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4.1 out of 5 stars
4.1 out of 5 stars
You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto
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Back in the 1990's, my friends and I would listen to Terence McKenna's spellbinding talks on the subject of the then embryonic information super highway. McKenna was convinced of the utopian possibilities of the internet. Cultural free for alls and other fun ontology's promised by the internet would free our minds from our Gnostic drudgery, awaken the collective unconscious, demolish the cultural pillars of Christian civilisation and kick the doors off heavens hinges; phew!. This brave new world was going to herald the cultural singularity and the new dawn; and finally, we were all to transcend to silicon light, (You had to be there I guess).

According to McKenna and indeed Jaron Lanier -and most silicon entrepreneurs at the time- the internet will allow us all an existence in the radiant afterglow of a post-western civilisation. Capitalist values will be swept away, along with adverts and 'male dominator' politics, "We'll go there and we'll leave the Earth and dance forever in the astral imagination" (McKenna)!

Jaron Lanier now admits this was foolish and he's trying to warn us all before 'lock in' will halt our humanness and turn us all into technological serfs.

Lanier is arguing that if we fast forward 20 odd years from now, then capitalism is indeed wobbling at the foundations (but not at the top you see). This means that we serfs are suffering down bellow; and it gets worse. While we work for nothing, like when we write unpaid reviews on Amazon or 'help' Wikipedia, the 'lords of the clouds' have monopolised the creative surplus and are squeezing the middle class until the pips squeak! Only the lucky few who control the means of production reap the money harvest, whilst we serfs toil away in cyberspace, unpaid and, more importantly, de-personalised in the gas of collective surfing.

Jaron Lanier is no luddite and he personally knew Terence McKenna and Tim Leary and all the movers from the idealistic 1990's, and this is why his book is essential for our future. It's a warning like Huxley and Orwell, but not as happy. Let us hope that Jaron Lanier will be as wrong about his negativity for the future as McKenna was wrong about his utopianism. Only time will tell.
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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.
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on 15 February 2010
If you have ever felt uneasy about the way things are developing on the internet... how creativity and originality seem to be being buried under a landslide of mash-ups, viral jokes and cut-and-paste blipverts... how the opinions of thousands of idiots seem to be more important than those of experts.

Read this, and find out why you are right to feel uneasy.

This book, from a man who helped design the way things are now, is explaining what has gone wrong and how it could get much worse if things are not fixed. It's not too technical, and he does a good job of linking it to current theories about artificial intelligence and linguistics, among other fields.

He's better at saying what's wrong than how to fix it, but very much worth a read if you have the slightest interest in modern computer technology and how it is affecting society.
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on 22 April 2010
I found You are not a gadget to be a compelling book, especially worthy of attention by anyone who has embarked on the perilous journey of making a living from the web.

Jaron Lanier is a man after my own heart: someone who is not afraid to swim against the tide, even when the gathering waters seem irresistible.

Lanier has taken on the mantle of the boy in the story of The Emperor's New Clothes and points out some essential home truths about the prevailing tide of enthusiasm for washing away established business models and human behaviour.

He is a global heavyweight who has substantial experience at the bleeding edge of technology and talent in the world of music.

Lanier is credited with coining the term Virtual Reality and has impeccable credentials in that field.

Now, in his book You are not a gadget Lanier swims against a tide, that he has formerly surfed quite happily, by speaking out against some of the fundamental tenets of Web 2.0, the Hive mind, Creative Commons, the Singularity and the so-called Long Tail; all of which he categorises as worrying elements in the previously inexorable trend towards what he terms Cybernetic Totalism.

The book is insightful and highly recommended.
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on 28 March 2011
There are now a number of excellent academic books about the dark side of the Internet, for example Jonathan Zittrain's 'The Future of the Internet' and Goldsmith and Wu's 'Who Controls the Internet?'. But they are tough going for anyone without a social science training: I set readings for software engineers taking a higher degree, and they struggled. Lanier's book is the one for the interested, and worried, reader. He is an industry 'insider', and this gives the book real weight. Free and open sound like good things, until you actually start thinking about them - and Lanier's triumph is that he gets you thinking about things we take for granted.

The book is still challenging, and packed with ideas, but written in straightforward prose. Indeed, the ideas are presented so clearly that they look simple, obvious. But they aren't, they just look obvious in the hands of a skilled writer. Lanier puts his finger, time and again, on things that were worrying you, in a rather vague way, about the direction that the Internet is taking us. Lots of people - Carr, Shirky and others - have written about the death of journalism, and the crisis in the music industry, without quite managing to explain why these phenomena are so damaging to the cultures we have built up over hundreds of years. In the view of many, these developments are regrettable rather than disastrous - but surely this is wrong, they really are disasters. A brilliantly argued book, which invites us to re-think our assumptions about the Internet.
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on 10 April 2014
‘You are not a gadget - a manifesto’, by Jaron Lanier

Have carried this book around with me for a couple of years. Just finished it today. Great read and lots to think about. Would not claim to understand all of the points made but food for thought for anyone like myself who spends much time contributing to social networks.

