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You Are Not a Gadget

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Jaron Lanier, a Silicon Valley visionary since the 1980s, was among the first to predict the revolutionary changes the World Wide Web would bring to commerce and culture. Now, in his first book, written more than two decades after the web was created, Lanier offers this provocative and cautionary look at the way it is transforming our lives for better and for worse.

The current design and function of the web have become so familiar that it is easy to forget that they grew out of programming decisions made decades ago. The web’s first designers made crucial choices (such as making one’s presence anonymous) that have had enormous—and often unintended—consequences. What’s more, these designs quickly became “locked in,” a permanent part of the web’s very structure.

Lanier discusses the technical and cultural problems that can grow out of poorly considered digital design and warns that our financial markets and sites like Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter are elevating the “wisdom” of mobs and computer algorithms over the intelligence and judgment of individuals.

Lanier also shows:
How 1960s antigovernment paranoia influenced the design of the online world and enabled trolling and trivialization in online discourse
How file sharing is killing the artistic middle class;
How a belief in a technological “rapture” motivates some of the most influential technologists
Why a new humanistic technology is necessary.

Controversial and fascinating, You Are Not a Gadget is a deeply felt defense of the individual from an author uniquely qualified to comment on the way technology interacts with our culture.

221 pages, Hardcover

First published January 12, 2010

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About the author

Jaron Lanier

17 books1,298 followers
Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, composer, visual artist, and author.
In the sciences:

Jaron Lanier scientific interests include biomimetic information architectures, user interfaces, heterogeneous scientific simulations, advanced information systems for medicine, and computational approaches to the fundamentals of physics. He collaborates with a wide range of scientists in fields related to these interests.

Lanier's name is also often associated with Virtual Reality research. He either coined or popularized the term 'Virtual Reality' and in the early 1980s founded VPL Research, the first company to sell VR products. In the late 1980s he led the team that developed the first implementations of multi-person virtual worlds using head mounted displays, for both local and wide area networks, as well as the first "avatars", or representations of users within such systems. While at VPL, he and his colleagues developed the first implementations of virtual reality applications in surgical simulation, vehicle interior prototyping, virtual sets for television production, and assorted other areas. He led the team that developed the first widely used software platform architecture for immersive virtual reality applications. Sun Microsystems acquired VPL's seminal portfolio of patents related to Virtual Reality and networked 3D graphics in 1999.

From 1997 to 2001, Lanier was the Chief Scientist of Advanced Network and Services, which contained the Engineering Office of Internet2, and served as the Lead Scientist of the National Tele-immersion Initiative, a coalition of research universities studying advanced applications for Internet2. The Initiative demonstrated the first prototypes of tele-immersion in 2000 after a three-year development period. From 2001 to 2004 he was Visiting Scientist at Silicon Graphics Inc., where he developed solutions to core problems in telepresence and tele-immersion. He was Scholar at Large for Microsoft from 2006 to 2009, and Partner Architect at Microsoft Research from 2009 forward.

Lanier has received honorary doctorates from the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Franklin and Marshall College, was the recipient of CMU's Watson award in 2001, was a finalist for the first Edge of Computation Award in 2005, and received a Lifetime Career Award from the IEEE in 2009 for contributions to Virtual Reality.


Lanier is a well-known author and speaker. Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2010. His book "You Are Not a Gadget" was released in 2010 and was named one of the 10 best books of the year by Michiko Kakutani in the NY Times. He writes and speaks on numerous topics, including high-technology business, the social impact of technological practices, the philosophy of consciousness and information, Internet politics, and the future of humanism. His lecture client list has included most of the well-known high technology firms as well as many others in the energy, automotive, and financial services industries. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Discover (where he has been a columnist), The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Harpers Magazine, The Sciences, Wired Magazine (where he was a founding contributing editor), and Scientific American. He has edited special "future" issues of SPIN and Civilization magazines. He is one of the 100 remarkable people of the Global Business Network. In 2005 Lanier was selected as one of the top one hundred public intellectuals in the world by readers of Prospect and Foreign Policy magazines.


As a musician, Lanier has been active in the world of new "classical" music since the late seventies. He is a pianist and a specialist in unusual musical instruments, especially the wind and string instruments of Asia. He maintains one of the largest and most varied collections of actively played rare instruments in the world.

Lanier's "Symphony for Amelia," premiered in Octo

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Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,311 reviews120k followers
November 26, 2020
There are many ideas floating about in the mind of Jaron Lanier, the guy who popularized the term virtual reality, was with Atari in the beginning and has, for decades, been involved with VR as a teacher, consultant and architect. One of his notions, the core argument of this book, is that much of current internet interface design, so-called Web 2.0, is hazardous to users.
certain specific, popular internet designs of the moment—not the internet as a whole—tend to pull us into life patterns that gradually degrade the ways in which each of us exists as individuals. These unfortunate designs are more oriented toward treating people as relays in a global brain.
Jaron Lanier- image from Smithsonian Magazine

He takes issue as well with the idea that content should not have to be paid for.
the idea that information should be “free” sounds good at first. But the unintended result is that all the clout and money generated online has begun to accumulate around people close to only certain highly secretive computers, many of which are essentially spying operations designed to sell advertising and access or to pull money out of a marketplace as if by black magic. The motives of the people who comprise the online elites aren’t necessarily bad…but nevertheless the structure of the online economy as it has developed is hurting the middle class, and the viability of capitalism for everyone in the long term.
He points out that those who make their living from creativity, writers, artists, photographers, designers, are under an all out assault by on-line providers eager to deliver art only as a means of generating ad revenue, to themselves, not the creatives who actually produce content. Lanier sees the rise of what he calls “digital serfdom,” yet another attack on the middle class. With the bi-polar tax code in the US that punishes actual work, the demise of support for working people by a viable, liberal Democratic Party, and the off-shoring of as much work as possible by capital that encounters fewer and fewer limitations on trans-national transit, the middle class does not need yet another drain on our resources and ability to earn a living, yet here it is. Lanier makes a compelling case that value, in the form of dollars, accumulates increasingly in the pockets of internet giants like Google and Amazon, and the ability for individual content-producers to make a living from their creative product is declining. And further that any economic gains we might see from technological advances will be swallowed up by the really big fish, leaving us, ultimately, worse off.
the notion that cheaper computers, smartphones, etc., will compensate for the growing economic gap is just not true. Ultimately mounting poverty will outpace cost savings and everyone will suffer. We can’t count on anything but a strong middle class to maintain many things dear to us: widespread self-determination and liberty, a dynamic commercial market filled with surprises, and a democracy that can’t be bought because ordinary people have enough clout to stand up for themselves. Some of the current popular online designs , as appealing as they might seem at first, are leading us away from these wonderful things.
The rest is details. But the details are pretty interesting. Lanier goes into specifics re how users are being sliced, diced and re-sold like toxic assets, as the extant interfaces rely increasingly on our giving up more and more of ourselves.

There are loftier concepts in the air as well in the book. Lanier looks at what he calls the “hive mind” and examines assumptions regarding the likelihood of artificial consciousness arising from increasingly vast connected cloud computer resources.

He examines why it is that software advances cannot match Moore’s Law, namely that hardware efficiency doubles every 18 months. Current software at any time is, of necessity, the tip we see of a very large iceberg.

Lanier dabbles into the implication of things like NCLB
what computerized analysis of all the country’s school tests has done to education is exactly what Facebook has done to friendships. In both cases, life is turned into a database
Lanier offers a wealth of intriguing ideas in this relatively small volume. I was most fascinated with what he had to say about cephalopods and a possible source for our species’ appreciation of metaphor.

I enjoyed the book and it made me think, but I also must confess that I drifted a bit while reading some of the latter chapters. Sometimes he wanders afield. Otherwise You are Not a Gadget made me hopeful that at least some people are aware of the darker implications of current trends, and are thinking about not only how we got here, but some ways in which we might avoid some of the problems that are beginning to emerge.

============================EXTRA STUFF

Lanier's personal site. He does not maintain Twitter, FB, or Reddit accounts

Items of Interest
-----January 5, 2013 - I came across this fascinating interview with the author in Smithsonian magazine
-----August 24, 2020 - GQ - The Conscience of Silicon Valley By Zach Baron - on the fulfillment of Lanier's predictions and possible correctives looking forward
Profile Image for Mykle.
Author 15 books281 followers
January 17, 2019
This book is all jism and dope smoke.

Jaron Lanier is really, really bothered by a laundry list of standard arch-conservative nemeses (Marxism! today's kids! filesharing! the breakdown of the social contract! foreigners stealing our jobs!) as well as a basket of useful-yet-imperfect modern technologies (Wikipedia! Blogs! MIDI! Linux!) He is aware of a sinister cabal of cybernetic totalists who are hard at work on a machine to xerox his brain and force him to use Facebook to meet girls. But they'll never win, because humans are special, as PROVEN by the magical fact that Jaron Lanier cannot describe what makes humans special.

