoppable. The medium really is the message, and we’d best not forget that or risk losing the forest for the trees, conceptually speaking.
From those foundations, Lanier proceeds to place a harsh spotlight on the all-too-human tendency to mistake definitionally inanimate things (or collectives) that appear to behave like “people” for actual people, thus confusing the “hive mind” (a popular term in so-called cybertotalistic views of the Internet) with an actual person – in the same way we confuse other abstract collectives with social, reciprocal entities. This is perhaps his most heartfelt argument, and occupies much of Lanier’s expository bandwidth. His efforts to push us towards keeping humans firmly at the center of the human/machine interchange make perfect sense from the standpoint of basic design decisions; after all, since “we” (humans) design “them” (computers) solely to do our whims and heed our bidding, any part of the design that fails to do so – be it ontological error or poor interface – is a kind of systemic failure.
Lanier speaks compellingly on this subject and yet in doing so, his critique of “antihuman computing” also helps to point a spotlight on the fundamentally solipsistic way in which we generally assume our technologies must develop. To wit: they must work FOR us, based solely on our uniquely “human” needs, and their sole worth lies in their capacity to mirror our primate needs, wants, desires, and appetites. They are the ultimate slaves, according to this “human” view of computing – a view at once understandable and, at another level, deeply unsettling.
Slavery, after all, warps not only the slaves caught in its grinding mechanism, but also strips the slaver of his capacity for empathy, compassion, reciprocity and social responsibility. If we’re building computers into ur-slaves, what will that do to us? This is one of the few obvious paths of logical inquiry that Lanier either avoids, or misses outright, during the course of “You Are Not A Gadget.” (p. 26)
II. Extraordinary Milestones of Insight
Combined with the meta-level (though Lanier cringes from the term “meta” itself) points made earlier, Lanier comes to what I can only describe as several extraordinary milestones of insight deriving from his wide-ranging expertise. Let me provide some examples.
Amongst the central arguments of the book is an exceptional – indeed, unprecedented – reinterpretation of the Turing test, which Lanier pointedly refers to as “Turing’s mistake” (p. 33). In his own words, he concludes that:
“It is impossible for us to know what role the torture Turing was enduring at the time played in his formulation of the [Turing] test. But it is undeniable that one of the key figures in the defeat of fascism was destroyed, by our side, after the war, because he was gay. No wonder his imagination pondered the rights of strange creatures.” (pp. 30-31)
At the least, here we have a plain language statement of the wrong done to Turing, and of the terrible irony of a hero in the war to defend “freedom” being targeted by bigots who were unable to accept his sexual orientation – driven to suicide by biting the infamous cyanide-laced apple (which, incidentally, is said to have served as the inspiration for the “bitten apple” logo of Apple Computer, Inc.).
Further, we find in this work cutting – and utterly apt – critiques of the fundamental vacuity of structure that’s been reified by both Facebook and Wikipedia, in their own unique ways. Years before Facebook was being slathered with massive private market valuations and hailed as “the future of the Internet,” Lanier both highlighted what’s tempting about Facebook’s structure, and what fatal misconception underlies the model itself. He points out that:
“In the new order… the crowd works for free, and statistical algorithms supposedly take the risk out of making bets if you are a lord of the cloud. Without risk, there is no need for skill. But who is that lord who owns the cloud that connects the crowd? Not just anybody. A lucky few (for luck is all that can possibly be involved) will own it. Entitlement has achieved its singularity and become infinite… [t]his is the grand unified scam of the new ideology.” (pp. 98-99)
“The only hope for social networking sites from a business point of view is for a magic formula to appear in which some method of violating privacy and dignity becomes acceptable. The Beacon episode proved that this cannot happen too quickly, so the question now is whether the empire of Facebook users can be lulled into accepting it gradually.” (p. 55)
From the perspective of early 2011, we can say that Facebook has indeed “lulled” its participants into accepting this form of continual privacy violation in service to advertising revenues, at least for now. Time will tell whether the hypnotism holds.
Once more, he stakes an novel claim – this time, in computational neuroscience:
“Olfaction, like language, is built up from entries in a catalog, not from infinitely morphable patterns. Moreover, the grammar of language is primarily a way of fitting those dictionary words into a larger context. Perhaps the grammar of language is rooted in the grammar of smell. Perhaps the way we use words reflects the deep structure of the way our brain processes chemical information.” (p. 165)
Perhaps we’d all be wise to seriously re-evaluate widespread assumptions that our canine partners – and wild canids – are bereft of the capacity for “language.” Given their massive advantage over smell-constrained humans, might not their concept of “language” be at once deeper and more subtle?
