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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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!]]

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Guard labor and open source

According to this paper by Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev, an astonishing 26% of the US workforce in 2002 was engaged in non-productive "guard labor", meaning their work was not directed towards producing goods or services but was instead aimed at making sure that the wrong people did not help themselves to slices of economic pie that they were not supposed to have.

Compare this to 11% in contemporaneous Sweden, or 7% in the US in 1929.

I'd argue with some of the definitions and methodology in the paper, in both directions. For instance, supervisors are the largest category of guard labor, but it's hard to say that all of management is non-productive -- they aren't all PHBs, many make creating contributions other than merely riding herd on their employees (ie, they are thinking of someone like a low-level manager in a call center whose only job is to make sure employees don't stay too long on their bathroom breaks -- but there is also, say, Steve Jobs). On the other hand, there are entire industries that are effectively engaged in guard labor that are not counted in Bowles and Jayadev's measure, such as health insurance. And the finance industry is neither productive nor guard labor (I wonder what percentage of the economy is skimmers and con artists?).

Prisoners and the unemployed are also counted in the numbers for guard labor, because the concept depends on the idea of power and sanction, and prisoners and the unemployed are considered "necessary concomitants of the public and private sanctioning systems, respectively". This struck me as odd, but makes some sense when taking a macroeconomic point of view -- both the guards and the prisoners are people who are not doing actual economically productive work -- their labor is wasted as a direct result of the fact that the social system of power and property needs to be upheld.
Ideally we would also include those producing guns for private use, locks, security systems and the like, but we are not able to do so because of the lack of data.
The need for guard labor is related to the broader goal of understanding the role of institutions in the role of managing and reproducing the economic activity of society:
The insight we wish to develop is that securing conformity to institutions can be quite costly, and the cost differs among institutions and across time and space. Conformity achieved through the coordination of expectations or the internalization of norms, for example, may not be very costly, as in the case of driving on one side of the road or the other, or the voluntary compliance with tax laws in some countries. However, where conformity to a society'™s institutions is secured primarily through governmental coercion or privately deployed sanctions,the resource costs may be substantial. Examples include some authoritarian political systems, colonial regimes, and as we will see, highly unequal capitalist economies.
Intuitively, the more inequality in a society, the more guard labor it requires. There's a convincing scatterplot of GINI vs. guard labor fraction by US state included in this quite good profile of Bowles in a Santa Fe paper.

Prior to about 20 years ago, most economists thought that inequality just greased the wheels of progress. Overwhelmingly now, people who study it empirically think that it's sand in the wheels.
Here's the last paragraph of the paper:
Fourth, illegitimate inequalities are costly to sustain. While cultures often justify vast differences in power and access to valued resources, the mind is not a blank slate on which such ideas as the divine right of kings or the superiority of the "˜white race" can be etched at will. Two decades of behavioral experiments have provided convincing evidence that humans in dozens of cultures are inequality averse, and that violations of norms or reciprocity often lead to costly confl‚icts.
Of course the counterargument to the view that guard labor is mere friction is pretty easy to make -- that all this guarding is actually necessary to make producers productive, via incentives and structuring. The ticket-taker at the movie theater produces nothing, but without the efforts of him and others, the actual movie-makers could not get paid and could not raise capital to produce anything. It might be more efficient to have a different scheme, for instance having entrance to the movies be free and producers supported by the government via taxation. That may sound absurd or totalitarian but just such a change is happening in academic publishing via the Open Access movement and free-access journals like PLoS. Institutions that did nothing but provide proprietary guards over content (like my former employer Elsevier) are on their way out.

In fact, the whole free/open source movement in software and elsewhere may be seen as a response to the unpleasantness of guard labor. Proprietary software requires licensing schemes (ticket-takers) that cause new bugs, interfere with legitimate uses, and more generally cause friction. More broadly, locking software behind a pay wall reduces the amount of sharing and requires frequent reinvention of the wheel. It's inefficient, and this drives engineers crazy. Most of the time they don't get to vote, but the FOSS movement arose as a direct response to some of the unpleasantness surrounding proprietary software and has in its way been amazingly successful.