Meanwhile, the Internet is full of trolls, nobody speaks HTML anymore and Jaron can't make a living as a musician! Clearly, the Digital End Times are at hand. He wants to lay the blame on a digital culture that's too standardized and too free; on the evils of open source software and democratic communication.

Well, he had his chance to do that and he flubbed it. Jaron Lanier cannot construct a convincing argument; only about half the time can he even link two paragraphs. He contradicts himself whenever it is convenient to do so. He regularly starts a section with the assertion of a Great Digital Evil (the record industry is dying! bloggers don't spell check!), then insinuates a link to his vague overarching thesis. When he does try to convince a skeptical reader of the connection, he usually fails; more often he just mutters, "Clearly, there is a connection!" I guess he's trying to win over the reader with the depth and emotional sincerity of his whining plea for sanity. I feel bad for whoever buys it.

Then he spends the last quarter of the book trying to convince us that whatever random projects he's been working on lately are intimately connected with his desire to save the world from the Great Digital Evil he has not quite described. Apparently people need to be more like squids - while remaining uniquely special humans, of course. Also, financial contracts should be written in LISP. And pop songs should live in coffee mugs so they can't be downloaded. I kid you not.

Jaron & I & many other computer nerds over forty have lived through a bona fide computer revolution over the last two decades. But Jaron's memory of the facts is somewhat different than mine. He's good at spinning sad, scary yarns about the evolution of the Internet, of paradises promised and lost, but he's regularly full of shit. I won't call it lying because I'm sure it's true to him, but the real history is out there and can be looked up! This book has ten pages of index but cites NO REFERENCES. I would love to see it ruthlessly fact-checked, but apparently Allen Lane Publishing (a Penguin imprint) is too hobbled by the impending (sad, scary) obsolescence of literature to employ a fact checker. Or maybe they just figured the book wouldn't survive the process.

I still think there's something creepy out there. I still think the internet doesn't smell as rosy as it used to, and I still think Facebook is a big fat waste of time, both human and computational. I think the ways software can control its users are important to recognize and beware of. But this book is just a paranoid, incoherent neoliberal bitchfest with digital pretensions - from Jaron Lanier, of all people.

UPDATE: Jaron collected his thoughts, found a real editor, and wrote a much better book! Read that one instead: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3...
Profile Image for Patrick Brown.
142 reviews2,471 followers
March 8, 2010
Ever since I read about this book at Bookavore's excellent blog, I feared this book. How could I not -- I'm currently employed by a social media company. Surely this manifesto would make me rethink my career, my hobbies, how I spend my time. It had the potential to be a paradigm-shifting reading experience, the kind of experience I hadn't had since reading The Omnivore's Dilemma a few years back.

That it didn't realign my thinking on all things digital -- thankfully -- is not entirely Lanier's fault. Though I found his prose to be too verbose at times ("If you read something written by someone who used the term "single" in a custom-composed, unique sentence, you will inevitably get a first whiff of the subtle experience of the author, something you would not get from a multiple-choice database."), he writes convincingly about many troubling aspects of online life.

It's difficult to argue that online culture hasn't brought out the ugliest aspects of human nature on occasion. Anonymity breeds not only snarkiness, but cruelty, ignorance, and even, on occasion, harassment and intimidation. And while I think Lanier drifts off point a bit with regards digital culture's influence on music (Seriously, who cares what someone looks like when they're listening to music), he has a point that the internet seems to have brought on retreads, remixes and retro whatevers. Who can listen to the The Strokes or Interpol or Fleet Foxes or any of a number of other indie bands and not hear the past pulsing through the speakers (and these are the best of these retro bands). And while the web has brought about an explosion of text that makes a reader like me feel some optimism, too often I see people write off (no pun intended) anything longer than a paragraph with the dreaded "tl;dr" tag (And don't get me started on the mashup culture that exists on the web. How many times have I seen someone on Tumblr say "You didn't give me credit for that Terry Richardson photo I posted earlier." Huh?).

What I think Lanier is wrong about, and the reason this book didn't destroy my faith in social media, is that so much of how I experience social media seems to affirm the best of what Lanier hopes for from the web. I frequently write blog posts that took me weeks to write (as frequently as one can write such posts while working full-time); I've attempted (and sometimes succeeded) in finding ways to use twitter, facebook and YouTube to get people to work together on a collaborative project. The "I like Coldplay, therefore that defines me on Facebook" argument that Lanier puts forward doesn't hold a lot of sway for me. I don't troll for friends by looking for similar cultural totems (though I will occasionally seek friendship with someone online based on a thoughtful blog post or Goodreads review they've written). I think services like Twitter and Tumblr have enriched my life by presenting me with a feed of useful information and entertainment (albeit, some of it inane), and while Facebook seems determined to be as juvenile as possible, it has helped me keep abreast of my friends' lives in ways I never could have before.

I should note that the book ends with a dose of optimism, including some science writing that wouldn't be out of place in a Malcolm Gladwell book. Additionally, this book went a long way towards explaining to me why some people feel a sense of glee when old media companies struggle (It all plays into their dreams for what the future holds -- a world where we're all immortal in the cloud). In the end, this was a thought-provoking book that I would recommend to anyone who thinks deeply about the internet. It may not change how you view the web, but it might make you reconsider that anonymous comment you were thinking about posting.
Profile Image for Gordon.
216 reviews45 followers
August 27, 2016
This is a slim book that should have been slimmer. In fact, it should probably have been a couple of articles in Wired Magazine instead. I think the Wired readership is pretty much the core target audience for this book. The author is a long-time software engineer, musician, and philosopher of technology. I’m not sure I’ve ever read any book by a philosopher of technology, but that’s definitely what he is. The upside of that approach is that he thinks of technology within a framework of ethics and esthetics. The downside is that he rants a lot, in ways that are both quirky and cranky.

The book starts with a long discussion about how early technology standards or platform designs (think Windows or UNIX) lock in a certain kind of architecture that shapes everything that is built on top of it or plugs into it, for better or worse. His favorite whipping boy is the MIDI standard used for digitizing music, which, as a professional musician, he thinks is lousy but too deeply entrenched to displace. OK, but that’s always been the case with standards. We’re kind of stuck with railroad gauges of a certain width and light bulb sockets of a certain diameter, unless we want to do a lot of large scale tearing down and rebuilding. This is not exactly a novel insight. Nor is it clear how you avoid this, or even if a flawed standard is really worse than the chaos of no standard at all.

Much later in the book, he makes some very interesting points about what he calls “encapsulated technology”, such as computing hardware devices or iPods or Blackberries. These he believes progress very rapidly according to Moore’s Law, precisely because they are protected behind a sort of fortress wall that makes it possible for their designers to keep advancing the state of the art, while they open up some selected aspects of their platforms for 3rd party developers – as Apple and Research in Motion / Blackberry have done. With open source software, by contrast, there is no such encapsulation or protection. Result: this software does NOT evolve! This is a very surprising observation, and immediately what come to mind are such seeming counter-examples as Wikipedia and LINUX. But, as he points out, these two highly successful products are based on long-established pre-existing models, which grew up in the old “encapsulated world”: Encyclopedia Britannica and UNIX. So are Wikipedia and LINUX truly new, or are they just evolutionary advances that harnessed the collective energies of countless contributors willing to work for free in exchange for some bragging rights? I think Lanier is (mostly) right on this.

The above examples lead Lanier to argue that the whole “hive mind” approach of the web and open source and “mash-up”-style creative models may be running out of juice. In fact, he thinks they’re suffering from what archeologists would call “pattern exhaustion”, where a civilization runs out of new ideas and just starts repeating the same old patterns with minor variations – think of the Maya or Imperial China in their late stages. He thinks this hive mind is really killing diversity and original thinking on the web. This is pretty provocative stuff coming from Lanier, with a lot of truth in it.

I also very much liked his discussion of the impact of anonymity on the hive mind that drives social networking on the web. Since so much of it is anonymous, users hide behind a mask and begin writing very ugly and/or mindless things. Recall that the Ku Klux Klansmen also liked to hide behind their sheets, with predictably ugly results. It’s not likely that any of this is making a contribution to our civilization. Anonymity (hiding behind a pseudonym) and privacy (keeping others from nosing around your personal information) are NOT the same thing – which is not a distinction that Lanier makes very clearly, however.

He whines a lot about the implications of creative content on the web being free, especially content such as music and journalism. (Remember, he’s a musician and a writer). Increasingly, people can’t make a living in these professions, because they can’t compete against free. This is true, but is much like complaining about the weather. In any industry where barriers to entry are low, the marketplace is global, the cost of distribution is next to zero, and the producers (musicians/journalists) are willing to do what they do for little or no money because they love what they do, then prices will inevitably move to ridiculously low levels – in most cases, FREE – for all but a small rarefied portion of that creative content e.g. the New York Times and music from brand-name musicians. I think Lanier forgets that for professions such as music, the creators have almost always been unpaid for as long as music has existed. Even Mozart nearly starved to death. There was a brief heyday for paid musicians in the 20th century, but that was an anomaly.

