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Dan McCaslin

Dan McCaslin


Digital Maoism

A Review of Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget


In his book You Are Not a Gadget, a collection of columns previously published online, digital pioneer Jaron Lanier considers how “cybernetic totalism” destroys creativity on the web, while the anonymous character of online trolls limits true debate.

Lanier is an Internet pioneer, credited with coining the term “virtual reality.” He’s also been a leader in developing the software for immersive virtual reality applications. This former net enthusiast now inveighs against a variety of digital phenomena: from the now-standard, locked-in web designs that he derides as Web 2.0, to belief in “the Singularity,” which is the notion that computer intelligence and competence—their fitness to lead—will at some point surpass that of humans.

Lanier notes that Google co-founder Larry Page is not alone among the cloud lords in believing the Internet will literally come alive. Others think this may have already happened: The “blogosphere” is a living cosmos in the minds of some. Students of world religions will resonate with Lanier’s comparison of the techies’ “faith” in the Singularity, and orthodox Religion. Or Maoism, for that matter.

We once had an IT guy at my school who enthusiastically touted our 21st century students as digital natives compared to veteran teachers who were digital barbarians. But Lanier argues that the once-beautiful digital dream of intense, creative individuality has been suffocated by the conformity-creating “hive mind.”

It is fair to say that Lanier, who calls his book a “manifesto,” has humanistic concerns about the diminishing sense of hope and promise in the vision of an international community instantly linked together. He talks about how the individual human participants in the web end up as “peasants” working for the “lords” of technology—Google, Yahoo, and hedge-fund managers with vast analytic resources. Lanier has the courage to show how the cloud lords profit from our volunteer labor; how we’re letting our kids become liquid-crystal serfs. Yes, a young person may have hundreds of “friends,” but practically all of them are on Facebook. When a web design is so locked-in that an actual human’s definition of friend gets deeply altered, Lanier writes, the “idea of friendship is reduced.”

Lanier is surely onto something when he states that a culture of sadism has gone mainstream online. He refers to the nasty edit wars on Wikipedia as well as on Slashdot, both of which accept pseudonymous comments, as “drive-by anonymity.” When my own on-line feature article appeared in the Independent’s Voices column under the title “Open Carry at Starbucks,” it quickly developed a fascinating, long tail of corrosive digital comments—soon numbering 100—signed with pseudonyms. After reading Lanier’s fine book, I realize that it shouldn’t have surprised me how few of the writers really took up the question I raised, which was: Should people be able to swagger around Montecito Starbucks openly displaying handguns, even if they are unloaded?

No one picked up on my quotation from the Constitution’s famous Second Amendment, which involves Americans’ notorious gun rights; and no one directly addressed my question asking if “Arms” meant long weapons of the 1791 type or today’s extremely powerful handguns like Glocks? (I had written, “The Second Amendment to our great United States Constitution, in order to ensure ‘the security of a free State,’ guarantees citizens the right ‘to keep and bear Arms.’”) Dominating the long thread were commenters with such names as Major, Jarhead, gravedigger, and Edukder, using terms like “Eurotrash,” “snot-nosed journalist,” or “this coward who is so against guns.” (That last epithet was bravely signed by Against Cowardly Writing.)

Readers who need further proof of the nastiness of on-line anonymous commenting need look no further than the response to Matt Kettmann’s cover article A Mosque Grows in Goleta. Or the long tails of amazingly nasty meta-comments during the endless healthcare debate.

I believe Lanier’s book should be carefully read and its warnings heeded. In 21st century America I see a digital flattening and reduction of the self. After 36 years of teaching, I am deeply concerned that our kids are far too wired-up, far too “electronified.” They sit in front of various screens too many hours per week, prefer sitting to running. They need to get out more. Back to outdoor sports and active, experiential learning. Back to dinner at home with the family. Back to nature!

Lanier’s book gives us an insider’s critique of Internet technologies today. He’s a humanist in Silicon Valley drag, an apostate from the Singularity, a cybernetic Jeremiah warning us against where we’re going. All that being said, Lanier mentions three potential solutions in Chapter 8—read the book to find out what they are—and still feels the Internet holds genuine promise for humanity and for the planet. Let us hope so.

Dan McCaslin is a teacher at Crane School and a writer. He published his scholarly book Stone Anchors in Antiquity in 1980, the year he graduated from UCSB with a PhD in history, and is just finishing a suspense novel, The Third Temple, set in the eastern Mediterranean.

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