You Are Not a Gadget

By Jaron Lanier

Two decades into the Internet era (defining the Internet as a truly mass media) it seems fair to say that the bloom is officially off the rose. Is it too soon to begin asking what went wrong? Or is it already too late to fix the situation?

For virtual reality pioneer and technology writer Jaron Lanier the digital revolution started to go downhill way back around the turn of the twenty-first century with the rise of a new online sensibility sometimes referred to as web 2.0. Lanier’s critique of web 2.0 isn’t always coherent (much of the book first appeared as essays written for different publications) or clear (neologisms like “cybernetic totalism” don’t help), but there is more than enough here for anyone who has gone online, which is to say pretty much all of us, to think about.

The essence of Lanier’s argument is that the digital revolution, like most revolutions, began with idealistic dreams of liberty and has ended with the locking in of a new authoritarian and exploitative power structure: the philosophy of cybernetic totalism (which reduces all of reality to analogies drawn from computer systems), the corporate hegemony of the puppetmasters who are lords of the great cloud, and the increasingly monolithic functioning of the hive mind. Technology is in the driver’s seat, and changing us just as McLuhan predicted. Three failures are identified. The first is a spiritual failure, a reduction in our sense of what it means to be a person. The second failure is behavioral, as the anonymity and crowd identity fostered by the internet bring out the worst in human nature, demeaning interpersonal communication and releasing our inner troll.

But the most immediately visible failure thus far has been economic. Here the Internet’s culture of free, or “open culture,” has had the effect of ghettoizing creativity, forcing it into a non-economic slum. As old media continue their painful death spiral, there is no clear way forward for the new. Culture becomes a “retropolis” of second-order expression, or really a cannibalistic necropolis “in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock.” Creativity and imagination is downgraded to worthless “content.” There are a few huge winners (Google, above all) but they belong to a culture of pure advertising, the only product that will maintain its value after the revolution. “At the end of the rainbow of open culture lies an eternal spring of advertisements. Advertising is elevated by open culture from its previous role as an accelerant and placed at the center of the human universe.” And this commercial imperative is not a benign force. “The only hope for social networking sites from a business point of view is for a magical formula to appear in which some method of violating privacy and dignity becomes acceptable.” Given the denigration of the human inherent in web 2.0, we can see this is a process already under way.

The news isn’t all grim. Lanier does think that something of the earlier promise of the Internet can still be saved by rejecting the tenets of cybernetic totalism and reaffirming the importance, nay primacy, of the human element in a new paradigm unfortunately dubbed “realistic computationalism”. Exactly how this is to be achieved, however, is uncertain given the network of forces arrayed against such a development, which is to say the same forces that got us where we are now. While setting a new course is still possible, what incentive is there to change direction? Television, to take only the most recent mass media shift, has always had enormous potential to be a force for good in the world. Instead it is basically an endless barrage of commercial crap that makes us stupid. Why should we think the rules have changed?

Review first published January 23, 2010. For another manifesto with a very different take on the issue of second-order expression, see my review of Reality Hunger. Lanier’s own follow-up to this book was Who Owns the Future?

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