His lengthy discussion of “computationally enhanced corruption” was entertaining – not least for the label he used to describe it – but mostly uninformed. Yes, it’s true that global networks and powerful computers and sophisticated trading platforms have made all kinds of scams possible – things such as Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs), the scam used to peddle near-worthless sub-prime mortgages to unsuspecting investors all over the world, and obscure derivatives strategies and hedging schemes. Collectively, these nearly brought down the global financial system. But very little of what Lanier proposes would have done anything to stop it.

Overall, You Are Not a Gadget was thought-provoking and sometimes infuriating, but I still maintain it would have been better delivered as a couple of magazine articles in Wired rather than a full-length book.
Profile Image for Szplug.
467 reviews1,259 followers
June 7, 2011
Amongst other things, Lanier has opened my eyes to the fact that, in a world both more just and ideally situated for a continuation of the entrepreneurial capitalist culture that has raised the tide of global wealth like nothing before, each one of you moochers and looters would be paying me a fee for the opportunity to peruse these book reviews which appear upon your computer screens only after a tortuous, strangled combat producing rivulets of overly-descriptive and yet still somewhat nebulous adjectives that sprinkle my prose like so many glistening drops of corporeal depletion indistinguishable between sweat and tears: so if the lot of you had a shred of decency, the cheque would already be in the mail.

I also feel compelled to reiterate how attractive the design of this manifesto is—that stark, crisp, angry eggshell white cover, neither subdued as if under the lash of dim lighting or an oppressive shadow, nor that etiolated thinness that speaks of energy departed to other realms, with its beguiling word cloud of smudgy grey background noise serving as a framework for the trim and perky cyan that clusters in outspoken cliques; while the interior fonts, of a perfectly proportioned size, spacing, and selection, perform their orderly and measured maneuvers across pages of potato-chip texture that slightly rebuff the cradling fingers and proudly, starchily snap-to-attention when the page is admiringly turned. Hats off to Vintage for a job well done.

As for the content, for Mr. Lanier's gentle polemic against the cybernetic totalists and their open culture jihad...ah, fuck it, I just can't be arsed. I'm hot, I'm tired, I'm burned out from working too much, reading too much, and investing a considerable percentage of my currently available enthusiasm into the Canucks' quest for Lord Stanley's Cup and Roger Federer's futile butting of his head against the French Open-dominating Spaniard with his windshield wiper, extreme Western forehand and its resultant moonballs to the backhand of the silky Swiss maestro who is losing his race with Father Time—it's proving an exceedingly difficult task to formulate any manner of coherent analysis of the worthwhile thoughts of this olive-eyed, dreadlocked panda and his worries about the wiki-izing and networked flatness of the globalized world.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,352 reviews2,439 followers
March 15, 2014
Lanier is something different altogether; he is an original. It took longer than I expected to read this book, but I loved learning that there was someone who was thinking about our human connection by electronic device. Computer expression is a result of, and limited by, human biology. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate to consider them together.

Lanier discusses the possibilities inherent in technology, as well as the concepts of the Singularity, the hive mind, and the “wisdom of crowds.” He discusses the constraints of technology as we know it today. He explains that as a humanist, he is worried about a subculture of technologists he calls “cybernetic totalists” or “digital Maoists.” This terminology comes with a whole set of cultural connotations but Lanier takes care to say he is talking conceptually, and not specifically, about members of the group: “the members of the tribe are my lifelong friends, my mentors, my students, my colleagues, my fellow travelers. Many…may disagree with me…[but] the groupthink problem I am worried about isn’t so much in the minds of the technologists themselves, but in the minds of the users of the tools the cybernetic totalists are promoting.” Which is where we come in.

Lanier put his finger on a couple of things that had been in the back of my head but, not knowing everything about the world, I couldn’t possibly assert the truth or validity of these notions. For the same reason, I am not sure he can, either, but we have noticed the same things.

For instance, this paragraph deep in his discussion, after the bit about the Singularity and hive minds:
”Take a look at one of the big cultural blogs like Boing Boing, or the endless stream of mashups that appear on YouTube. It’s as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump. This is embarrassing.” (p. 131)

It is almost as though we are constantly surprised by the technology we use, but not by what it can convey. In a sidebar he concludes “You need locality to have focus, evolution, or any other creative process.” (p. 141) This, and many other basic truths punctuate this book and perhaps because it is presented in an organic manner, it is more difficult to summarize quickly and succinctly. It is an important book to read, however, whether or not we agree with him. Agreement is not the point here. The point is he has valid observations and he amuses and enlightens us with what he has been able to glean from his experience. His concerns are not insignificant, and I am pleased he bothered to engage us with this book at all.

There is an impassioned and important section in this book about fostering and feeding the creative mind by finding new ways to monetize the value of creativity. This seems a critical point, and not the completely-obvious statement it appears at first blush. It has everything to do with where we go from here.

I love what he says about humans…that we have been highly evolved through millennia of hard knocks but that neoteny is what separates us from cephalopods, those fellow giants of evolution. By this he means that humans can actually pass on what we have learned and step on the shoulders of those who have come before, while cephalopods rely on instinct. Following this thought, though, comes a fear. Neoteny in humans is lasting longer—does anyone disagree with this?—and often true, original, out-of-the-box creativity comes in that interstice between childhood and adulthood. Is that target area shrinking, or is it just my imagination? Can we blame it on economics or anything so banal?

Lanier explodes my brain just a little when he talks about the synecdoche of smell—how a smell needs additional input from other senses to compute. Lanier starts with technology and ends with biology, which if you think about it, is exactly as it should be.
Profile Image for Spencer.
83 reviews6 followers
May 29, 2012
As anyone who knows me could tell you, I'm a pretty heavy internet user. I'm on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and reddit. I've kept a smartphone on me since freshman year of college, and I use it regularly. The internet is a rather inextricable part of my life.

Jaron Lanier is a techie too; he's been involved in technological innovation since the '70s. And he, too, loves the internet. But Lanier is also a philosopher and a humanist, and in You Are Not a Gadget, he turns a critical eye toward the growing role of the internet in our daily lives, asking how it's affecting things like our creative expression, our views of the economy, and even our senses of self and personhood. The ways we interact with the internet, Lanier argues, are decidedly anti-human, and if we want to set a better course for technology, we ought to do that soon, before the legacy of our technology becomes monumental and stifling.

Throughout Gadget, Lanier tackles parts of internet culture that I would never have seen as issues before--like the open-source movement, for instance. Lanier maintains a civil appreciation for open-source technology and acknowledges its wide appeal, but also is unafraid to point out what so many open-source proponents, myself included, often refuse to admit: the open-source atmosphere is hardly generating innovation. Similarly, Lanier points out that for all its anticipated boons to creativity or the distribution of creative expressions (like music), the internet has hardly changed how expressions of culture are created or distributed. The internet, which has the potential to be a radically revolutionary force in how humans interact, create, and share, is more akin today to an armchair activist, dreaming big but hardly changing a thing.

I can't say I agree with everything Lanier writes. But much of his manifesto is so utterly original and unfamiliar that reading it forced me to challenge my own way of thinking. I see the internet in a new light now, and will be thinking hard about how I interact with it in the future. Whether you love Facebook or hate it, never log on or never log off, Lanier's unique perspective will give you plenty to think about.
Profile Image for Phil.
Author 1 book6 followers
June 21, 2011
Reading this book was like sitting next to your drunk uncle at Thanksgiving and listening to his rant full of unsubstatiated, uninformed opinions stated like they were the words of God himself.

To be fair, the author does warn the reader that the negativity will eventually end and that the end of the book has some positive messages, but I never got to the positive part. The concepts of the internet making us dumber as a people were all very well written opinions. Unfortunately, the data backing up the claims was nonexistent. If you're going to say that all of the media online (mashups, edits, etc) is simply a rehashing of old media, then give us some statistics. Give us some data that backs up your very strong opinions.

Overall, the concept for the book was sound, but it came off as fanatical and based solely on the author's personal feelings, despite his heavy immersion into the advancements in technology.

I will mention one positive thing about the book. The chapter headings were very good. Short, interesting, and slightly ambiguous, they made me want to read the chapter to see what was going on. But even those lost their luster and I only made it a third of the way through.
Profile Image for Elijah Meeks.
Author 4 books17 followers
February 17, 2010
As a disclaimer, Jaron Lanier was roommates with Richard Stallman, with whom I had a bit of an argument regarding epistemology while I was attending a conference at Harvard Law School a few years back. I was young and freshly baccalaureated with a degree in philosophy, and I realized that Richard Stallman, while by all accounts an excellent coder, was a miserable philosopher. Unfortunately, his former roommate isn't much better, either as a philosopher, a sociologist or a musicologist. You Are Not a Gadget, while good grist for the mill of anyone concerned with "augmented reality" is simply too shallow on every front. It's a shame, because Lanier is calling for more rigor and engagement with the world (rather than being a gadget that fits into the gadget-sized holes of Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads or any other Web 2.0 machine) and he lets us down with his inability to move beyond his own intuitive rejection of the Social Web.

