Review of You Are Not a Gadget by

Book cover for You Are Not a Gadget

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.

Engagement

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