You Are Not a Gadget

“You are not a gadget “is the manifesto of Jaron Lanier, written last year in response to the way that the Internet is changing our lives. Lanier’s own background is in virtual reality, and he is sometimes referred to as its “father.” In his dedication, he thanks his colleagues in the digital revolution for “considering my challenges constructively, as they are intended.” Given his own work, influence, and success within the technological world, this book exercises an amazing freedom and fearlessness that I wish were more prevalent in writing today.

What I think is most important about this book is that it creates a space for intelligent discussion about the Internet without limiting that dialogue to techies. Too often when a school is considering granting Internet access to students, for instance, the conversation glosses over important issues around the consequences of this action and quickly focuses on how to get it done. Once the conversation rests at this place, the only decisions left are technological considerations.

Instead of feeling out of their depth, educators must realize that technology does not change education to the point where their educational expertise is undone. Beneath the flashy light show of the Internet, education today remains rooted in the same pedagogical understandings that have been formed over the past century. By uprooting the social media discourse from technological considerations and re-grounding it in the individual person’s potential, Lanier’s book offers a chance for the digital scales to fall from the educator’s eyes.

At the center of this book is this foundational idea: People are greater than machines, even greater than all the computers in the world connected via the web! Through a series of convincing arguments and examples, Lanier demonstrates that all too often the freedom promised via the Internet is beneficial to machines, but is actually limiting for people. Whether it is the spreading misconception of the individual’s capacity or the effects of lock-in that make us forget the choices we’ve lost, Lanier’s book offers a wake-up call to our technologically crazed culture by reminding us that we must make choices in our usage of technology.

There are sections of the book where Lanier also offers some very straightforward advice regarding the usage of social media. But it is worth noting that rather than offering a list of what not to do on the Internet, he takes a more positive approach and offers a proactive list on what to do. This approach offers a stance that is not in danger of rejecting technology as a whole, and thus avoiding the temptation to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.

If you are interested in looking beneath our cultural obsession with social media, and if you are interested in learning about trolls, creativity, the “wiki-fied” experience, and the cloud, this book has much to offer. My favourite quote in the book is, “Information underrepresents reality.” This sentiment struck a chord, and I still find myself resonating with it. I appreciate the reminder that even if the Internet did become the total sum of human knowledge, all that data is still not a mite of the wonderful reality within which we play.

Lanier’s book has already caused quite a stir. Every book on technology, even if only tangentially related, that I have read subsequently has referred to it. Sometimes this reference is nothing more than a quick dismissal, but oftentimes it takes the form of trying to tease out Lanier’s idea by taking his premise and furthering it. This response is perfectly apt given the nature of this book; it is not written in a finished, tight format but oftentimes seems to offer a hunch that expects an expansive response from the reader.

Before you run out and purchase a copy, let me warn you that you will not agree with everything Lanier writes. If you’re looking for a book that offers a succinct list of easy answers, it will not satisfy. Lanier’s book is a not intended to do either. Instead, it offers a debunking of a cultural technological mysticism and offers a source of fermentation for personal engagement in affirming the marvelous creature that is humankind.