Not that the book is awful, it's got some very striking moments. The best is when Lanier, a wild-eyed technological optimist from way back (Back when "virtual reality" sounded nigh awesome), bemoans the flagship products of our radical egalitarian open source community: a UNIX clone and an encyclopedia (The former is a youthful 40 years old compared to the latter, which dates back a brisk 500 years according to Wikipedia). He rightly attacks the normative nature of files and code, but oversteps with his constant rejection of MIDI, which sounds fresh until you realize that musicologists have been developing new musical codes for years, as evidenced by the 1996 Beyond MIDI: The Handbook of Musical Codes, which in its introduction does a better job of criticizing MIDI while drawing out constructive lessons than Lanier manages.

But this isn't an old hippie who hates the future, and the predictable denouncements of Lanier (by SlashDot folks that, also predictably, didn't read his book) actually support his intuition. It's unfortunate that he didn't move beyond that intuition. So many biologists, physicists and computer scientists think that the study of knowledge and society were the easy subjects back in school, and figured that coding in C was much more difficult than understanding exceptionless moral norms. But just as they would mock poorly written code, I'm forced to pan their poorly explored humanist inquiries.
Profile Image for Foppe.
151 reviews49 followers
September 6, 2011
From reading the NYTimes review of the book, there seem to be major problems with this book, that mark it out to be a book containing pompous drivel.
Allow me to offer an unread critique of one of the main suggestions that are "argued for" in the book. From a NYT review:
Like Andrew Keen in “The Cult of the Amateur,” Mr. Lanier is most eloquent on how intellectual property is threatened by the economics of free Internet content, crowd dynamics and the popularity of aggregator sites. “An impenetrable tone deafness rules Silicon Valley when it comes to the idea of authorship,” he writes, recalling the Wired editor Kevin Kelly’s 2006 prediction that the mass scanning of books would one day create a universal library in which no book would be an island — in effect, one humongous text, made searchable and remixable on the Web.
Mr. Lanier, a pioneer in the development of virtual reality and a Silicon Valley veteran, is hardly a Luddite, as some of his critics have suggested. Rather he is a digital-world insider who wants to make the case for “a new digital humanism” before software engineers’ design decisions, which he says fundamentally shape users’ behavior, become “frozen into place by a process known as lock-in.” Just as decisions about the dimensions of railroad tracks determined the size and velocity of trains for decades to come, he argues, so choices made about software design now may yield “defining, unchangeable rules” for generations to come.

1. There is no command and control center of "the internet". As such, it is impossible for decisions to automatically shape the form and content of every website in it. Certainly, developers of widely-used packages (phpBB, apache, flash) to some extent determine what is and isn't possible, by adding/removing/leaving out features in their software packages. And things like the mass adoption of Facebook as a social medium of course ensures that the corporations running those websites can thus subtly shape the behavior of their users, but to conclude from this that users' brains are being controlled or changed is idiotic, while the more modest claim that behavior is being shaped is trivially true, as this happens in every rule-bound social context. The question would be whether the behavior is harmful, and whether users, once connected, are incapable physically or psychologically of disconnecting themselves.. (And even if Facebook truly turns out to be eternal, we might still mitigate its power by inscribing into US law rules and regulations limiting their rights to sell/mine our data.)
Furthermore, while path dependency is something that plays a role in every aspect of animal behavior, this is much less of an issue with software than with biological organisms, since you can quite easily keep using existing software while developing something to replace it; different software packages (think Linux/Windows/iOS) can even exist concurrently, without users of one platform being unable to communicate with users of the others.
The http protocol can carry just about anything, so I don't really understand why he thinks that design decisions will be "forced upon" the internet. As I see it, things like Wordpress, Slashdot, facebook are all quite different, and while they might borrow ideas from oneanother (forgive my choice of examples here), there is little reason to think that slashdot will one day become "incompatible" with the rest of the internet. This, again, assumes central control.

To quote a bit more:
If the books in the cloud are accessed via user interfaces that encourage mashups of fragments that obscure the context and authorship of each fragment, there will be only one book. This is what happens today with a lot of content; often you don’t know where a quoted fragment from a news story came from, who wrote a comment, or who shot a video.”

Why is this an argument? Why is repurposing necessarily "bad"? Are mashups inherently demeaning to an original author? Geez, this guy sounds full of himself. I bet he doesn't like Jazz either (the whole genre revolves around musicians inspiring each other) Or Bach, who did the exact same thing. Or basically anyone, as all trends are historically connected to and informed by past behavior.

Furthermore, Lanier seems to be conflating two things that are logically independent, when he talks about how Silicon Valley supposedly doesn't care about "authorship [rights]". First off, SV exists by "virtue" of the strict enforcement of intellectual property rights. Secondly, the internet isn't run by SV. Thirdly, the notion of "authorship" is not necessarily attacked by scanning, even while the "right" to profit from your authoring books might be; all you need to do to respect an author is to attribute properly, whereas most authors are complaining not about creative repurposing, but about (perceived) loss of income.

Decisions made in the formative years of computer networking, for instance, promoted online anonymity, and over the years, as millions upon millions of people began using the Web, Mr. Lanier says, anonymity has helped enable the dark side of human nature. Nasty, anonymous attacks on individuals and institutions have flourished, and what Mr. Lanier calls a “culture of sadism” has gone mainstream. In some countries anonymity and mob behavior have resulted in actual witch hunts. “In 2007,” Mr. Lanier reports, “a series of ‘Scarlet Letter’ postings in China incited online throngs to hunt down accused adulterers. In 2008, the focus shifted to Tibet sympathizers.”

From these comments, I get the feeling that Mr. Lanier is most likely a paternalistic conservative, because only people who have incredibly bad taste connect cases of "witch hunts" to "the possibility of being anonymous on the internet" in such a ridiculous fashion, suggesting that the anonymity causes the behavior. Certainly there are badly run websites where abuse is an issue, but you don't need to ban anonymous access to enforce good behavior on a website. Nor does this have anything to do with disliking adulterers (Freudian?) And what on earth does this have to do with trolling/impersonating people on the internet, and how is it remotely comparable, except inside his head?

Let us please remember that the ability to be on the net anonymously can be quite a boon, for instance for Chinese/Iranian/Whereverian 'dissidents' who want to come together to talk about how they think their societies could be changed for the better. Why is Lanier so quick to toss out the baby with the Baath voter? (Sorry, couldn't resist.) The scariest aspect of the book is his fairly impassioned plea for the abolition of our right to anonymity, apparently seeking to replace it with something more "controllable". It is informed by nothing except a hodgepodge of non sequiturs presented as arguments, yet apparently Lanier feels he has made his case.. I find that frightening.

As for his blather about the existence of a "hive mind", it seems to me to refer to nothing useful, and only serves to allow him to present himself as cool (because he is agitating against it). Yawn.
Profile Image for Cow.
150 reviews5 followers
November 27, 2010
I had decided to give this four stars, but then I read the other Goodreads reviews.

Everyone I could see was giving it five or one, based on whether or not they agreed. My personal favourite review was one where the reviewer hadn't read the book at all, but had read a New York Times review of the book and reviewed the book based on that alone. I don't know if the author would find that hilarious or horrifying, as it both validates his entire thesis and goes against everything the book hopes to inspire.

So. I don't agree with everything, but I agree with the base underlying idea: we humans and our internet are both far more complicated, more interesting, and more vast than the current trend of web applications can hope to contain, and it does us a great disservice to lower ourselves to the level of database entries.

My question, as my friend Craig knows, is always then: how do we fix it? I need to think on that. I had a lot of these ideas before, but never had them worded quite so clearly...and it seems it's time to think on it all again. Because if we, the technopriests (to borrow our 1995 terminology) can't be bothered to lead the flock to a better world, then we deserve the world we get -- and are getting. And that world kinda horrifies me, to be honest.
Profile Image for Emily.
687 reviews633 followers
July 26, 2011
In this book, a rather strange man who plays a "Laotian mouth organ" and admires cephalopods tries to convince us to promote humanism in computing. I started this book in a skeptical frame of mind, since the argument could be pompous, point-missing, or Luddite, but it's none of those things. The author throws a lot of ideas out, and some of them are half-baked, and a few I disagree with, but overall there's a lot to think about here. His main argument--that computers give us amazing powers to be creative and yet Web 2.0 has given us only trite, bitsy, retro content and experiences--scores. If the free/open culture movement, blogging, mashups, etc. were supposed to give us a vibrant new world of creativity, how long should we wait for that to happen before we turn away from those ideas?

