“You Are Not a Gadget” is a book written by Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and pioneer in the field of virtual reality. Published in 2010, the book provides a critical examination of the influence of digital technologies on human culture, society, and individuality. Lanier argues that the current design and implementation of these technologies encourage conformity, reduce creativity, and undermine the value of individual human experience.
The book is structured around Lanier’s main concerns about the digital age, including the loss of individuality, the promotion of anonymity, and the erosion of intellectual property rights. Lanier warns against the dangers of “digital Maoism,” a term he coined to describe the phenomenon of crowd-sourced knowledge and decision-making, which he believes leads to mediocrity and a lack of innovation.
One of the key themes in “You Are Not a Gadget” is the importance of humanistic values in the design and use of technology. Lanier encourages technologists to prioritize the needs and experiences of individual users, rather than designing for the lowest common denominator. He also calls for a reevaluation of the concept of “free” content and services, arguing that they ultimately devalue the work of content creators and contribute to the decline of the middle class.
You Are not A Gadget is indeed a timely read especially now that AI technologies are revolutionizing the world wide web. The question Jaron Lanier asked back in the 1980s when he was working on virtual reality, is presciently valid for the current moment: “would people become addicted to virtual reality [replace it with AI technologies] as if it were a drug? Would they become trapped in it, unable to escape back to the physical world where the rest of us live?” (P. 5).
Throughout the book, Mr. Lanier keeps a pessimistic outlook in regards to what he called ‘petty designs’ (i.e., web 2.0 tools) arguing that they are transforming human life especially the social interrelational side of it in negative ways. The author laments that the concepts of personhood and individual intelligence are being replaced by pack mentality and hive minds. However, as he himself stated, the book “is not anti-technology in any sense. It is pro-human” (ix).
The implications of the rise of “digital serfdom” couldn’t be more profound . As technology gets better and better, and civilization becomes more and more digital, one of the major questions we will have to address is: Will a sufficiently large middle class of people be able to make a living from what they do with their hearts and heads? Or will they be left behind distracted by empty gusts of ego-boosting puffery.
You probably are overwhelmed with the recent updates in AI and the sudden thrust of ChatGPT into the digital realm. The superhuman capacities that this open AI project has allows it to provide human-like help with almost any issue you feed into it. For us in education this is very disconcerting especially with the early reports that certain students have already started using it to generate essays.
AI technologies such as ChatGPT are still in their infancy but the harm they instigated in certain sectors such as education is already felt as many school districts are now considering banning access to these technologies altogether.
Read within this context, You Are Not A Gadget will make way more sense to you now than if you had read it when it was first published over a decade ago. Mr Lanier’s prescient ideas are probably more pertinent now than anytime before. I invite you to give this book a try and share with us your take.
Part one: What is a Person?
- Chapter 1: Missing Persons
- Chapter 2: An Apocalypse of Self-abdication
- Chapter 3: The Noosphere Is Just Another Name for Everyone’s Inner Troll
Part 2: What will money be?
- Chapter 4: Digital Peasant Chic
- Chapter 5: The City is Built to Music
- Chapter 6: The Lords of the Clouds Renounce Free Will
- Chapter 7: The Prospects for Humanistic Cloud Economics
- Chapter 8: Three Possible Future Directions
Part 3: The Unbearable Thinness of Flatness
- Chapter: 9: Retropolis
- Chapter 10: Digital Creativity Eludes Flat Places
- Chapter 11: All Hail the Membrane
Part 4: The Best of Bits
- Chapter 12: I am a Contrarian Look
- Chapter 13: One Story of How Semantics Might Have Evolved
Part 5: Future Humors
- Chapter 14: Home at Last
In conclusion, “You Are Not a Gadget” is a thought-provoking critique of the digital age that urges readers to be mindful of the ways technology can both empower and undermine human creativity, individuality, and social well-being. Lanier’s message is a call to action for technologists, policymakers, and users alike to consider the human implications of technology and to prioritize the development of a more human-centric digital landscape.
Another book that goes along the same line of thought as ” You Are Not A Gadget ” is “Are Digital Technologies and Internet Making Our Kids Dumb?” .