Guard labor is in its most purest and most apparently wasteful form when it is guarding digital content. The question is why then, if our economy is more involved in producing content than ever before, is the fraction of guard labor so high? I suppose it is also true that guarding digital content takes more effort than guarding physical objects -- how much of the fraction is RIAA lawyers, or the army of private detectives employed by Monsanto to sue small farmers who allegedly use their genetically modified seed without paying (genes are basically digital content -- and I just watched Food, Inc. which goes into this story). Monsanto, like DRM, is friction, but capitalists would argue that it such friction is necessary to spur production. But there can't be all that many people employed doing this kind of work.

I was around for the birth of the open source movement and efficiency really had nothing to do with it -- it was a moral struggle, based on the anguish of the excluded when a once open resource suddenly being subject to enclosure and guarding. But its ongoing success happened because of efficiency and the self-interest of software producers and companies. It is interesting to hear arguments for more general economic equality and openness, usually derived from a moral or emotional basis, being made on the basis of macro-scale efficiency.

[[edit: I was constructivly flaming Bowles' frequent collaborator Herbert Gintis on open-source here]]

Friday, February 12, 2010

Palestinian media hack

The Israeli/Palestinian conflict over a small patch of land has managed to be something that everyone in the world gets to have an opinion on. But even though the Palestinian population is pretty cosmopolitan for the Arab world, they've never been very good at manipulating the media. Until now: Protesters dressed as Na'avi characters from the movie Avatar march in the West Bank village of Bilin near Ramallah.

I'm sure this meme will be all over the place within a day (see, I'm doing my part to propagate it). It's this weeks demon sheep ad. Now all of a sudden the whole conflict can't help but me seen in terms of the latest media cliches.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Wired's GeekDad column has a good, long piece on the Boy Scouts and whether they have any relevance at all today. The short answer is mostly no, because they decided to jump into the culture wars on the wrong side. They are now dominated by Christianists, to the point where they exclude not only gay kids, but Unitarians.

This wasn't always the case. It surprises people who know me now when they find out I was in the Boy Scouts (a long time ago, to be sure). I had mixed feelings about it even then -- the quasi-military aspects of it did not appeal. But it got me and my father out of the house and into nature, which was definitely a good thing. And I look back on some of the more positive cultural aspects of the organization -- "Be Prepared" is a still a fine motto today. And you could get merit badges in computers and nuclear energy, as well as more traditional things like first aid.

I got as far as Life Scout (one rank below Eagle) before quitting and joining up with Hashomer Hatzair, a socialist-zionist youth group which is genetically related to the Boy Scouts through common ancestry in the Wandervogel movements of early 20th century Europe. Hashomer had girls and a much more attractive underlying culture. It didn't really take either -- I declined to go live on a kibbutz after finishing high school, and went off to MIT instead.

I occasionally find myself wishing that the Scouts had not become dominated by regressive elements so that I could participate in it with my own children. I came up with the idea that in places like the Bay Area or Boston you might be able to make an alternative organization that embodied the positive aspects of scouting without the Christianist crapola. Call it the alt.scouts, or maybe the Green Scouts, which sounds like an cadre of young environmental shock troops. If someone wants to help start a group like that, let me know, I'm in and I'll drag my kids along.

Here's a passage from the Wired article that makes the case for scouting:
Scouting emphasizes a strong bond between boys and their families. In many cases, this is exemplified by the relationship between boys and their fathers, who are most often volunteers for the program. This traditional arrangement provides an ideal opportunity for boys to step away from their daily routine and not only learn core Scouting skills like orienteering, cooking or first aid, but also skills outside the Scouting curriculum, like negotiating the pitfalls of adolescence and growing to become men. Yes, these are things that boys can learn elsewhere, but Scouting provides a conduit - whether a weekend-long campout, a two-week backpacking trek or just a weekly meeting - where interaction with teenagers and their fathers is mandatory — an occurrence that’s sometimes difficult for many families at home.