Then again, perhaps humans have re-purposed our old olfactory system (the “Old Factory,” in Bower’s writings) into linguistic centers, essentially giving up our ability to smell well in exchange for the advantages of symbolic, grammatical language. Such an hypothesis jibes well with recent theoretical and empirical research demonstrating the deep co-evolutionary relationship between smell-poor humans and smell-brilliant canines over essentially the entire 200,000-year span of the human species’s existence. It’s just these types of second-order hypotheses that Lanier’s work freely and repeatedly catalyzes.
III. Deep Structural Consequences
Though he doesn’t directly cite Andrey Kolmogorov’s algorithmic information theory, Lanier nevertheless has important things to say about the challenge that computational models of “information” make to our ideas of control, causation, creativity, and information. This is perhaps the center of the work theoretically, and rather than attempting a summation, I’ll cite Lanier himself:
“Of course, there is a technical use of the term ‘information’ that refers to something entirely real. This is the kind of information that’s related to entropy. But that fundamental kind of information, which exists independently of the culture of an observer, is not the same as the kind we can put in computers, the kind that supposedly wants to be free. Information is alienated experience.” (p. 28)
Expanding from that foundation, and now speaking to the intrinsic trade-offs in constructing ever-more-layered models of global financial interchange, Lanier cuts to the core of the issue with the credibility of a working computer scientist, when he points out that:
“Each layer of digital abstraction, no matter how well it is crafted, contributes some degree of error and obfuscation. No abstraction corresponds to reality perfectly. A lot of such layers become a system unto themselves, one that functions apart from the reality that is obscured far below. Making money in the cloud doesn’t necessarily bring rain to the ground.” (p. 97)
Finally, and perhaps most controversially, Lanier broadly dismisses the fervent hopes of the Singularitarians with reference to a basic tenet of software development: quantity does NOT equal quality, and in fact the two are often inversely correlated. I find his position compelling; other readers must make judgment themselves as to his argument’s power.
IV. Some Conceptual Shortcomings
As with any work, this book isn’t perfect. Whilst reviewing Lanier’s critique of Internet culture memes that deprecate the importance of paying for “content” – a subject which consumes the middle of the book – Lanier comes across as rather tone-deaf to the depth of the extant economics literature. In particular, one can’t help but call to mind Clayton Christenson’s empirical data on the general question of transformative revolutions in technology-driven industries, as detailed in “The Innovator’s Dilemma.”
And, while I can see Lanier’s concern that middle-tier professional musicians might not be able to make a nice, middle-class living in this new age of disintermediated, digital, low-friction “content” distribution, perhaps I can be forgiven for not having my heart strings tugged too strongly by the sad plight of the session musician. Is there any fundamental tenet of social equity that says mediocre musicians should be able to “make a living” through their music when, as Lanier himself freely admits, countless folks will gladly provide more or less competent musical talent in the middle tier for no financial compensation whatsoever? The reasons that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), in particular, horrifically fumbled the transition to new modes of digital distribution aren’t to be found in the machinations of “digital Marxists,” as Lanier alleges; rather, they lie in the short-sighted, strategically idiotic decisions made by industry leaders in the last ten years.
Too, Lanier does fall for a mild form of the solipsistic fallacy, painting humans as uniquely positioned at the centre of the sentient moral universe. To wit, he claims that:
“Computers and chess share a common ancestry. Both originated as tools of war. Chess began as a battle simulation, a mental martial art. The design of chess reverberates even further into the past than that – all the way back to our sad animal ancestry of pecking orders and competing clans.” (p. 33)
Alas, that “sad animal ancestry” that Lanier bemoans is all too human. For war is a uniquely human pursuit (or, at the least, uniquely primate), and the so-called “pecking order” has long since been debunked across a wide range of nonhuman species. It turns out that humans – a highly hierarchical primate species – managed to “discover” hierarchies throughout the animal world, though nearly always because we created artificial conditions that encourage hierarchical conflict (i.e. confinement with socially disconnected peers) in experiments on a host of sentient species.
Indeed, even domesticated chickens only demonstrate a “pecking order” when they are housed in confined, inadequate living arrangements. The “pecking order” is an outcome primarily of experimental design, and of course is also a blurred reflection of our own deeply-rooted assumption that hierarchy is the sole way to be social.