I especially think librarians should read this book. I was in library school in they heyday of what the blogger known as the Annoyed Librarian calls "twopointopian" thinking. It's never been clear to me how Web 2.0 solves any of the fundamental challenges in librarianship and I find it disturbing that you can make a name for yourself as a librarian by teaching colleagues to use technologies that our users are perfectly capable of working out on their own. I suppose a lot of the twopointopians have moved on anyway, but I wonder what they would make of the strand of this book that tries to show that Web. 2.0 not only fails to foster culture but actually seems to undermine it.

At any rate, this book has a point every few pages that would sustain at least one coffee/glass of wine's worth of conversation with a thoughtful partner, so I liked it.
2 reviews1 follower
May 30, 2013
This book is, unfortunately, very poorly argued.

I was really interested in reading this book to get some ideas on how technology can be better applied to work for people in a more humanistic way. Unfortunately, the first three quarters of the book involve the author ranting against "web 2.0 technologists" without clearly attributing any specific arguments.

The last quarter of the book is where the author starts actually providing ideas on how technology can be applied in a more humanistic way, but this also falls flat. Basically, this ends up being the author slightly perturbing the ideologies presented in the first three quarters of the book, then claiming they are superior ways of viewing things without quantifying how or why.

The whole book emphasizes vagueness and a lack of rigor. There are frustratingly few sources cited and plenty of gut feelings and vague ideas stated as fact. This book should never have gotten further than a blog post on a random blog, as it is poorly documented, poorly argumented and poorly sourced. Don't take my word for it, read the book and see for yourself! I definitely feel ripped off, having paid $10 for this.

It's unfortunate, because I really wanted to like this book and am still completely open to the ideas of more humanistic modes for technology to develop into.

Let's get some talented authors who can back up their claims with integrity and rigor to tackle this subject. This book, as it stands, is as useful as reading a FOX news report to get a handle on current events. It'll give you something - but it won't be accurate, unbiased or useful.
Profile Image for Kevin Carson.
Author 30 books214 followers
April 8, 2023
Horrendously bad. The kind of knee-jerk hostility to anything stigmergically organized, horizontal, or decentralized that I'd associate with Thomas Frank at his worst. Almost self-parody levels of copyright maximalism.
And his "Library of Babel" critiques of the World Wide Web are so oblivious to all the basic expedients of sorting and curation actually used to make sense of information, I honestly wondered if he'd even accessed the Web when writing them.
Profile Image for Kara Babcock.
1,954 reviews1,294 followers
January 8, 2018
My first reaction upon starting this book was trepidation regarding how long I had put it off. Published in 2010 (and therefore probably finished in late 2008 or early 2009), You Are Not a Gadget is nearly 10 years old. That’s an eternity in the world of technology. I’ve had this sitting in my to-read pile for years, just haven’t gotten around to it! I was curious to see how well Jaron Lanier’s self-titled manifesto would hold up, considering that 9 years is an eternity in the tech world.

The answer: quite well, although that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily like this. It really is a manifesto, with all that connotes.

You Are Not a Gadget is a dense, philosophical tract. It can trace its roots to Lanier’s involvement in the tech scene in the 1980s, but his analysis is broad enough that a lot of it is still relevant to 2017. To summarize it in one sentence: Lanier is concerned about a school of thought he dubs “cybernetic totalism”, which essentially privileges a technology-first perspective of digital innovation at the expense of what he views as more “humanist” agendas. Lanier points to Singularitarians as an extreme example of cybernetic totalists but identifies the influence of cybernetic totalism to varying degrees in much of our online society. In his view, the trend towards cybernetic totalism dehumanizes us and sabotages any hope of the Internet and the web actually improving our ability to empathize and relate to one another. As an alternative, he proposes that we have to find new ways of distributing cultural content and media and embrace technologies, like virtual reality, that have the potential to help us communicate in novel ways.

I don’t agree with everything Lanier says here—either because I’m not persuaded, or because some of his ideas are simply outlandish (songles?). That being said, one thing is clear: he has put a lot of thought into this. He attempts to unpack very complex issues. This is not a pop culture “here’s how I think we can fix the Internet” type of book. Lanier draws deeply on history, science, and philosophy to make his arguments, and for that reason, this was an enjoyable way to spend a Thursday morning during my holiday break. I felt like I was back in university, reading a book for my Philosophy of Science and Technology course.

I particularly enjoyed some remarks Lanier makes near the end. He talks about how he has two opposing views of humans sometimes: when designing tools for humans, as he puts it, he thinks of us as spiritual beings, with souls; when trying to understand how the human brain works, from a neuroscience perspective, he thinks of us as machines. Lanier justifies this by pointing out that these different philosophies make it easier to complete these very different tasks. I think this is a pretty nuanced perspective.

His chapter on how creative media might be better offered as a service rather than a product is semi-prescient (in that it doesn’t quite anticipate but certainly applies to the emergence of Netflix and other streaming services, like Spotify). I’ve always sneered at the service-rather-than-product philosophy and largely eschewed things like Kindle e-books for that reason. I will admit, though, that some of Lanier’s arguments in this chapter challenged my thinking. I’m not saying he has convinced me, but I think I better understand this alternative point of view beyond the naive or surface-level assumption of “people just want control so they will make more money.”

I’m less crazy about some of his arguments in favour of security through obscurity. Lanier says, “obscurity is the only fundamental form of security that exists”. This is not wrong, but it seems rather tautological and reductive. He argues that it’s unethical for white hat hackers to go around finding exploits in unexploited technology because black hats probably won’t have enough time and the resources of a university lab to do it. This seems short-sighted, in retrospect, given the government-funded cyberterrorism, ransomware, exploits found in car software, etc. The idea that we shouldn’t test-penetrate systems is, in my opinion, laughable. The really unethical idea here is that we should be putting proprietary programs into our bodies that haven’t been properly tested and regulated first.

As I mentioned at the start of this review, my initial concerns involved whether or not You Are Not a Gadget would feel dated. Indeed, Lanier makes the occasional comment that has since become obsolete. He points out that the then-nascent Facebook hasn’t started making much money. His analysis of how digital copying affects music sales and other creators doesn’t anticipate the emergence of platforms like Patreon. (He kind of gropes around in the dark and hints at similar ideas, but I’m kind of surprised he never actually brings up a Patreon-like experience. Same goes for cryptocurrency.) And, the ludicrous songles suggestion aside, there is almost no commentary on the Internet of Things. Let me be clear: I’m not blaming Lanier for not predicting the next decade. Just trying to document the few ways in which this book does feel dated to a contemporary reader.

Most of the manifesto, however, still applies. “Lock in” is still prevalent. Trolling is a problem. Nerd Rapture supporters are still all around us. And yeah, even with Patreon, musicians still aren’t always making money.

Frankly, the biggest issue with You Are Not a Gadget, though, is simply that it isn’t always coherent. The introduction is all right, and most of the individual chapters at least have a thesis. Yet the book just kind of … keeps going … and then stops. The last chapter is not really a conclusion but rather a climactic, grand ramble that ends with some kind of exhortation for us all to be better humans and better communicators. There’s no recapitulation or summary of Lanier’s ideas and arguments. And I’ve got more than a little side-eye going on for the idea that virtual reality, a technology he just so happens to be heavily involved in, is the most promising tool to tackle the problems he has identified.

Basically, this book might blow your mind, in a good way, but it’s also a messy philosophical rant of the kind you’ll hear from your computer-obsessed neighbour at a party where everyone is having a good time. I’ve heard elements of these arguments before from people I know; hell, I’m sure I’ve made some of these arguments, or similar ones, myself. Once you reach a certain level of familiarity with the Internet and digital technologies, some of these ideas become common currency. So You Are Not a Gadget has some high points, but in the end, it didn’t leave me gawping in appreciation or amazement. I just kind of nodded my head, non-committally, and went on with my day. I really like Lanier’s attempt to appeal to a deeper, more philosophical discussion on these ideas, but he doesn’t always come across as clearly as he could. I’ve heard this before, and heard it said better.

Creative Commons BY-NC License
Profile Image for Andy.
20 reviews
February 15, 2010
Its a shame, Lanier has some interesting theories and plenty of experience to back them up but he kept losing me with his metaphors.

Here's two thoughts that do warrant consideration:
1. I'm not Facebook's customer, the advertiser is. I'm just another product on Facebooks shelf giving their business added value.
2. Young people (including people that "think" they're young) announce every detail of their lives on services like Twitter not to show off, but to avoid the closed door at bedtime, the empty room, the screaming vacuum of an isolated mind. These sites assuage "separation anxiety".
Profile Image for Shawn.
804 reviews239 followers
February 21, 2015
This is a rather difficult book to review since it falls outside my usual purview. A good friend suggested I check it out and so I got a copy from the library and buzzed through it instead of adding it to the endless "To Be Read" list.

