Jaron Lanier. London: Penguin.
In the seven years since its initial publication, Jaron Lanier’s You are not a Gadget (2010), has, if anything, become even more resonant and pertinent. With the rise of ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’, the further dominance of Google, Facebook, Amazon, alongside higher stress and anxiety levels amongst users of social media compared to the rest of the population, the reduction of political debate (on both the left and right) to whatever you can say with one hundred and forty characters, Lanier’s book reads like a prophetic warning from a galaxy far far away.
The warning Lanier sounds is that ‘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 an individual.’ The original design of Twitter, for example, was created for people to send inconsequential messages to each other – a perfectly reasonable aspiration. The problem arises, however, when people start to send messages that aren’t inconsequential, that may actually be important. Twitter’s design cannot cope with nuance or reasoned debate. If Twitter is full of bullies (as indeed it is), it is because the framework of its design actively encourages it. Furthermore, unlike Facebook, where ‘friendship’ is a mutual agreement, on Twitter you can ‘follow’ and be ‘followed’ by anyone. This increases the potential to grand-stand and self-aggrandise. Given this, is it any surprise that Twitter played a key role in getting someone from ‘reality TV’ – that most ‘inconsequential’ of TV genres – elected as President of the United States? Twitter degrades us as individuals by reducing us to the terms of its design.
Lanier’s book is at its best when it is warning us about ‘lock-in’, the design features to pieces of software that we have naturalised and assume are the ‘right’ and ‘only’ way of doing things. In fact, the digital world is calling out for a book along the lines of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies that will expose how the digital frameworks we work in are often the result of certain values and ideologies. You are not a Gadget is not the that book, but there are passages that come close. Lanier’s discussion about how computers use files is particularly interesting: ‘The file is a set of philosophical ideas made into eternal flesh’, he comments. We have naturalised the idea of the file so much that we find it difficult to imagine how we could use computers without them. The concept of the ‘file’ has, then, become ‘locked-in’. So when Lanier tells us that the ‘first iteration of the Macintosh…didn’t have files’ we begin to think of the alternative paths computer design could have taken.
These passages, where Lanier is de-mythologising the design choices taken by programmers in the late 1970s, are also fascinating because Lanier, who was one of pioneers of early Virtual Reality, was actually there programming this software. As he notes:
These designs came together very recently, and there’s a haphazard, accidental quality to them. Resist the easy grooves they guide you into. If you love a medium made of software, there’s a danger that you will become entrapped in someone else’s recent careless thoughts. Struggle against that!
It is a call to arms for us to begin to critique how we are being positioned in terms of the software we use and why that might be the case. After all, who would want to be entrapped in Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘careless thoughts’? The book is less successful, I suggest, when Lanier is arguing against the Creative Commons, open access and the ‘free’ economy, but, that said, the book is never less than hugely readable and engaging. Whether you agree with Lanier or not, You are not a Gadget provides the reader with a critical perspective with which to interrogate the software we use daily. More importantly, the book’s ultimate achievement is to foreground the human in the digital.
– Michael Goodman