V. Moments of Joy
Throughout the work, Lanier rewards his readers not only with satisfying structural insights but also with turns of phrase that can’t help but create small moments of joy upon being discovered. This exceptional phrasing of his arguments, used in summarising subtle but essential logical conclusions, is most obvious in the section titles chosen.
For example, “computationally enhanced corruption” and “the cloudy edge between self-delusion and corruption” are two phrases that stand out (found on pp. 96-97) in the midst of a discussion of the more ephemeral components of modern financial macroengineering. But there are many others of similar beauty salted throughout the book. They make the book sing – a statement all the more unexpected when applied to a work authored by a computer scientist (albeit one who also maintains a secondary career as a professional musician).
Another fine example is the section entitled “What Makes Something Real Is That It Is Impossible To Represent It To Completion” (p. 133). This is not only a beautifully written and admirably succinct phrase, it’s also a profoundly correct. Like the old Clausewitzian aphorism that “the map is not the terrain,” it says something about models and reality that’s utterly essential for any sort of clear-eyed thinking to be possible on the subject. Kolmogorov would, one imagines, approve.
Finally, there’s orthogonal – and insightful – connections made by Lanier such as this:
“One way to deprogram academics who buy into the pervasive ideology of violation is to point out that security through obscurity has another name in the world of biology: biodiversity.” (p. 67)
These sorts of far-flung connections are exactly the reward that’s always promised when a researcher successfully broaches disciplinary boundaries, and here they’re scattered liberally throughout the book. Lanier’s confident use of data from a broad variety of subject areas, not merely as a dilettante, but rather as a well-read participant in the respective fields themselves, pays deep dividends for his readers. That – coupled with the aforementioned joyful phrasing – provides a second, parallel level of reward throughout “You Are Not A Gadget.” One can fairly say that the “medium” of the book, its enveloping language, is nearly as rewarding as the structural/theoretical “message” it conveys.
Overall, Lanier’s long-gestated book is extraordinary, notably in its trenchant critique of the human inclination towards confusing the behavior of a collective of humans with evidence of a “distributed person;” in its deadly accurate skewering of the vacuity underlying so much of the cult of worship that’s developed around Wikipedia and Facebook; in its excellent framework for approaching economic systems as, fundamentally, designed systems rather than quasi-entities which, sui generis, have manifested themselves out of the ether; in its utterly pared-down distillation of postmodernist findings that “meaning” has no meaning absent context (Jacques Derrida’s aphorism that “il n’y a pas de hors-texte,” writ large) – and even in smaller areas, such as its brilliant, and perhaps seminal, re-assessment of the (in)famous Turing test.
Along the way, he goes beyond any sense of polemical narrative (despite his many firmly held opinions, often firmly in the minority of conventional thought) and opens up his own cognitive underpinnings to the same level of clever insight that he brings to the putative subjects of his study. As an example, here he critiques his own tendency to pick and choose between various conceptual models, as he works through a range of areas of thought:
“Perhaps it would be better if I could find one single philosophy that I could apply equally to each circumstance, but I find that the best path is to believe different things about aspects of reality when I play these different roles or perform different duties.” (p. 154)
This is entirely in line with his remonstration that we must always remember that tools are tools, not suitable for elevation to Godhood. If tools are tools – measured primarily in terms of how well they enable us to get on about our human concerns – then cognitive/philosophical tools must also be held to the same standard and, inevitably, one may well find that different tools are idea for difference circumstances. It’s not a bug, he argues, but rather a feature. He is (philosophically) many; no hobgoblin of enforced ontological consistency for Mr. Lanier. This is a refreshingly honest and insightful way out of the confines of rigid formalisms.