Then, there are Scouting’s values, those twelve points that both brand and identify a Boy Scout as, that squeaky-clean, do-gooder kid: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. For the most part, these are ideals that most of us want to see in our family, friends and neighbors. Scouting has consistently forwarded these values over their 100 year history. Peter Applebome, an editor of The New York Times, once wrote that, as an adult volunteer involved with his son’s scouting, he observed that “Scouting’s core values … are wonderful building blocks for a movement and a life. Scouting’s genuinely egalitarian goals and instincts are more important now than they’ve ever been. It’s one of the only things that kids do that’s genuinely cooperative, not competitive.”
Scouting today seems rather quaint and weak. Its iconography of Indians and play-soldiery was outdated in my time and is laughable to the kids of today. As an institution it has been unable to adapt to changing values and as a result is increasingly controlled by the troglodyte right (especially Mormons, it turns out). It might have once been a noble effort to temper the onslaught of modernity by creating a values-centered social institution, part of the lamented civil society, that network of non-state institutions that is supposed to be the main constituent of social life. Not a bad idea but difficult to pull off in practice. Unfortunately the groups best positioned to resist the centrifugal effects of capitalism and technology are also the ones with the most regressive values.

[[update: Here's Penn & Teller's take on the BSA]]

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Collapse: the movie

Given this blog's interest in doom, I felt duty-bound to see the recent documentary Collapse, which has gotten some attention in the mainstream media. I was not very favorably impressed.

First, stylistically it feels like a cheap knockoff of Errol Morris. It consists entirely of a single interview interspersed with clips from stock footage, and focused entirely on one man, the doomer (and blogger) Michael Ruppert. Even the music felt like second-rate Philip Glass, also a Morris signature. But whereas Morris usually manages to make the obsessions of his subjects come to life, the camera here renders Ruppert mainly pathetic.

And he doesn't seem that interesting -- he seems like a wholly ordinary member of the American crank stratum -- a lonely, isolated, autodidact who has figured out the Grand Scheme of the World. He's not that crazy -- no really wild theories, just the kind of guy who believes you need to stockpile gold bullion. His blog/newsletter is called "From the Wilderness" and you get the feeling that he is used to being an outsider. He's got a troubled personal life, he's the subject of some sexual harrasment lawsuits which he claims are part of a conspiracy to silence him...and maybe it is, who knows. That's the thing about this type of person, he's only slightly fringy, many of his theories are plausible or better, but he also has a tendency to exaggerate and distort, and winnowing the truth out is a time-consuming chore.

Ruppert's main claim is that Peak Oil and other trends will soon converge to produce a near-total collapse of civilization. There are, to be sure, enough troubling signs on the horizon to make this somewhat plausible. But Ruppert's take on this is panicky and not illuminating.

One of the thing that leads Ruppert astray is a sort of innumeracy, or unwillingness to think in any sort of quantitative terms. For instance, the factoid that there are seven gallons of oil in every automobile tire is repeated at least three times, as evidence to support that our civilization is doomed. A moment's thought would reveal that that is a trivial amount of petroleum in the lifecycle of an automobile -- about 2 tanks of gas. Now, there is obviously a much larger total amount of oil that goes into the construction of a car, and should be figured into its total oil cost -- but one has to produce a number for that, if only a guesstimate. In a similar vein, there is a total lack of any sense of scale or magnitude, exemplified by this quote: "what I see now is the end of a paradigm that is as cataclysmic as the asteroid event that killed almost all the life on Earth, and certainly the dinosaurs."

There seems to be an unstated assumption that Ruppert and other Peak Oil theorists use, which is that the oil is going to dry up and disappear all at once. Obviously that's nonsense. At worst, Peak Oil means that petroleum products will get progressively scarcer and thus more expensive. That can certainly have serious consequences, especially given the dependency of our food supply on petroleum. But it's not like the economy suddenly falls off a cliff. Oil getting expensive has an upside of sorts -- it will reduce consumption and thus reduce carbon emissions, and it makes alternative forms of energy more cost-effective.

So all civilizations collapse eventually and ours may be due, but I am not convinced by this particular chicken little. I paradoxically came out of the movie feeling actually less doomy -- it's not a very valid form of inference, but if I can see that some doomsayers are demonstrably and obviously talking nonsense, then it lessens my own tendencies in that direction. Maybe, just maybe, things will be OK. We are intellgent and adaptable and capable of revamping our systems to meet new conditions. The era of easy motoring may indeed vanish -- there are no known substitutes for petroleum that match its energy density -- but we can live without it. Alternative sources of energy can be brought online (nuclear included, and fusion seems to have taken a step forward recently). Humanity (some of us) will get through almost any conceivable future collapse scenario.

Some more background on Ruppert here.