Book 3 of 24 of A Year of Books. You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto. Read: February 2018.
We should instead seek to inspire the phenomenon of individual intelligence. “What is a person?” If I knew the answer to that, I might be able to program an artificial person in a computer. But I can’t. Being a person is not a pat formula, but a quest, a mystery, a leap of faith.
Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget falls within the gray area between a tech and a philosophy reading. The basic premise is that we have to continuously question whether the design of the technologies we create (and use) stretches our capabilities as human beings, or reduces them.
For example, when MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) was created, it should have been just one of the range of options that represent music. Instead, it has become its standard representation, and the musical note has ceased to become “just an idea” with infinite possibilities. Before MIDI, every note played live is not the same as any other. But now, it has become “a rigid, mandatory structure you couldn’t avoid in the aspects of life that had gone digital”. In a way, this technology has defined or maybe even reduced our perception of music.
Lanier calls this “the process of lock-in”. When we create something and it becomes a standard, it is “like a wave gradually washing over the rulebook of life, culling the ambiguities of flexible thoughts as more and more thought structures are solidified into effectively permanent reality.” Which is just a fancy way of saying that the standards we create eventually become our reality.
We make up extensions to your being, like remote eyes and ears (web-cams and mobile phones) and expanded memory (the world of details you can search for online). These become the structures by which you connect to the world and other people. These structures in turn can change how you conceive of yourself and the world.
We are also warned of the increasing emphasis on the mind of the crowd (“the hive mind”) versus that of the individual:
Emphasizing the crowd means deemphasizing individual humans in the design of society, and when you ask people not to be people, they revert to bad mob-like behaviors. This leads not only to empowered trolls, but to a generally unfriendly and unconstructive online world.
This may be a generalization, but if we look at what is happening on social media today, this cannot be denied. In fact, since the past year, Facebook has been surveying users with questions like, is Facebook good for the world? I wasn’t aware they were doing this for the past years until the question popped up on my screen when I opened Facebook on my laptop.
As part of “deemphasizing individual humans”, Lanier discusses how we now all fall into buckets such as “single”, “married” or “it’s complicated”. Just like with midi, we no longer describe ourselves through free text in which no two paragraphs are exactly the same, but through multiple-choice questions that box us in specific categories. (And if I may include Eckhart Tolle’s philosophy here, it can be argued that even free text or words are already limiting and reducing.) It’s simplification on top of simplification. The question is, in real life, are we force fitting ourselves to those pre-defined categories?
Lanier talks about a whole bunch of other things – blogging, advertising, artificial intelligence. I don’t necessarily agree with everything. But it does get me thinking – are we creating the gadgets for humans, or are we recreating humans to make the machines seem smarter than they are?
I take a mystical view of human beings. My first priority must be to avoid reducing people to mere devices. The best way to do that is to believe that the gadgets I can provide are inert tools and are only useful because people have the magical ability to communicate meaning through them.