As others have noted/griped about, it's not a drawn-out, reasoned argument so much as it is the author putting down his basic thoughts on the topics of computers, the internet, technology and how general and specific forms of same, and our interactions with them, are changing us as a culture, a civilization, a society and a species. The complaint that it could have been just as well represented by a number of magazine article (or, ironically, blog posts) misses the point, I think. He calls it a manifesto, for gosh sakes, you should expect some latitude. And while "New Media" mavens have no interest in geezer tech like books, the presentation format will likely bring the author more readers, not less. Because those that eschew books are almost certainly likely to reject the basic concepts presented here in an out of hand, reactionary way (but, they *can't* be reactionaries, because they're hip, bleeding edge - remember that silly bit of posturing - visionaries who have freed us all from the flesh, right!?!)

Those of the Web 2.0/Neo-Futurist/Transhumanist/"come the Singularity" tribes and their ilk will likely consider this book a Luddite tract. But that, by definition, is impossible as Lanier's background in early and current current computer tech gives him the knowledge and position to know whereof he speaks. As to the arguments of the book, I think it should be checked out for yourself and I don't really know if I could re-articulate them well (I will be loading up salient quotes - ah, the irony) suffice to say they are generally not alarmist so much as guardedly cautious regarding technology, how it changes us, and the increasing speed with which that is happening. In no way alarmist, these are informed statements, thoughts and suppositions, not thoroughly interrogated and footnoted arguments, so those who need to dismiss them can do so with relative ease and get back to the problem of how they're going to make all content free and smash the commerce machine while still making a buck off the process. The rest of us can ponder and weigh.

In particular, I was most struck with the concept of how the limiting stricture of computer frameworks and their presentations actually cause us to "adjust down" our expectations of humanity and our own flexibility, instead of demanding more out of the technology (reduced - an example would be the phenomena of "friendship" as now defined by quantitative stats racked up on FACEBOOK). Also interesting was getting yet another perspective on the endlessly worrying modern trend of our growing cultural sociopathology and how the internet places us in the position of distanced outsider for which everything, including human pain and misery, is a sensation to be consumed, exploited or even deliberately generated for our amusement. This is a problem that may very well kill us, our race, our species. And the book gave me a lot to think about regarding the free content on the web movement, paralleling my own realization that the atomization of the classic, physical object publishing model (in which, clumsily, profit and thus continued existence guaranteed some level of quality, even if it was hemmed in by "lowest common denominator" tastes) has now given us a a supposedly "free" market in which no one can make a profit to survive on and, in a critical sense, there is no "bottom" which strains out the bad writing and muck, and so we are awash with a back-flow of effluvial crap through which no one can take the time to wade (and exactly at the moment when distinct critical perspective is most frowned upon because everyone has their own opinion and all are equally valid - and thus equally worthless - on the democratized web).

On the negative side, while I understand how the thinking strand gets there, and agreed with a lot of that strand, I do think Lanier perhaps takes his diatribe against the leveling effects of digitization on music and creativity a little too far when he condemns, en masse, electronic music as uncreative, cold and sterile - in this final form, these are arguments I've heard a million times before and the last 20 or so years have proved them essentially short-sighted. But the paths along the way to that rather hollow end statement are also interesting.

In the end, the question is not whether you agree with Lanier's book, either in whole or in part, or disagree with it, but whether - if even the smallest aspect of it is true - anything can be done about these effects. And I don't think they can, honestly.

I will add at this point that Lanier does a good job of remaining mostly apolitical throughout the entirety of the book and what follows are my own cranky, (and thus easily dismissible) views. The only likely way such a juggernaut of brilliant technological thinking, savvy corporate investment and facile (and at times downright anti-human, exploitational and sociopathic) philosophy and worldview can be derailed is by a large scale, real-world event. The looming Worldwide Depression accidentally engineered by the market-worshiping Neo-Cons and their reckless, greedy banking masters (and ushered in by the limp-willed, spineless Neo-Libs - all of whom will be rewarded in the ruins, I'm sure) could do it - but that's cold comfort and there's always the equal chance that such an event will just be the trigger stage for the often-feared sociological shift to a technocracy in which the "idiot, bestial many" slave away for (and enjoy the reductive fruits of) the tiny, tech-savvy upper-middle class and their non-tech savvy but phenomenally rich masters....

in 2040, will pony-tailed, nice-guy but whiny and politically uncommitted ("I'm a progressive!") data-tech, with all his comic book statues and video games, realize he's actually a complete tool of evil as he has to take a pistol to protect himself from hordes of starving children ("it's okay, they deserve it" the corporate news reassures him) when he goes out and eats at his exclusive geek-chic, Pokemon & Fetish-themed restaurant? Time will tell...

...but we can't say we weren't warned (more cold comfort)....
Profile Image for David Rubenstein.
816 reviews2,589 followers
February 11, 2012
Jaron Lanier recollects that, a couple of decades ago he remarked to a friend: You know, this is probably the most interesting room in the entire world. And--he was probably right. He was a pioneer, helping to develop the first true virtual reality; in fact, he popularized the term "virtual reality".

If you like Wired magazine, then you will love this book. It is about the philosophy of the digital age. Lanier is a true visionary. He is very opinionated, but his opinions are fascinating. In the beginning of the book, his opinions are mostly negative, but as the book continues, he gradually turns to a positive outlook.

Lanier dislikes technologies that are short-sighted, that constrict expression and communication. For example, the MIDI digital protocol is a universal tool that has been used since the 1980's to communicate with music synthesizers. But its limitation lies in its discrete, quantized nature. Since MIDI is so entrenched, it is very unlikely for another, more expressive approach to ever gain much tread.

Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are likewise very constricting. Lanier details the ways in which he thinks members are forced to adapt to the technology, and fool themselves into thinking that the technology is bending to their wills.

Lanier loves extended analogies. He writes things like, If you add a childhood to a cephalopod, it would be like a human with virtual reality. Read the book to understand what that means!

Profile Image for Jason.
12 reviews3 followers
May 3, 2010
The core ideas of this book are great, but they're explained in such a scattershot fashion that it's tough to recommend the book to people not heavily interested in technology's effect on culture. Buried here is a great criticism of the design philosophies of the current generation of web entrepreneurs and the wide leeway users have given them. Lanier's criticism, on the surface, can seem like an indictment of techno-utopianism in general, but in my opinion he is only focusing on techno-utopian movements that diminish the human (Singularity, "digital-Maoism", etc.). Lanier is a strong humanist - his ideal communication is not the digital collective of Wikipedia, but using technology to give individuals new ways to communicate (post-symbolic). Because of this, what I appreciated most were his descriptions about how, once the individual is removed and the collective or algorithms are optimized for, artistry and culture suffer. That critique, especially coming from a technologist, is the one that I hope gets the most traction.
Profile Image for Surfing Moose.
187 reviews1 follower
December 4, 2013
I really enjoyed this book and was already of the mindset that Jaron writes about. I do believe that sites like Facebook diminish the word "Friend" and give individuals a false sense of community. Sites like Facebook will go away eventually to be replaced by the next thing but hopefully something better and more meaningful.

I am an individual, not a member of a hive, not classifiable for marketing purposes (man does Amazon's recommendations get it wrong 95% of the time), and refuse to have my rights stepped on by misguided committees (read hive mentality) and Web 2.0 fanatics.

That all being said, I do have a Linkedin account and as you can see a Goodreads account. Linkedin helps me stay in touch with former colleagues and I consider it a professional and career orientated tool. As for Goodreads it lets me speak my mind about books that I have read and see what friends are reading. If it ever goes beyond that, take me out back and show me the pretty flowers before putting me out of my misery.
Profile Image for Christy Stewart.
Author 12 books305 followers
August 27, 2010
There are a few problems with this book...

1. The author mentions himself too often, it comes off as self-indulgent. This is a topic that would be better analyzed by statistics than personal opinion.

2. A ton of books are being printed all the time on what being human IS, and this book tries to tackle what being human is NOT while never attempting to define his parameters of humanity.

