A Rebel in Cyberspace, Fighting Collectivism

[ Wed. Jan. 13. 2010 ]

In 2006, the artist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier published an incisive, groundbreaking and highly controversial essay about “digital Maoism” — about the downside of online collectivism, and the enshrinement by Web 2.0 enthusiasts of the “wisdom of the crowd.” In that manifesto Mr. Lanier argued that design (or ratification) by committee often does not result in the best product, and that the new collectivist ethos — embodied by everything from Wikipedia to“American Idol” to Google searches — diminishes the importance and uniqueness of the individual voice, and that the “hive mind” can easily lead to mob rule.

Jonathan Sprague

Jaron Lanier

 

YOU ARE NOT A GADGET

 

A Manifesto

By Jaron Lanier

209 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.95.

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Excerpt: ‘You Are Not a Gadget’(pdf)

Now, in his impassioned new book “You Are Not a Gadget,” Mr. Lanier expands this thesis further, looking at the implications that digital Maoism or “cybernetic totalism” have for our society at large. Although some of his suggestions for addressing these problems wander into technical thickets the lay reader will find difficult to follow, the bulk of the book is lucid, powerful and persuasive. It is necessary reading for anyone interested in how the Web and the software we use every day are reshaping culture and the marketplace.

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.

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.”

Mr. Lanier sensibly notes that the “wisdom of crowds” is a tool that should be used selectively, not glorified for its own sake. Of Wikipedia he writes that “it’s great that we now enjoy a cooperative pop culture concordance” but argues that the site’s ethos ratifies the notion that the individual voice — even the voice of an expert — is eminently dispensable, and “the idea that the collective is closer to the truth.” He complains that Wikipedia suppresses the sound of individual voices, and similarly contends that the rigid format of Facebook turns individuals into “multiple-choice identities.”

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.

“It might start to happen in the next decade or so,” Mr. Lanier writes. “Google and other companies are scanning library books into the cloud in a massive Manhattan Project of cultural digitization. What happens next is what’s important. 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.”

While this development might sound like a good thing for consumers — so much free stuff! — it makes it difficult for people to discern the source, point of view and spin factor of any particular fragment they happen across on the Web, while at the same time encouraging content producers, in Mr. Lanier’s words, “to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind.” A few lucky people, he notes, can benefit from the configuration of the new system, spinning their lives into “still-novel marketing” narratives, as in the case, say, of Diablo Cody, “who worked as a stripper, can blog and receive enough attention to get a book contract, and then have the opportunity to have her script made into a movie — in this case, the widely acclaimed ‘Juno.’ ” He fears, however, that “the vast majority of journalists, musicians, artists and filmmakers” are “staring into career oblivion because of our failed digital idealism.”

Paradoxically enough, the same old media that is being destroyed by the Net drives an astonishing amount of online chatter. “Comments about TV shows, major movies, commercial music releases, and video games must be responsible for almost as much bit traffic as porn,” Mr. Lanier observes. “There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but since the Web is killing the old media, we face a situation in which culture is effectively eating its own seed stock.”

In other passages in this provocative and sure-to-be-controversial book he goes even further, suggesting that “pop culture has entered into a nostalgic malaise,” that “online culture is dominated by trivial mashups of the culture that existed before the onset of mashups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralized mass media.”

Online culture, he goes on, “is a culture of reaction without action” and rationalizations that “we were entering a transitional lull before a creative storm” are just that — rationalizations. “The sad truth,” he concludes, “is that we were not passing through a momentary lull before a storm. We had instead entered a persistent somnolence, and I have come to believe that we will only escape it when we kill the hive.”

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