Review: You Are Not a Gadget – Jaron Lanier

Jaron Lanier’s profile reads more like a character from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake or The Year of the Flood, than someone who followed a more traditional path to becoming an influential technologist.  In You Are Not a Gadget, Lanier laments how the internet, and specifically web 2.0, has developed, and what impact those developments may have in how people interact with one another and with technology.

In case the reader is not getting a point, Lanier seems to return again and again to the same issues.  The discussion is thoughtful, but redundant.  While it’s led me to being more critical about technology and design, Lanier’s message could have been more succinctly communicated.

A few areas on which Lanier focuses include:

  • Social media, specifically Facebook
  • The hivemind (Wikipedia, wisdom of the crowds)
  • Singularity fanatics
  • Anonymity
  • Devaluation of people and creative expression

While reading this book, I found myself thinking, why am I using a specific technology (Facebook)?  What does it mean to enter information according to someone’s database design of social interaction?  How has that changed my relationships with people?

On a broader level, I thought of the use of Google Analytics for this website.  Why am I writing a blog post?  Am I writing it as an expression of myself, or am I trying to generate page hits?  Imagine being at a party and having an engaging conversation with someone.  Now, imagine analyzing that conversation based on someone else’s, in this case Google’s, statistics.  My friend only spent 35 seconds making eye contact.  That person followed the conversation up to this point, and then walked away.

Why do I care how long someone spends on a blog post?  I don’t use ads on my website.  I care, because I’ve interpreted it as a sign of how interesting a post may be.  A better measure may be blog posts that have created worthwhile comments.  An alternative I prefer is to not care, to not be caught up in worthless measures, but to enjoy the process.

Largely pessimistic You Are Not a Gadget is a loud voice in the debate over technology.  Lanier is not anti-technology, but pro-humanity.  He has a vision of technology that is unbound creativity.  More than anything, You Are Not a Gadget is a call for users and creators to be more aware, to not be dictated to, but to have a voice in the shape and power of the Internet and technology in general.

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