Saturday, February 27, 2010

Review: You Are Not a Gadget

Jaron Lanier's book You Are Not a Gadget is a stimulating but aggravating book. He's grappling with deep and important issues, and has some valuable insights, but for every insight there are three examples of oversimplification, poor metaphors, or wrongheadedness. The book is framed as a critique of technology; an informed antidote to some of the mindless cheerleading that is common in the industry; a plea for humanism amidst what apparently is the soul-crushing nature of the modern digital world. God knows that's an important thing to do, but it needs to be done with more intellectual rigor and less formless whining.

Lanier's book is wide-ranging and even when it treats a topic superficially it is thought-provoking, so this is somewhat of a set of scattered reactions to a variety of points, not a complete review.

Unwired

The book reads somewhat like an extended argument with Kevin Kelly (former editor of WIRED), who is basically the opposite of Lanier: a technological optimist, determinist, and autonomist (his forthcoming book is "What Technology Wants"). Lanier terms his opponents variously "digital Maoists" or "cybernetic totalists", which are pretty good coinages, if not exactly illuminating. I kind of sympathize with Lanier on these points. The gushing cyberutopians of WIRED and the like give me hives. I just don't know how important they are. Presumably anyone over the age of 25 or so can tell that it's just marketing hype, turning tech dreams into lifestyle accessories and VC pitches (remember the "push technologies revolution"?). Ten years ago, when people were less familiar with the internet, such cybergush could get a lot of traction. These days the internet is integrated into our lives (along with pocket phone computers and other sfinana) and my instinct is that people don't need or respond to the gushing as much, which makes Lanier's critique of it seem somewhat dated.

Also exaggerated:
I remember [Ted] Nelson trying to speak and young American Maoists shouting him down because they worried that his system would favor the intellectual over the peasant. (p 101)
Even allowing for Lanier's somewhat nonstandard use of the term "Maoist", this has the flavor of a tale that grew in the telling.

Nostalgia

Something about the tone of the book sets my teeth on edge. I think it's all longing for the good old days of the late 80s or so, when digital technology was free, less commercial, what a joy it was to be young and idealistic in those days, la di fucking da. Translation: Jaron is old now and he's pining for his youth. Believe me, I can sympathize, I do a lot of nostalgic yearning myself, but I'm not under the illusion that it's interesting enough to put into a book. The revolution did not happen just as we envisioned, what a surprise, do revolutions ever work that way?

Standardization

One of the themes of the book is that standardization is bad and dehumanizing. Standardization is a widely-studied phenomenon, there is a lot of interesting things to say about, but I haven't found anything new here (I've learned a lot from bhyde's blog). Lanier's take is reductive and in places just wrong. He opens with some plaints about MIDI, the standard developed in the 80s to link music synthesizers:
Before MIDI, a musical note was a bottomless idea that transcended absolute definition. It was away for a musician to think, or a way to teach and document music. It was a mental tool distinguishable from the music itself. Different people could make transcriptions of the same musical recording, for instance, and come up with slightly different scores.

After MIDI, a musical note was no longer just an idea, but a rigid, mandatory structure you couldn't avoid in the aspects of life that had gone digital. The process of lock-in 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. (p 9)
That is certainly a poignant and evocative image of loss. Computers have killed music, or even worse, they've removed all the subtlety and juice from it. There are several things wrong with this.

First, is it true? Has music really gotten more rigid since the introduction of MIDI? I'm not a musician so it's tough for me to say, but I seriously doubt it.

Second, is the description of the MIDI standard accurate? Partly -- MIDI does impose its concept of a scale on music -- its model is more like a piano than a trombone. But it does permit pitch-bending and is thus not limited to only the fixed tones of a keyboard instrument, which I think is what is implied in the above.

What is most astonishing about the above is that it ignores the (quite interesting) fact that the standard imposed by MIDI is just a modern echo of an earlier process of standardization in music. The equal-tempered Western musical scale evolved through a pre-digitial process of standardization, with the usual accompaniment of politicking and controversy. As a result, pianos can only play 12 notes out of the infinite possibilities in an octave. Did this standardization kill music, make it more lifeless? I wonder if pianos and other keyboard instruments were regarded as dehumanizing, deadening to the spirit of music, when they were introduced. I'll bet they were, yet somehow music survived.

Further: let's say that the MIDI standard did have the negative effects that Lanier attributes to it. Even so, to judge it one would have to balance it against whatever positive effects the standard had, such as allowing a player of one type of controller access to a huge variety of sound synthesizers. This is why standards get defined in the first place, and since nobody forced musicians to use MIDI one would guess that they are realizing actual value from it.

Personhood

Throughout this book, I'll explore whether people are becoming like MIDI notes -- overly defined, and restricted in practice to what can be represented in a computer. (p 10)
This echoes the worries of the early industrial age when we were all going to be turned into cogs in the machine. And those critics were right, in part! Yet humanity survived, personhood survived, was mutated, it gave rise to us.

One of the changes Lanier bemoans is the decline in custom-built home pages what with people managing their online identities through standardized tools like Facebook and blogs. Yeah right -- I really miss all that shitty HTML from 1987. This is one case where I see no problem at all. Anyone can still make a custom web page and many people do. Facebook and blogs have reduced the overhead so hundreds of millions of people can now have a presence.

