I finished reading Jaron Lanier's You Are Not A Gadget a few days ago. If you like this blog, you should probably read it. Jaron is an old-school motherfucker with crazy dreadlocks (I could almost smell the patchouli on the page) who I consider to be one of the lost Techno Hippies of the 70s. The only successful one has been Steve Jobs (but he cut his hair).
The book centers around the consequences of our contemporary digital onslaught. The systematic codifying of social and economic life to mechanized processes, and the dehumanization and recontextualization that is happening every day because of it. These are themes I like a lot, obviously, and it's neat to read the thoughts of an aged and mostly-respected computer guy when they nicely align with a lot of my ideas. However, I think his vocabulary is a bit dated, or rather maybe he's not very good at coming up with terms for his troubles.
For example, for the first section of the book he talks a lot about "lock-in" and how developing big systems really sucks in the long run. "Lock-in" being the standardization and normalization of computer programs as they get bigger and bigger, but he also means the same defining and codifying of social systems as we make digital representations of them. See? I think I just described it better than he did. My favorite example being the concept of "friend" that has been locked-in to our social systems as a mere basic feature, a hard-link between two person-entities. Friendship is no longer nebulous or ambiguous; it's locked-in to a certain standard. That standard can shift around a little bit (on Facebook it's Friends, on Twitter it's Followers, on Plus it's Circles) but largely it's a mechanism that we've integrated into our lives quite fully and readily. We have fragmented ourselves across a spectrum of global services. We are dumbing ourselves down because we believe that computers are somehow smarter.
What Jaron really wants to talk about is the consequences of that cultural and social decision -- and even more importantly, the impetus against a conversation about these things before they are even created. The shift away from philosophy and towards rapid (and rabid) entrepeneurship. We don't really know whether anybody sat down and said "should we make Facebook?" and examined its potential impacts on sociality and culture before it was launched. I doubt it. Computer nerds and businessmen don't think that way, and they are the two populations who are currently doing the most damage to us socially and culturally. Facebook's struggle -- the one that is highly publicized -- is one of "how do we make money?" rather than "should we rethink how our site works?" This is an example of that codifying lock-in: once Facebook took off and got millions of users, it became a system that couldn't simply change overnight. (When they do try to implement changes, it's always met with fierce anger from the userbase.) So any deep, introspective change to any complex highly-used system (whether it's Facebook, the government, or our brains) takes impossible herculean effort. (Facebook and the government have to worry about millions of upset constituents; our brains have to worry about millions of years of evolution.)
That is the state of things on the system-end. On the user-end, we are willfully and readily degrading and mechanizing ourselves as if it was the dark ages and we're all throwing ourselves at the mercy of the Church in an effort to not be killed for defying it. The social system (a real, digital system) that is quickly overtaking first-world life is exactly that: integrate or be left behind. Like the Church in the dark ages, there are people making serious money on this conversion process, and those people are the ones holding the keys to "the cloud" as Jaron puts it. "The cloud", in his terminology, meaning the whole system of the social internet. There are very few people who have large extending control over the flow of information, and those people are kings. We, as users, have extremely willingly given them massive control over our lives simply because the services they provided are monetarily free. Jaron, and I, very vehemently wish to remind everyone that they are not intellectually and morally free. Nothing is.
Jaron also, surprisingly, dives into a critique and examination of contemporary music, and how the ease and diversity of music today has rendered us a generation of nostalgic juveniles paralyzed by our own limitless choices. Nobody is making money as musicians or artists anymore because there are too many of them, and they are now perpetually at the mercy of a crowd-sourced market. By levelling the playing field, we've only doomed our creative extremes. There's no way for a cool garage band to really hit the road, make a great album, and sell a million copies. You need a record company for that, and they're evil, right? I wager that the openness of the internet is far more evil. Rather, it's not evil, it's perfect chaos. At least a record company is run by humans, it has money to invest, and sometimes they're willing to take a chance. The internet, on the other hand, wants everybody's shitty music. It wants to sell anything, because it costs so little and the margin is so good on such a massive scale. But getting ahead, making money and sustaining creative growth, is as close to impossible as it could ever be. Nobody will listen to you because nobody will ever find you -- and even if you generate enough buzz to get a lot of people, they'll abandon you when you decide to change things, because they can just as easily find someone else to listen to. And pirating music is so easy, nobody feels bad for moving on to the next band, because nothing is wasted in doing so.
