The weaknesses of Jaron Lanier’s "You Are Not a Gadget" are readily apparent and well summarized by Evgeny Morozov, and don’t need to be recounted here. Suffice it to say the book is comprised largely of improvised riffs on the social impact of information technology that sometimes seem more worthy of Lanier’s musician alter ego than of a book subtitled "A Manifesto."
There is, however, much here worthy of attention, and I’d like to summarize and respond to a few of the book’s central themes.
The first is the notion that, given the centrality of information technology in our society, the decisions made by software engineers can have a massive impact not only in the limited context of the systems they create but on society at large. Specifically, they can put constraints on our creativity and shape our idea of what it means to be human. In Lanier’s account, computers have a tendency to remake us in their own image, and in the resulting "computationalist" conception of human nature (increasingly embodied in "Web 2.0"), all of our cultural production, far from representing expressions of individually talented human beings, becomes fodder for the "hive mind." In the more radical manifestations of this ideology, the internet is believed to be an emergent collective intelligence unto itself, its evolution pointing to the advent of a "Singularity" in which consciousness itself will be computer-simulated.
The consequences of this software design approach-cum-ideology and the attendant "digital flattening of expression into a global mush" are many. Authorship is devalued; creative professionals such as musicians are pauperized; entire institutions once thought to be crucial to the functioning of democracy, like the Fourth Estate of journalism, are laid waste; human beings themselves are "defined downward" for the purpose of making them more compatible with computer programs. On a smaller scale, the anonymity and fragmentedness of online communication — features determined by internet software design — encourages troll-like, unempathic behavior. (Spend a few minutes scrolling through the comments on a YouTube video to test the veracity of this claim.) On the commerce front, as the piracy of music and video content continues unabated, advertising comes to be considered "the only form of expression meriting genuine commercial protection," a feedback loop amplified by investment capital’s preference for content aggregators over enterprises that produce original content.
On the surface, Lanier would seem to be advocating, at a minimum, stronger intellectual property protections, and in fact one of Lanier’s prescriptive suggestions includes what amounts to a digital rights management (DRM) scheme, albeit one with a pedigree: Hypertext inventor Ted Nelson once proposed a system which would "keep only one copy of each cultural expression — as with a book or a song — and pay the author of that expression a small, affordable amount whenever it is accessed." Leaving aside the questionable practicality of this proposal, what is curious here is that on many levels Lanier’s manifesto is a salvo against the "free culture" movement that found its voice in the works of Lawrence Lessig (who has since moved on to bigger things). Yet Lanier starts with a premise that is very similar to Lessig’s thesis in his book "Code" — that "code is law," or that computer system architectures tend to determine our social, cultural and political milieux in profound ways — but arrives at an opposite conclusion. For Lessig, these architectures tend to give content producers total control over the use ot their works, while for Lanier, under these architectures the very notion of authorship melts away. To my knowledge, Lessig’s work on these issues was done before the term "Web 2.0" was coined. Has that much really changed since Lessig published "Code"? Or does Lanier reject Lessig’s position outright? If the latter, it would have been interesting to see Lanier engage directly this author whom I would assume to be his natural rival. But nowhere in his book does Lanier mention his Lessig’s name.
The privileging of collective forms of expression, according to Lanier, also inhibits innovation. The Linux hackers who have developed their operating system according to a collective, open source methodology, for example, are in thrall to a "1970s intellectual framework" which compares unfavorably to the innovation that spawned the iPhone, which is instead the product of a "central personal vision," in this case that of Steve Jobs. Here I would question whether open source software development really partakes of the radically collectivist, "digital Maoist" logic that Lanier excoriates. Not only do projects like Linux tend to be developed, in spite of their openness, largely by a small core group of dominant personalities, but those personalities tend to be driven more by peer recognition (among other motivations) than by an attitude of obeisance to the hive mind.
Whatever the limitations of "You Are Not a Gadget," it’s all too rare to see information technology practitioners — especially those of us engaged in the exciting and "revolutionary" practices of open source and "free culture" — question their tools and their prejudices as seen here.