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Thought provoking challenge to current digital thinking
on 12 January 2011
The essence of the book is Lanier's attempt to answer the question: "What happens when we stop shaping technology and technology starts shaping us?"
An early Silicon Valley visionary, Lanier's book essentially has two halves. The first is an inquiry into what happens to human relationships the more we cede our social interaction to technology. He then shifts gear and expounds a new philosophy as he explores possible future directions for human society and our relationship with technology. I got a little lost in the latter, and I suspect the book could have done with a bit more editing (or my brain is not big enough; you decide....)
The strongest sections are when Lanier paints a coherent picture of what happens when technology is elevated above humanity. He talks of the "digital hive growing at the expense of humanity", and in many ways the first few chapters are a re-stating of the primacy of physical reality when it comes to the lived experience of human society. It argues that the 'noosphere' - a supposed global brain formed of the sum of all the brains connected to the internet - leads us to become little more than computer peripherals. Social networking is seen as something that reduces us as people. And 'the wisdom of crowds', increasingly invoked by some as both a 'good thing' and a possible solution to helping society find answers to the more intractable challenges we face, is challenged.
If you look at what Lanier is saying through the lens of a systems thinking, he is arguing for a reappraisal of the patterns that we are creating around human society and technology, and exploring what conditions we might change or add in order to improve things e.g. a reappraisal of how we pay for data/content. His alternative commercial model challenges what we have today, and it also demonstrates there is (at least one) alternative.
He also makes some telling points about the roll, and reduction in value, of authorship in digital society, and how the headlong rush to laud technological innovation has resulted in an erosion of ethical and moral positions. This translates into a spiritual failure: the denial of the mystery of experience ("hope is redirected from people to gadgets") and the invocations to anonymity and crowd-based identity both undervalues humans and distorts behaviour.
One of the books we selected for the book group I am part of, "You Am Not A Gadget" was quite some journey. Not an easy read, it is none the less rewarding.