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You Are Not a Gadget - Jaron Lanier UPDATED - 1/5/13 - at bottom

There are many ideas floating about in the mind of Jaron Lanier, the guy who popularized the term virtual reality, was with Atari in the beginning and has, for decades, been involved with VR as a teacher, consultant and architect. One of his notions, the core argument of this book, is that much of current internet interface design, so-called Web 2.0, is hazardous to users.
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 individuals. These unfortunate designs are more oriented toward treating people as relays in a global brain.
He takes issue as well with the idea that content should not have to be paid for.
the idea that information should be “free” sounds good at first. But the unintended result is that all the clout and money generated online has begun to accumulate around people close to only certain highly secretive computers, many of which are essentially spying operations designed to sell advertising and access or to pull money out of a marketplace as if by black magic. The motives of the people who comprise the online elites aren’t necessarily bad…but nevertheless the structure of the online economy as it has developed is hurting the middle class, and the viability of capitalism for everyone in the long term.
He points out that those who make their living from creativity, writers, artists, photographers, designers, are under an all out assault by on-line providers eager to deliver art only as a means of generating ad revenue, to themselves, not the creatives who actually produce content. Lanier sees the rise of what he calls “digital serfdom,” yet another attack on the middle class. With the bi-polar tax code in the US that punishes actual work, the demise of support for working people by a viable, liberal Democratic Party, and the off-shoring of as much work as possible by capital that encounters fewer and fewer limitations on trans-national transit, the middle class does not need yet another drain on our resources and ability to earn a living, yet here it is. Lanier makes a compelling case that value, in the form of dollars, accumulates increasingly in the pockets of internet giants like Google and Amazon, and the ability for individual content-producers to make a living from their creative product is declining. And further that any economic gains we might see from technological advances will be swallowed up by the really big fish, leaving us, ultimately, worse off.
the notion that cheaper computers, smartphones, etc., will compensate for the growing economic gap is just not true. Ultimately mounting poverty will outpace cost savings and everyone will suffer. We can’t count on anything but a strong middle class to maintain many things dear to us: widespread self-determination and liberty, a dynamic commercial market filled with surprises, and a democracy that can’t be bought because ordinary people have enough clout to stand up for themselves. Some of the current popular online designs , as appealing as they might seem at first, are leading us away from these wonderful things.
The rest is details. But the details are pretty interesting. Lanier goes into specifics re how users are being sliced, diced and re-sold like toxic assets, as the extant interfaces rely increasingly on our giving up more and more of ourselves.

There are loftier concepts in the air as well in the book. Harding looks at what he calls the “hive mind” and examines assumptions regarding the likelihood of artificial consciousness arising from increasingly vast connected cloud computer resources.

He examines why it is that software advances cannot match Moore’s Law, namely that hardware efficiency doubles every 18 months. Current software at any time is, of necessity, the tip we see of a very large iceberg.

Harding dabbles into the implication of things like NCLB
what computerized analysis of all the country’s school tests has done to education is exactly what Facebook has done to friendships. In both cases, life is turned into a database
Harding offers a wealth of intriguing ideas in this relatively small volume. I was most fascinated with what he had to say about cephalopods and a possible source for our species’ appreciation of metaphor.

I enjoyed the book and it made me think, but I also must confess that I drifted a bit while reading some of the latter chapters. Sometimes he wanders afield. Otherwise You are Not a Gadget made me hopeful that at least some people are aware of the darker implications of current trends, and are thinking about not only how we got here, but some ways in which we might avoid some of the problems that are beginning to emerge.


1/5/13 - I came across this fascinating interview with the author in Smithsonian magazine