3. It's full of bull shit about how technology has changed society. Nothing has changed. Not since one dude said to another "You know what? I think I'm not going with you...I'm going to stay here, use these seeds to grow food and breed some animals. I'm tired of hunting and gathering. I want a place to display my Precious Moments collection." No matter if we all communicate with texts or smoke signals, we are all the same; assholes. Computers don't make our neighbors even more annoying, they just give us access to other people's annoying neighbors.
Profile Image for Jim Nail.
Author 3 books9 followers
September 22, 2016
I read this twice but I still don't feel youngsmart enough to review it, especially after reading the reviews, some of them not so postive, written by the youngsmart people. I am 68 years old. When I was a kid I had to call the operator (a real person with a headset on) to talk to my best friend 8 miles away. I can remember the invention of color television. Now I am using the internet, texting on a cell phone, dependent on Wikipedia for instant information. I have read numerous books on the subject, including The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurtsweil (disturbing) and Alone Together by Sherry Turkle (reassuring). Jaron Lanier is not antagonistic to the progress of technology- he practically invented virtual reality. He is asking us to think hard about the direction we are going and maybe make some choices toward a more human-empowered future. Oldsters, read this book, even if you don't understand it. Youngsmart people, read this book with an open mind. Please.
Profile Image for Donna.
Author 1 book42 followers
July 28, 2010
I was so blown away by the excerpt of this book in Harper's that I deleted my facebook account before I even finished it. I also enjoyed the book, though I got lost about one exit after the 'songle'. But this is to be expected. Manifestos have a good first half or however much is apportioned to stating the problem. Therein lies recognition and the endorphin bath of connected dots. Solutions are harder to express. There's maybe one* person born per generation who can show us those unseen patterns that open the invisible doors to the future. But for illustrating a new variable of the human condition that we ignore at our own risk, Lanier is tops and I read this with close attention.

*this number comes from the ass-o-meter. I don't really know, nor do I have an opinionated estimate. Though I wish I did.
Profile Image for Nick.
183 reviews145 followers
February 10, 2011
I am not a tech guy. I consider myself technologically savvy but not sophisticated: I understand software but not hardware; I’ve created a website but don’t know html; etc. I picked up this book because it was amongst the “Best New Non-Fiction” at a local bookstore.

The funny thing is that I feel as if I was the perfect audience for the book since most of the information presented felt very fresh and new to me while perhaps much of what he writes might already be known to the self-described “technologist.” However, it’s hard to say whether other people like myself, i.e. the general reading public, will read it, especially with its ugly jacket design and silly title*. I hope they do. The book deals with the direction in which computing technology is developing and the moral, cultural, and financial consequences that might be in store for us; it proved to be quite a thought-provoking and, dare I say it, important read.

First off, Lanier opened my eyes to the origins of some general computing ideas, ideas that we generally take for granted. For instance, Lanier was programming when the whole concept of a “file” was developed. Jesus! Now it seems to make sense that the digital world should mimic the real world of documents and folders. Yet Lanier reminds us that this wasn’t always a foregone conclusion, that there might have been a scenario in which everything was one giant file. How much would our lives be different if this was the case, if files were not portable, and, consequently (and more importantly) not so easily reproducible?

Thus Lanier helps to address issues at an almost “atomic” level, reminding us that every aspect of the web and computers was designed. He’s not saying that we can just go back and fix things—in fact, he says the opposite, that once a program gets accepted and “locked-in” with additional programming put around it, it’s very difficult to start from scratch. However, just thinking about the original, potential possibilities allows the imagination to roam much more freely and truly question the status quo. It reminded me of when I learned about the Gnostic gospels, that there had been many, many different types of Christianities butting heads before Roman Catholicism extinguished the rest with the help of the Roman army. When I learned this information in college, there was very little in American culture that pointed to these other possibilities. The writers of the Gnostic gospels aren’t around these days to protest the way Christianity has developed. Lanier, on the other hand, is alive and well and openly objects to the way things are going on the web, remarking that just because a certain method is accepted and codified, doesn’t mean it’s the best one.

Lanier’s broad-mindedness as an original creator has many antecedents in history— thinkers and creative artists working with a new medium seem to always dream in much more radical ways than the generations that follow, who, barred from the delights of novelty, work more on perfecting what is already there than on experimenting with it. Lanier was one of the original creators of virtual reality (and he also explains later what happened to that) and hence was around close to the very beginning of computer programming as we know it. He’s been around to witness many forks in the road and knows what directions things could have gone in. This gives his objections a weight that an ordinary citizen might not have.

To sum up his objections specifically, Lanier discusses how there is a growing acceptance of the “hive mind” mentality, that whatever the internet produces, due to the combined efforts of the crowd, it is good and that the effort to control it isn’t worth the trouble. There is another name for this phenomenon: the “free” market. And just like the so-called “free” market allows for a few corporations to devour small businesses all in a purported desire to help customers, so do the internet behemoths reap the many financial rewards of the system while many individuals, seemingly benefiting from free music files and free movies, are quietly being undermined as culture and the instruments of free speech lose their power.

Lanier offers some mediocre solutions for these problems but even if they were brilliant, they still probably wouldn’t work from his suggesting them—for regulations to work, there has to be a government in place to enforce them. Considering the internet used to be thought of as an untamed environment, the Wild West wasn’t exactly the Fair West. The advantages of wilderness were balanced by its dangers. And yet now we live in a time where the web is almost a boring place yet the dangers of total economic destruction of so many media industries looms very large.

People may laugh off Lanier’s almost dire warnings about the dehumanizing aspects of Facebook and Wikipedia but the truth is that a change in perspective is not a sudden thing. Like climate change, you will never be able to feel the changes day to day. And when the glaciers all melt and every day is either a hurricane or a drought, and when a very few monopolies control all the wealth on the internet, by then it’ll be a little too late to change things. Okay, so I’m being a bit dire myself now. But sometimes even just a little loss of individual creativity, freedom, joy can be enough to change the future for the worse.

Of course, the book is not without problems. Lanier, unfortunately, is not always the best spokesman for his ideas. He is what some people might call a “weirdo” and sometimes it almost gets in the way of his credibility. For instance, after bashing the web 2.0 for a while he tries to make amends and says “Hey, I don’t hate the web, really. I love the web! Me and all the oud players [read: obscure musical instrument] get together on the oud forum and talk oud!” Considering, this is practically his sole example of why he likes the web, this is a good way to alienate most of the population and does not really promote his cause of getting that same population to wake up and fix things before it’s too late.

Also, there’s a particularly disagreeable chapter in which he basically says that generation X, Y, & Z have accomplished almost nothing musically. While he makes the fair claim that it is very difficult to distinguish music made in the late 90s to music made in the late 00s because of the current reliance on rehashing previous musical forms, he ignores some very significant facts. Most of the 20th century’s musical revolution came from two sources: the shifting from the European traditional focus on melody and harmony to the African & Asian traditional focus on rhythm; and the electrification of music. While the mixing of these two ideas led to a massive variety of different musical forms, eventually, equilibrium will be (and perhaps already has been) reached and there will be a decrease in the novelty of the musical ideas, especially since recording allows us never to lose previous musical traditions. Consequently, I believe it is the timing of the current generation of young musicians in history rather than any inherent lack of talent or forward-thinking on their part for any perceived musical repetitiveness. That and the splintering of the music industry and popular music itself into so many camps means that there are fewer and fewer mass musical movements to define generations.

There are some unexpectedly happy and wonderful digressions in the book, as well; there’s a terrific chapter near the end of the book which hints at a link between language and smell. Considering how grim most of his predictions seem, though, here’s hoping that this book will at least get some people thinking about the future of technology—and perhaps find a way to get us back on the right path.
Profile Image for Jill.
69 reviews
June 15, 2010
I have the feeling that I'm not going to finish this. When I first started to read it, I felt it should have been required reading for iSchool (or, as seemed more likely, underground reading for iSchool) -- the digital Maoism and techno-wishful thinking Lanier describes certainly corresponded to my experience in several classes (I KNEW I was right about the weirdly free-market language and the hints of libertarianism). Lanier's points about dehumanization are on target. But the book is starting to fall apart on me -- as critical as Lanier is of current web culture, he doesn't seem able to step outside of it, and some of his suggestions (um, the "songle"?) just don't ring any bells for me. I have to admit that I'd rather read a book that would make some of the same points but also encourage some engagement with the real, non-Interwebs world. The trouble is, framing the discussion in terms of internet vs. non-internet gets you labeled as a fuddy-duddy Luddite (ooh, that's catchy), and also sort of implies that there's a binarism -- you're either fully integrated or you're not, when in reality I'd guess that people engage with the internet in a broader range of ways than we seem able to acknowledge (though I think there's some legitimacy to the idea that computers lock us into binarism even more than we understand). Earlier this evening I saw a tweet from a religion professor who noted that the biggest need for digital humanists was for them to create a web-based community that involved discussion of other things besides the web. Good point. I'd like to see that too. Information science/studies seems to involve a whole lot of conversation about information science/studies, and not so much about content beyond that.

That said, I heartily applaud anyone who points out that information requires human use and interpretation and argues against the anthropomorphizing of information -- even better that it's coming from someone within the information world. If a plain old humanist said that, he/she'd just be dismissed as one of those stupid, backwards humanists who probably writes on paper (ba ha ha ha ha! pen and paper! ha ha ha!)

