You Are Not a Gadget…Or, at Least, You Shouldn’t Be

One of Matt Staggs’ links last week was to a New York Times Book Review piece on Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget. I haven’t read the book, but the description of its main points really resonated with me, especially because I’m currently taking a break from Facebook and my personal blog.

This part of the review made perfect sense to me:

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.

This argument and others from his book mirror my own concerns about new media. Even as I’ve embraced much of what new/social media has to offer, I also strongly recommend, in Booklife and in my lecture for MIT, thinking about what you’re doing and remembering the importance of balance. In particular, these points:

(1) New media tools like Facebook and Twitter are exactly that—tools. They are not strategies. Just getting on Facebook, creating a blog is not a strategy or a plan. I can’t repeat that enough.

(2) It’s when you mistake the tools for a strategy that you begin to not only become tactical and reactive but also limited in your thinking because of the limitations of the tools.

(3) The most successful writers in the future will be the ones that stop responding in Pavlovian fashion to our current need for that little food pellet in the form of a response to a Blog entry, Twitter line or a Facebook status message.

(4) Further, the tools which you help realize both a creative project and create interest for it are constantly changing. Thus a focus on the tools is a focus on what will all too soon be the past.

(5) A focus on tools thus also means that you are in some ways limiting your options by letting the limitations of the tool and the preconceptions the tool engenders shape your project. Don’t let your imagination become a lackey to a new media tool. If a tool controls your actions, it to some extent controls your imagination.

Lanier’s book also seems to make strong arguments about not supporting mob behavior on the internet, something that we’ve seen too often—in which sheer force of numbers seems to win an argument, even when there hasn’t been true or logical discussion of the issues. Nuance suffers and the facts tend to become distorted.

Food for thought–and a book I’ll be picking up shortly. Amazon has an interesting interview with the author here.

11 thoughts on “You Are Not a Gadget…Or, at Least, You Shouldn’t Be

  1. It just seems like Jaron has taken until now to work out that all his ideas about VR were misguided. Life isn't all about Tools and Pills and Helmets and Hallucintaions, and anyone who thought it was missed out on all the humanity and the nuances. Fortunately, most people never made that mistake. If you read Danah Boyd's research, you'll find that the typical American teenager understands Lanier's points about the limitations of tools, and negotiates them daily. It's only lazy old journalists who stereotype them as passive lab rats. Lanier is almost fifty years old. He has a lot of unlearning to do.

  2. Gordon:

    I wouldn't dismiss what he's saying just because he's 50 and used to believe his own spiel.

    The point I think makes a lot of sense is that the tools we use help to define how we express ourselves and our imaginations–and we're getting fitted into particular boxes. I don't believe that's negated by the next generation. It's easy to think that the break-down is generational, but I believe it's more predicated on the kind of brain and personality each of us has. The "kids" are just as susceptible to this kind of thing.

    Also, which part are you disallowing? The part about getting locked into certain systems or the part about a mob mentality, or…? A blanket dismissal of this doesn't seem logical.

    More importantly, I'm talking in the context of a writing career–contextualizing what I know of the guy's book from the review.


  3. Limitations of tools, I'd argue, is a different subject from the idea being shaped by them.

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  5. @GordonRae

    If you read the book you'll see that Lanier doesn't dismiss technology so much as the "anti-human" ways it can be designed and put to use. At the end of the book he has a really long section about the ways he imagines technology augmenting and enhancing "human" experience, ie, allowing people to communicate with each other in a deeper and more immediate way. His philosophy about VR, for instance, is informed by this idea that technology can help people communicate "post symbolically"–He envisioned a world in which, rather than the mediation of sounds and symbols, people could inhabit 3-dimensional spaces in which they could literally recreate and share their dreams.

    So it's not fair to say he is renouncing his work in VR or (as some have done) that this book is the work of a Luddite. It's by someone who feels we need to be careful with the way we design our technology and remember that it serves us, and is not an end to itself.

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