Forfeiting our Humanity in a Binary World

you are not a gadget

Book Review
You are not a gadget: A manifesto
Jaron Lanier
Alfred A. Knopf. 2010. 209 pages.

Jaron Lanier is afraid that we humans are reducing ourselves to fit into a binary straitjacket.

If we are blogging, twittering, and wikiing a lot, he asks, how does that change who we are?  Or, If my audience is the ‘hive mind,’ then who am I?

Lanier laments the increasing use of fragmentary, impersonal communication (e.g., anonymous blog comments, vapid video pranks, and mashups of popular culture). Such fragmentary communication, he says, demeans interpersonal interaction.  A new generation has come of age with a reduced expectation of what a person can be, and of who each person might become.

He’s far from a Luddite. Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, musician, and visual artist. His name is often associated with research into “virtual reality,” a term he coined. In the late 1980s he led the team that developed the first multiperson virtual world using head-mounted displays, for both local and wide-area networks, and the first “avatars,” or representations of users, within such systems.

Lanier says the central mistake of recent digital culture is to chop up a network of individuals so finely that you end up with a mush. The abstraction of the network becomes more important than the real people who are networked, even though the network by itself is meaningless.

Lanier is amazingly  well read, and yo support his arguments brings in examples from the fields of education, finance, music, artificial intelligence, and linguistics. This manifesto ranges through the nature of free will, consciousness, the music business, and popular culture.

As a software designer and creator of virtual worlds, Lanier sees the root of dehumanization in the very binary character at the core of software itself.  When scaled up, this binary foundation sets up rigid representations of human relationships. The tinny sounds of MIDI musical notes represent only a fragment of the full sounds created by of acoustic musical instruments. Just as much of music’s essence is lost when reduced to MIDI, we humans set aside much of what is interesting about us when we participate in digital online worlds.

Like Andrew Keen (”The Cult of the Amateur”), Lanier laments the amateurish quality he finds in much content produced for blogs and social network sites. But rather than simply bemoaning a lack of professionalism, he sees a loss of humanity. The most important thing to ask about any technology, he says, is how it changes people. For example, we cheapen the word ‘friend’ when we claim we have accumulated hundreds or thousands of ‘friends’ on Facebook.

Millions of consumers use the internet to download endless free copies of music, videos, and other forms of detached human expression. And a few brilliant financiers and speculators used the internet to spin monetary schemes that were too complex to exist in the past. Cloud-based computing allowed  them to create dangerous, temporary illusions of risk-free ways to create money out of thin air. Lanier sees similarities here with consumers’ downloading “free” content. In each case, some people derive short-term benefits, but disaster looms for everyone in the long term. “If we can’t reformulate digital ideals,” he argues, “we will have failed to bring about a better world. Instead we will usher in a dark age in which everything human is devalued.”

The development of connected media technologies brought the promise of new, amazing cultural expression, he says. “Not just movies, but interactive virtual worlds. Not just games, but simulations with moral and aesthetic profundity.” Yet the majority of online communication consists of fans chattering about old-media content: TV shows, major movies, commercial music releases, and video games.” At the same time the web is killing the old media,” he says, “popular culture is effectively eating its own seed stock.”

Lanier says he hopes that his contrarianism will foster an alternative mental environment, where “the exciting opportunity to start creating a new digital humanism can begin.”

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