On a parallel track, his explorations of our relationship with computational systems (for that is what he’s most fundamentally addressing: how do we, as primates, choose to interact with these silicon-based systems which, though we’ve designed them ourselves, are coming more and more to “trick” us into thinking of them as self-complete entities, social partners, perhaps) bear careful consideration. When he discusses the three “flavors” of computational frameworks, he shares information-dense nuggets of wisdom such as this:
“As for the third flavor – the pop version of the Turing test – my complaint ought to be clear by now. People can make themselves believe in all sorts of fictitious beings, but when those beings are perceived as inhabiting the software tools through which we live our lives, we have to change ourselves in unfortunate ways in order to support our fantasies. We make ourselves dull.” (pp. 156-157)
They are interspersed with compressed pearls of wisdom along these lines (which I immediately shared via Twitter upon first read):
” The cybernetic structure of a person has been refined by a very large, very long, and very deep encounter with physical reality.” (p. 157)
Indeed, we even get some tantalizing clues into the subjective world that Lanier himself calls home. I suspect I’m not the only fan of his work who, over the years, has found him to be something of a fascinating cypher; as much as his writing is almost universally clear-eyed and crisp, I cannot really get my fingers under the corner of his own mindspace and imagine what the world really looks like through his eyes, so snippets of data like this are all the more pleasing to find:
“…I was hooked on cephalopods [octopi, cuttlefish, etc.]. My friends have had to adjust to my obsession; they’ve grown accustomed to my effusive rants about these creatures. As far as I’m concerned, cephalopods are the strangest smart creatures on Earth. They offer the best standing example of how truly different intelligent extraterrestrials (if they exist) might be from us, and they taunt us with clues about potential futures for our own species… [i]f cephalopods had childhood, surely they would be running the Earth. This can be expressed in an equation, the only one I’ll present in this book: Cephalopods + Childhood = Humans + Virtual Reality” (pp. 188-189)
For anyone curious about Lanier himself, not to mention engaged with the deep questions surrounding our pittance of understanding of what “non-human sentience” really means, these morsels are deeply nourishing. While I’m not surprised to find that, like Rudy Rucker, he’s got a soft spot for cuttlefish, I’m astonished at the levels of simultaneous insight that he’s expressing in how he brings to bear morphing octopi, virtual reality, non-Earth intelligences and neoteny. This is an inspiring mind against which we have the privilege of rubbing, and it’s truly a pleasure to do so in a reading of this book.
Sadly, my review does poor justice to a proper read of “You Are Not a Gadget.” Indeed, it’s tautological if one is swayed by Lanier’s fundamental position (as I am, and perhaps was before reading it, though I hadn’t yet articulated it even to myself), that a distillation of the work in the form of this review is structurally incapable of capturing the full spectrum of insight to be gained from a genuine interaction with the work itself. In this, as in much else, he’s quite right: no “gloss” or summary of the book will substitute for the experience of reading the book. Cliff Notes are not an option.
Thus, this review has been written more to serve as a teaser rather than presenting itself as a summation of Lanier’s work. There are books – quite a few, perhaps even most – which can be summarized quite well by a conscientious reviewer. Why read the book if the review hits all the proverbial “high points”? This is not such a book. Rather, Lanier’s maiden book-length manifesto is concise, subtle, powerful and profound. I give it the proverbial “two paws up,” and look forward both to the work which this book will surely inspire amongst researchers across a variety of fields (myself included), and – in the future – additional book-length reports from Lanier’s world.
For, it is a fascinating world indeed – a Platonic case study in the sorts of things that the “hive mind” could never do. Books like this are the result of inspired, individual genius (and not merely collective mash-ups) applied conscientiously and consistently across many years. This doesn’t come easy, and should not to be treated with anything but the most genuine respect.
Douglas Bryan LeConte-Spink is a co-founder of Baneki Privacy Computing — a no-compromise provider of world-class network security and privacy services. He carries an MBA from the University of Chicago, a B.A. in cultural anthropology from Reed College, and has studied complex systems theory at the doctoral level. He is a longtime activist in the field of inter-species sociocultural symbiosis, a fixed-object jumper who has opened many new exitpoints worldwide (BASE 715), a practising Zen Buddhist, a successful mentor to several International-level showjumping stallions, a longtime technology entrepreneur, a former operational member of a US/Canadian helicopter smuggling crew, an organizer of underground electronic music gatherings in the Pacific Northwest, and served proudly as a front-line activist for Earth First! during the Old Growth wars of the early 1990s. Currently, he pursues his academic interests as an independent researcher, having published extensively in numerous fields. He is the founder of the Deep Symbiosis Institute (information available soon at deepsymbiosis.org), Exitpoint Stallions Limited, and is a founding member of the Deep Justice Network. He can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Currently, Mr. LeConte-Spink is, in his own words: “a political prisoner within the U.S. prison system; as a result of my longtime academic interest in reciprocal models of human/non-human emotional bonding, social connectivity, and inter-species cooperation – as well as my longstanding work in the areas of free-speech, anti-censorship, and customer-friendly privacy/encryption technologies – I have been targeted by ideologues within the federal criminal justice system. I was sentenced in 2010 to 3 years’ imprisonment… despite being neither charged with – nor convicted of – any alleged crime, in order to ‘teach me a lesson about respecting authority.’ Appeals are fully in-process.” Further information on Mr. LeConte-Spink’s campaign against bigotry is available at cultureghost.org.