Things I disagree with Jaron on: he goes on a lot about anonymity and how it's bad because everyone turns out to be a troll, but I think it's a wonderful balancing act that's necessary for democracy and evolution. Nobody gets anywhere by agreeing with everyone. However, Jaron shouldn't worry, because anonymity on the web is going away very fast. I remember ten years ago nobody ever used their real name on the internet; now most everybody doesn't think twice about it. I remember my father telling me that if I ever put anything on the web, it should never have my name attached to it. Now, everyone is told that if you don't put your name on it, somebody will steal it and take the credit away from you. We're destroying our own creativity the same way capitalist copyright policy is ripping apart the true meaning of creativity.
Jaron also spends a chapter or two dipping into some very boring talk about how to fix economics by employing more complex and formal digital systems. He spends the first third of the book talking about how digital systems are breaking things, and then suggests that the world of finances needs more digital systems. He and we already know that it was our heavily complex "mathematically-sound" economic algorithms (commissioned by the most greedy and vile financiers in the world) that created the vast majority of the current financial crises going on today. It was exactly our hubris, specifically the smugness and unknowing arrogance of math and computer engineers, and the deregulation which allowed them to flurish, which got us into this mess. But who can blame them? A rich banker hires a team of twenty amazing programmers and mathematicians to build systems that can respond to markets in milliseconds and make billions of dollars in perfectly legal complex and obfuscated ways. I'm sure those guys had a fucking blast. So did the guys at the Manhattan Project. No, our financial problems have nothing to do with digitalizing markets, and they cannot be solved that way; our crises are purely human political ones. The wrong people are in charge, and we are all paying for it. It's that simple.
There's also throughout the book a collection of short and pointed jabs at mashup/remix culture and how it's a second-class citizen to "real" culture. I could not disagree more. If anything, one of the great things that has come about from the ease of pirating music has been an influx of creativity through otherwise extremely expensive means. Listening to Girl Talk or Bootie is much better than listening to the majority of the samples within it, because it is a complex evolving sythnesis of culture, subversion, and recontextualization. That's what a lot of great art is about: taking the old, reacting to it, and making something new from it (even if it contains the same parts as the old). It's one of the few triumphs of postmodernism.
The final section of the book is a rough indexing of non-conclusions about how bad and yet potentially beneficial computationalism is to our social and cultural lives. Really, the last forty pages should simply say we need more thought, more ambiguity, more freedom of expression, more care to our selves and the systems we employ. Computationalism (really? is that the best word he could come up with?) has benefits in making small, simple things work better. But it is very, very difficult to make complex, long-standing facets of life into software. Any effort to do so should be slow, gradual, talked about, debated, and realistically interpreted. Efficiency is not the way to get it done. Humans, and all life on earth, did not come about efficiently. Our ways of being, from our physical bodies to our mental processes, took millions of years to form the way they are, and they are by no means perfect -- but they work really, really well. It's goddamn amazing that you are sitting there reading this, and your body is doing such crazy complicated things just to allow that to happen. Appreciate that.
But nobody thinks about that when they're writing software to represent our human relationships, to codify our thoughts, to make our free creative expression something that's indexable, cataloged, interpreted, distributed, and sold. As someone who writes software, I'm terrified at the idea of making any system that might get used by a lot of people, and even more horrified that it might influence the way they think. It should scare you, too, that Facebook was a system built by an extremely shy computer nerd. I don't have much against Mark Zuckerberg, but was he really the best choice for who should mechanize our social lives? Shouldn't it have been something we did together? (Do we even have the capacity to do anything worthwhile together anymore?)
And then at the end of the book, Jaron talks a lot about how much he likes squids that can change colors and how awesome it'll be in fifty years when the virtual reality he and his hippie buddies builds will blow all our childrens' minds away. If you read closely, you can tell at which sentences he smoked one too many joints, or hit a pocket of leftover LSD in his brain stem. However, that's a perspective we've unfortunately been missing in our conversations about social networks, and any constructed and reasoned criticism is good criticism right now.