The Digital Individual: A 2 for 1 Book Review

You are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier

In "You are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto" Jaron Lanier argues that there are technical and cultural problems with the locked in design of the web and our digital devices.  He discusses a more humanistic approach to computing.  The tone of his writing is confident but his focus is varied.  Perhaps it is the "manifesto" nature of this work that scatters his vision under the desire to be comprehensive (ie. "Creating new financial instruments" and "our green future," page 112).

One clear theme is that the design of the web, computers, and our other digital devices is not inevitable.  They are choices that were made and new choices can be made if we don't like what we have now.  Lanier has varied concerns that drive him to suggest some changes be made to these commonly accepted designs.  Two examples of his concerns stand out: 1) the downsides of online collectivism (“Digital Maoism”), 2) free/open culture.

Online Collectivism

Many recent books have praised the amazing abilities and benefits enabled by online collective action.  Clay Shirkey believes that the actions of groups add up to more than the actions of the individual contributors.  Given this magnifying effect of collection action enabled by online technologies, the societal effect of people using their free time (their social surplus) to collectively act will bring about productive and positive results.  (see Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (2008) and Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (2010)).  Yochai Benkler  studies the commons through the lens of human organization and economic production.  Benkler's assessment of online collectivism focuses on the disruption and fundamental changes brought about by new information and communications technologies.  He finds that these changes are giving rise to a new form of interactive production interaction that he calls “commons-based peer production.”  (see The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (2006)  and The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs over Self-Interest (2011))

Given the praise for new online collectivism, it is almost refreshing to hear Lanier weigh in with some negatives to consider alongside the positives that have been well defined by others.  Lanier sees the rise of online collectivism as a process of reduced individual expression where the products of the "hive mind" lead to mob rule.  As examples he refers to Wikipedia and Web 2.0 social media companies like Facebook and Twitter.  Basically these services make the abstraction of the network the focus instead of the real people who are members of the network.  People and not networks are valueable.  To use one of Lanier's historic references, people, not printing presses, made the Renaissance.  The important contributions to culture and the economy come from people, not tools.

"Individual web pages as they first appeared in the early 1990s had the flavor of personhood.  Myspace preserved some of that flavor, though a process of regularized formatting had begun.  Facebook went further, organizing people in multiple-choice identities, while Wikipedia seeks to erase point of view entirely." (page 48)

Laniers argument essentially assumes that people are captured by the software and digital services that they use.  Their entrapment is likely something that they are unaware of.  While I can see that Lanier has a point, similar to Lawrence Lessig's point in "Code is law," that code can influence behavior (in addition to markets, norms, and law), I reject his characterization of people as so helplessly controlled by the tools they use.  The creative individuals that Lanier champions are also the helpless victims of technology.  I think Lanier has let his pessimism get the best of him here.

Free/Open Culture

Lanier disdains the current amount of derivative expression (work that reacts to original expression) on the web.  He also fears that open culture values not only promote derivative expression but also undermine the creators of original expression.  His view might be broadly (and somewhat inaccurately) generalized as: Open culture creates copies, closed culture creates iPhones.

Lanier is concerned about the Creative Commons (an organization that provides open licensing options) which he sees as detaching the creator from their expressive works by encouraging reuse without interaction between the original creator and the person who seeks to use or create a derivative work.  His concern is that the expression will lose its context and therefore its meaning.

Lanier is a champion of the proprietary model of innovation and content creation.  Great services, products, and content have certainly come from this model.  What's different about his argument is that he links free and open culture with the concern that only a few will profit from the work of many, leaving a "lucky elite" and a disappearing middle class.

"One effect of the so-called free way of thinking is that it could eventually force anyone who wants to survive on the basis of mental activity (other than cloud tending) to enter into some sort of legal or political fortress - or become a pet of a wealthy patron - in order to be protected from the rapacious hive mind" (page 86)
This sort of statement, that creative thinkers have been reduced to beggars seeking donations or support rather than participating in the main channels of commerce, is unsupported by facts and treats non-monetary benefits of free culture contribution as essentially valueless.  I think Lenier does gain some traction with his concern that original expression has been deemphasized by the current net culture and this has led to a depletion of monetary support for these activities.  Unfortunately, I think this important observation can be lost in his desire to solve the problem through the introduction of old media models to a space that is valuable because of its openness.

Program or Be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff

Immediately after finishing "You Are Not a Gadget" I picked up this book and it's are a good fit when read back to back with "You Are Not a Gadget."  Rushkoff argues that if you are not a programmer, you are one of the programed.  At a minimum, you need to know the rules.  Programing is the key skill of the digital age and most of us have ignored the skill and accepted the constructions of others.  Even if we never choose to write our own code, it makes sense to at least be digitally literate so that we can 

Rushkoff emphasizes that designs change user behavior.  The more we spend time with a something that is designed, the more it can change our behavior.  Given the amount of time we spend in front of computers or other web enabled devices, it is critical that users understand the nature of the design choices that have been made on their behalf.  


While Lenier and Rushkoff may have some common concerns I am drawn to Rushkoff’s concise text mainly because it gives technology users a way to empower themselves and the reason why they would want to do that makes sense.  On the other hand, I think Lenier’s more controversial text will have staying power and anyone interested in discussing these issues would benefit from reading his work regardless of whether they share his ideas and ideals.

Additional Resources

Video: Jaron Lanier talks about the failure of Web2.0 with Aleks Krotoski

Video: SXSW 2010: Program or be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age