Facebook and similar social platforms come under attack for what it is doing to the word "friends", among other things. If people are collecting ten thousand Facebook friends and competing on that basis, that is somewhat disturbing. Here's another point with some validity, but it's hardly original, and worse, the built-in assumption that this is somehow diminishing our humanity is so stale. Technology may be changing it, but that is exciting and disturbing and interesting. To assume that all change is for the worse is the mark of a mind that has gone over to the conservative side. This is a terrible thing to observe in someone previously known for creativity.

People have been bemoaning the diminishing effects of cognitive tools on the pristine mind for thousands of years:
Writing, Plato has Socrates say in the Phaedrus, is inhuman, pretending to establish outside the mind what in reality can be only in the mind... Plato'™s Socrates urges, writing destroys memory. Those who use writing will become forgetful, relying on an external resource for what they lack in internal resources. Writing weakens the mind. -- Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy
So Lanier may be in good company but at this point perhaps we can take a broader view.

Hive Economics

The book is on better ground when it talks about the economics of open source and its threat to cultural creators (but that's not terribly original -- everybody's been writing about the death of newspapers; Seth Finkelstein has written a lot about the Wikipedia sweatshop; and it's even been discussed here).
The people who are most screwed by open culture are the middle classes of intellectual and cultural creation. (p 93).
This quote resonated because I posed exactly this question to Richard Stallman in the very early days of the Free Software movement. The answer was vaguely that programmers would no longer be able to have proprietary code but could charge for consulting and similar services (the analog of musicians giving away the digital music but charging for concerts). It didn't convince me, but open-source took off anyway, and some people do make a living in that model but essentially large swathes of the computer industry have been "demonetized".

Jaron has some proposed solutions to demonetization in the arts, but they didn't seem very convincing. Presumably all of them and more are being tried. I'm somewhat sympathetic to the plight of the demonetized in general but it's hard to work up sympathy for artists in particular. The ones that are good will find a way to make a living, and if fewer people can do that I don't think the world will be terribly impoverished. Anyway, they are supposed to be the avant-garde and having your job undermined by technology and capitalism is going to happen to all of us sooner or later; they are just leading the way.

Conclusion

We need more digital humanists. We need technically informed people who are skeptical of the promise of cyberutopians. Lanier's book is a step in a good direction, but is also infuriating because it touches on all sorts of interesting points but in ways that are not terribly insightful and in many cases trivializing. A little more focus would have gone a long way. The book is subtitled "a manifesto" but it reads like a collection of assorted complaints rather than a unified call to action. Many of the points touched upon (the nature of social relations in a wired world; the effect of standardization on expression; the undermining of revenue models for content creators) are worthy of a book in themselves and of course some have them.

The unifying theme of the book, such as it is, is that technology has the potential to undermine our humanity and has in fact done so already in many respects. It seems to me that humanity has already weathered much more severe and damaging transitions than digital networks (agriculture, the printing press, industrialized war, global capitalism, to name a few). All of these have shaken up and changed what humanity is, but they have not destroyed it. Computers will be the same. Whatever the core of humanity is, it can survive Facebook's standardization of social relations and even the death of newspapers. Humans have a way of humanizing technology which is stronger than technologies' ability to dehumanize us.

[[Update: Here's a much more entertainingly deranged version of essentially the same thesis:

The Noosphere is not, as we hear among the ignorant jabbering belched from the bowels of the blogosphere, some sort of mystical "living tissue of collective consciousness"; it is not the "Mind of Gaia"; it is not what Sir Julian Huxley6a close collaborator of H.G. Wells, describes as "a global unification of human awareness," an "organized web of thought, a noetic system operating at high tension, a piece of evolutionary machinery capable of generating high psychosocial energy." Huxley's image of the Noosphere as "the union of the whole human species into a single inter-thinking group based on a single self-developing framework of thought," is actually the idea of Wells' "World Brain" blogosphere. This sort of garbage, which could only be the product of people brainwashed by too many so-called "cyberdelic experiences" in virtual reality, is intended to twist the scientific optimism of Vernadsky, 7obscuring the domain of Vernadsky's real science, and maliciously weaving him into the anti-science, Green Cybernetics cult promoted by Al Gore and his fellow pro-British heirs of H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell.
Courtesy of the LaRouche Youth League!]]

4 comments:

hoyhoy said...

The only thing missing from this book is some Lewis Mumford-style "megatechnic" reference.

Anonymous said...

I dunno, after having stuff like this

http://libert.posterous.com/intellectual-property-is-not-progressive

stuffed down my throat for the past 10 years, Lanier is pretty refreshing.

Anonymous said...

The book to which you linked on how equal temperament ruined harmony seems quite interesting. I ordered it after reading a review of it elsewhere, but have not received it. A quotation attributed to the 'cellist Pablo Casals on this point: "Do not be afraid to play out of tune with the piano. It is the piano which is out of tune."

David Chapman said...

The ideal opposite of equal temperament is "just intonation". There's a small underground of people writing music for scales with just intonation.

It is quite true (in my subjective experience) that just intonation sounds better. Once you've heard it, regular chords sound out of tune.

Unfortunately, you can't write conventional music with just intonation. Everything else has to change if you are going to fit the system. This has pretty much relegated it to cranky geeks. (I think I might be a cranky geek, so I think I might write some music in just intonation.)

Ironically, for Jaron Lanier's point, most music composed for such scales is done in MIDI, on computers, because conventional instruments don't work well with just intonation. MIDI has done more to promote just intonation than anything in a lot of centuries.

So it goes...