That said, I'm going to go write in a notebook.
Profile Image for Jesse Toldness.
58 reviews13 followers
June 30, 2013
tl;dr: Damn Hippies. Damn Old Computer Hippies

Longer Version: This is not a book. This is what it says on the title. A Manifesto. A stream of consciousness outpouring, unfiltered and unedited and unbound, from the author's mind. This isn't any one single thing because the old Computer Hippy couldn't stay on any one topic long enough to really flesh anything out. Major concepts get brushed over with a mention, while long, tedious personal fixations get pages and pages of skippable twaddle. Lanier argues, in the large anyway, that the very structure of the Internet is warping how we think and breaking us up into tiny, discrete mental pieces and the most effective argument he has is the book itself, which borders on resembling one of William S. Burroughs' infamous cut-ups.

The reason it gets that second star is because if you treat this as the buffet that it is, and not a single entree, there's some redeemable stuff to be picked out of it. Some of the ideas are at least interesting and Lanier raises some good questions (which, unfortunately, he feels the need to answer). As fascinating raw material, it has some value... hell, someday somebody might even want to make a book out of it.
Profile Image for Mark Rayner.
Author 9 books160 followers
July 5, 2011
I would like to give this work a higher rating, but I'm afraid it's a bit too hard to read. That said, I think anyone who is interested in our future as a species should spend some time with Lanier and this manifesto, because he raises some pertinent questions about what technology does to us as human beings; specifically, he is interested in how the design of technology affects us as human beings.

I agree with much of his criticism. I'm worried that humans are now having to adapt ourselves to our technologies, which is backwards of course. We created technology to make our existence easier, and now it is doing the opposite.

If you endeavor to read this, I'd also recommend you read Super Sad True Love Story, because it demonstrates some of the outcomes that Lanier is worried about.
Profile Image for Ben.
11 reviews
September 5, 2012
This book is about disappointment. Jaron Lanier is a “programmer, musician, and father of virtual reality technology,” and he’s bummed about how computer programming and the Internet have turned out so far. I don’t understand a lot of the technology and virtual-reality jargon he speaks, but I do get disappointment. I mean, F-book is really lame, isn’t it? I’ve joked that if I was on F-book, I would set the following auto-response to every message posted on my wall: “I don’t care.” Of course, almost a billion active users might disagree with me. And I wouldn’t really say that, because I’m not a mean person. And I couldn’t do that anyway because it isn’t a F-book feature, which is an interesting point. One of the most influential communication tools of our time (so far) is also a powerful conformity machine. You get 11 relationship statuses to choose from. You get to choose a profile picture. You get to “Like” stuff. You can write 63,000 characters in your status update—OK, that’s pretty good, but the point is that it isn’t your choice. A major critical theme in Lanier’s book is the tendency of current technological tools (like social networking) or the mission of certain technological ideologies (like “open culture”) to reduce individual expression and, consequently, devalue the individual person.

To continue with the example of social networking, the idea of providing a cookie-cutter interface with artificially-imposed options of self-identification (which is the easy approach to computer programming) not only limits expression but also begins to limit thought. For the sake of convenience (everyone’s doing it, it’s easy, these are the options the program provides) we adapt ourselves to fit the social network that has been handed to us. Lanier writes, “An individual who is receiving a flow of reports about the romantic status of a group of friends must learn to think in terms of the flow if it is to be perceived as worth reading at all. So here is another example of how people are able to lessen themselves so as to make a computer seem accurate. Am I accusing those hundreds of millions of users of social networking sites of reducing themselves in order to be able to use the services? Well, yes, I am.”

I particularly enjoyed Lanier’s comparison of F-book to No Child Left Behind: “What computerized analysis of all the country’s school tests has done to education is exactly what Facebook has done to friendships. In both cases, life is turned into a database. Both degradations are based on the same philosophical mistake, which is a belief that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships.”

The individual is reduced by more than just social networking. Ideas like the hive mind and the noosphere, “the idea that a collective consciousness emerges from all the users on the web,” is embraced by many technologists. Wikipedia could be considered a beginning manifestation of this idea, because it serves to erase individual authorship and point of view (as well as impose a conformity of structure to the information that we find online).

Other threats include the “open culture” that believes information (software, movies, music, and whatever else is online) should be free. This, according to Lanier, is an unsustainable practice in a market economy. After all, nothing is actually free. Somebody is paying for what we’re consuming, and, in the current model, that would be advertisers.

If we continue where we’re going, with users giving away the products of their online labor for the benefit of spying/advertising empires, then obviously those empires will accumulate wealth and power to effectively lobby for privileged internet service and make deals with other powerful forces. This will disadvantage all the people who were acting purely as consumers or volunteers, or attempting to conduct business outside these large services.

A completely open Internet reduces the value of art, music, and individual expression. Questions we face include whether artists and creators should be compensated for the work that they do, and, if not, must they return to the days of relying on a wealthy patron to sustain them. Is that progress?

Furthermore, and perhaps counterintuitively, an “open culture” does not necessarily promote creativity. Does evidence show that creativity is advanced by free and open sharing of information or by the traditional “closed system” of proprietary innovation? Lanier mentions some of the “beloved successes of digital culture”—the computer game Spore, the iPhone, Pixar movies—as personal expressions created by individuals. These are copyright-protected products that “you actually pay real money for,” not free, crowd-sourced—and inferior, according to Lanier—inventions.

In this supposed renaissance of information-sharing and communication, Lanier fears that we actually aren’t getting anywhere with new forms of creativity. We are ironically stuck in the past:

It is astonishing how much of the chatter online is driven by fan responses to expression that was originally created within the sphere of old media and that is now being destroyed by the net. Comments about TV shows, major movies, commercial music releases, and video games must be responsible for almost as much traffic as porn...

Take a look at one of the big cultural blogs like Boing Boing, or the endless stream of mashups that appear on YouTube. It’s as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump.

This is embarrassing. The whole point of connected media technologies was that we were supposed to come up with new, amazing cultural expression. No, more than that—we were supposed to invent better fundamental types of expression: not just movies, but interactive virtual worlds; not just games, but simulations with moral and aesthetic profundity.

My disappointment and Lanier’s are similar yet different. I’m disappointed that a smart phone vies for attention in a small gathering of humans, and by how quickly three hours disappear when all I did was google “John Carter of Mars,” and that as an adult I am using the word “google” as a verb. Lanier is disappointed that we aren’t using virtual reality by now to morph ourselves into colors, games, and molecules in order to express thoughts in new evolutionary forms of communication, or that he still has to describe virtual reality using words. This could all be chalked up to nostalgia. I miss pre-Internet quiet and drawing maps on napkins for directions. I think Lanier misses the 1980s when he was pioneering virtual reality with his “late hippie” friends and visualizing becoming a cephalopod.

But it isn’t just nostalgia, and this book is not just about disappointment (although there is plenty more that I haven’t mentioned). Lanier does have real ideas for an alternative Internet future (or futures). As an example, rather than the current economic model where “we get certain free cloud services in exchange for being spied on and not being paid, while still overpaying for bandwidth,” he explores the idea of “paying for bits,” meaning that instead of paying for (or stealing) a copy of a cultural expression (such as a book or song), one pays a small amount directly to an author every time that cultural expression is accessed. This means that, more or less, one copy of that expression exists and it is repeatedly accessed rather than copied; the access “fee” goes to the creator rather than to a cloud owner doling out copies.

More importantly, Lanier’s real concern is whether we will continue to value individual expression, human spirituality, and simply the meaning of being a person. Despite my focus on disappointment, Lanier successfully presents himself as an optimist, both in the (so far unmet) possibilities of technology to deepen meaning through new forms of communication and also in his confidence in humans’ ability to value themselves as more than just “one form of information system.” (You are not a gadget!)

It’s easy to criticize, but can 900,000 social network users be wrong? Entrepreneurs are using the software to promote their small businesses, families have an easy way to keep in touch and share pictures thousands of miles away, activists are able to organize protests and even revolutions (although this facility may be overrated). Should we quit it? To Lanier, F-book is an antihuman software design. He doesn’t say yes, exactly, but he does say this: “Stop calling yourself a user. You are being used.”

But the downsides of the social network, wikis, and open culture are only a part of Lanier’s message. His “manifesto” is exactly what he’s asking us to do: in the midst of profound changes in the advancing digital culture, consider whether technology is improving the human experience or reducing it.

Early in his book, Lanier proposes a what-you-can-do list “to be a person instead of a source of fragments to be exploited by others.”

Don’t post anonymously unless you really might be in danger.

If you put effort into Wikipedia articles, put even more effort into using your personal voice and expression outside of the wiki to help attract people who don’t yet realize that they are interested in the topics you contributed to.

Create a website that expresses something about who you are that won’t fit into the template available to you on a social networking site.

Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view.

Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out.

If you are twittering, innovate in order to find a way to describe your internal state instead of trivial exernal events, to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would define a machine.

Some of these ideas echo those discussed by Sherry Turkle in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, particularly the belief that part of what helps people develop a self-identity is time spent alone in introspection, what could be called soul-searching, a long-standing and very human practice. And (I’m sorry, I have to) there isn’t an app for that.
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