Lanier deals with a long list of concerns he has with recent developments. In fact one of these relates to information being taken out of context e.g. fragments being reused in various social networks. While reviewing the book - and therefore selecting some of the ideas - I suggest that if you think the subject matter is of interest you should read the full book.

The author addresses the subject of ‘authorship’ - referencing a discussion between Kevin Kelly (who postulates that eventually there will be only one book) and John Updike on the subject. His opionion is that authorship is not a priority for the new ideology promoted by the singularity, the anti humanist computer scientists, promoters of ‘digital maoisim’ or the ‘noosphere’.

Lanier is highly critical of web 2.0 designs which actively demand that people define themselves downwards. Nor is he a fan of Wikipedia - which he sees as (1) a system which removes individual ‘points of view’ and (2) lendds itself to ‘lazy’ search engines serving up its context as its first answer each time.

Lanier also has less expectations of crowd wisdom than James Surowiecki. The author stresses the need for a combination of collective and individual intelligence. In fact he would avoid having crowds frame their own questions. He has concerns for a society that risks mob rule as a follow on from crowd wisdom, in its extreme form.

Interestingly the author claims to be optimistic and to see benefits in technology. But the technology should exist to server people and to improve the human condition. He seems to be unconvinced about the benefits of much of the web 2.0 culture and associated ideology. He sees it lending itself to a winner take all - the lords of the cloud and search - while the creators of cultural experiences will work for very little (if anything at all).

He spends a reasonable amount of time looking at modern music and suggesting that we have lost much of the creativity of previous generations - that in fact much so what we hear is rehash of previously created music. Later in the book he also references phenotropics (his own programming/ development environment).

Lanier is encouraging everyone to value their own individualism - in this context we are all encouraged to be expressive in our website content, to be reflective and to take more time in preparing blog postings. His concern is that we are devaluing the individual and are at risk of ‘spirituality committing suicide’ as consciousness wills itself out of existence.

He is a long way from accepting the Ray Kurzweil view (‘singularity’) - that the computing cloud will scoop up the contents of our brains so we can live in virtual reality’. While not necessarily signing up to all of his commentary and analysis (e.g. re music) I certainly find myself more aligned to the humanist than the ‘noosphere’ group.
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on 12 January 2011
This is an excellent counter-argument to those who think a free-culture Internet a great thing (see Lessig, 2004 or Mason, 2008). Lanier thinks all this gives us is a culture-free Internet, filled with vacuous mash-ups of pre-Internet content and devoid of viable business models for creative practice. It is refreshingly well informed about technology(in a way that, for example, Seigel, 2009 is not), and makes creative proposals about how things might develop rather than just complaining about how they are. This is because Lanier knows how we got here in the first place, and can see the roads not taken as alternative routes to a better set of arrangements for computers to help people achieve the things they want. This is counterposed to the ridiculous 'noosphere' proposed by those that Lanier refers to as 'cybernetic totalists', who think the best thing we could do is transfer our consciousness as a species to the online space by uploading ourselves into it. As Lanier points out, this sort of thinking hasn't actually given us much in the recent past, and been a classic salesman's overhyping the potential of the technology as a means replacing an argument with rhetoric. Given the enthusiasm with which business sees the opportunities of mass collaboration, isn't Lanier likely to be right for all those truly creative types who think innovation is about leading, or being contrary or simply making personal statements? For Lanier, the humanity of the individual is more important to preserve than forcing us all into becoming slaves to the machine.

There are as yet few solutions to the problems discussed here, but Lanier does well to identify alternatives to simply giving everything away in an orgy of online Marxism. In this, we are more likely to develop some answers to the pressing concerns of culture by reading this book than simply accepting the arrangements presented to us on today's Internet.
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on 30 June 2010
I was really looking forward to this book as I think the territory it covers (questioning the orthodoxy that web 2.0 and ideas like the wisdom of crowds) is really relevant. I have however found it a very frustrating and unrewarding read. I realise it's meant to be controversial but throughout he comes up with interesting ideas and then leaves them hanging there. A section titled 'the devaluation if everything' which is clearly a huge issue ends up being half a page long and uses as the crux of the argument the news that the middle class has got poorer since the invention of the web. He then states the 2 are probably unrelated but still leaves the idea there without going into any really interesting areas such as the way we tend to value scarcity and how the web affects this.
I have to admit I like books like these when I can take out a few key ideas and some good case studies. Alot of the references in it are from blogs, forums and social networks which is like me quoting my cat. I have to say I didn't really get much from reading this.
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on 8 December 2016
A book full of interesting ideas, many of which I agree with (including the ones about culture and commerce). The book is rather scattershot and often wanders off on tangents of a jargon-filled philosophical or technological nature which slightly dilute the force of his core arguments, but there's no denying that this is someone who knows his stuff and has thought long and hard about how online life is designed and the ways in which it is changing us.
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on 16 April 2013
An amazing book, easy to read and follow despite what might feel like heavy subject matter, I would heavily recommend this book to anyone who consumes Internet culture, uses social networking sites, blogs or tweets. Don't be scared, it's not a massive behavioural slap in the face. It does critique a culture we all now sit within but is optimistic overall and defiantly makes you think.
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