Link of the day: ‘You are not a gadget’

This morning’s most fascinating read in Scatterville was Michiko Kakutani’s review in the New York Times of You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, the new book by Silicon Valley insider Jaron Lanier.

you_are_not_a_gadgetlargeLanier, one of the people who brought you virtual reality, has been worrying the past few years about something he calls “digital Maoism,” the sort of edge-polishing collectivism driving Wikipedia and the Google search engine. Lanier argues some interesting things:

  • Basic software engineering decisions shape how we use and think about the Internet, so it’s good to get them right.
  • Free is not necessarily a very good price: It can kill the goose that laid the golden egg.
  • Anonymity undermines the Web, and probably the culture at large.

Kakutani expounds:

“(A)nonymity has helped enable the dark side of human nature. Nasty, anonymous attacks on individuals and institutions have flourished, and what Mr. Lanier calls a ‘culture of sadism’ has gone mainstream. In some countries anonymity and mob behavior have resulted in actual witch hunts. ‘In 2007,’ Mr. Lanier reports, ‘a series of Scarlet Letter postings in China incited online throngs to hunt down accused adulterers. In 2008, the focus shifted to Tibet sympathizers.’ “

Lanier and Kakutani and probably all of you reading this know a lot more about these issues than Mr. Scatter does. The proprietor does not Tweet, does not have a Facebook account, and, let’s face it, basically publishes dead tree-style ramblings in cyberspace (for free). What Mr. Scatter does not understand about computer engineering and even the possibilities of his woefully underutilized “smart” phone is pretty much everything.

Yet parts of this argument make sense — the dangers inherent in the loss of authorship, for instance, in an online world in which the going price for any and all information is free. Or the triumph of marketing over value in a world where worth is measured in number of hits (although marketing has had a huge impact on intellectual and popular success since long before the Internet). Certainly in the sobering spectacle of new media eating up old media and spitting it out, even though new media relies for most of its content on the production of old media, which it is killing off. How much sense does that make?

The collectivism that Lanier sees in the cyberworld is reflected in our broader cultural and political lives, as well. Surely this sort of mob mentality contributed to our squishy, nobody-likes-it response to the global economic disaster: Good and possibly superior ideas from isolated corners were steamrollered in the rush to create something that the majority, or a majority of prominent stakeholders, could reluctantly agree on. Ditto for health care reform. Then again, is any of this new?

For a counterbalancing view on Lanier’s book, take a look at Michael Agger’s review in Canada’s National Post. Agger isn’t drinking the Kool-Aid, at least not more than a few sips:

Lanier has good instincts: We need to be wary of joining in the wisdom of the crowds, of embracing the growing orthodoxy that making cultural products free will benefit the actual producers of those cultural products. But his critique is ultimately just a brand of snobbery. Lanier is a romantic snob.

That’s the nut. But Agger’s overview is much more nuanced, and worth a look.


teddyGoodbye, Teddy Pendergrass: The great, smooth soul singer from Philadelphia died Wednesday night. He was 59 and had been treated for colon cancer. Paralyzed in a 1982 car accident, he never stopped bringing what Jon Pareles, in his obituary for the Times, called his “gospel dynamic to bedroom vows.”

He was a great popular singer, and he’s going to be missed in a lot of ways. How many children owe their existence to Teddy Pendergrass’s voice spinning on the turntable in the background?