Monday, February 7, 2011

Review: You Are Not A Gadget, by Jaron Lanier

Published: January 2010

Finally got around to it: February 2011

Consciousness is situated in time, because you can’t experience a lack of time, and you can’t experience the future. If consciousness isn’t anything but a false thought in the computer that is your brain, or the universe, then what exactly is it that is situated in time? The present moment, the only other thing that could be situated in time, must in that case be a freestanding object, independent of the way it is experienced.


In his manifesto, You Are Not A Gadget, Jaron Lanier posits a bleak—but not unspoken—future for us all, one where the definition of humanity and the defining characteristics of our brains and what makes them so special and likely impossible to digitally replicate is at risk so long as we continue, unchecked, to attempt to extrapolate the basics of our pre-digital lives and incorporate them into a new schema. The threat is similar to one we already see developing: an ever-pressing need to build upwards without expanding outwards, piling more information and more means to both absorb and produce it in order to make use of what feels like an increasing lack of time in our daily lives.

Lanier isn’t willing to present such a dire forecast without first addressing the nature of the beast: the physiology and psychology of man. Using music, language and the senses as means to convey how our limitations as organic beings actually provide us with more reasons to focus our creativity and ingenuity, rather than simplistically adopting a rapidly changing, continuously expanding, Lanier positions himself as a humanist first. The reasons we are capable of so much is that we have been met with limitations and forced to adapt, using them as a spark for much greater ambitions. Through a true computational adoption however, the ability to press onward into seemingly never-ending algorithms to answer any and all possible questions and roadblocks life tosses up, risks extending us past our natural limits, stretching ourselves thin to take on more and more, as if information expenditure and absorption were a drug addiction. At this point, gifted with as much power and autonomy as we can spare, technology will shape our lives and not the other way around.

Part call to arms, part techno-humanist blueprint, You Are Not A Gadget is not the simplest of reads, but neither is it obtuse or unfriendly to the prospects and potential on both sides of the equation. In spite of the cautionary tale at the heart of this book, Lanier presents numerous ways in which the technological and computational renaissance we have been entrenched in since the rise of Silicon Valley gifts us with essential tools to enhance and, in some cases, simplify day-to-day human existence. The key, however, as with all things, is in moderation. Through moderation, an understanding of what our limitations mean to us, what they have allowed us to accomplish, and what we risk losing should the push for technological and social networking supremacy one day become the language and music of our world, rather than the tools we use to understand languages and cultures as they already exist around the world.

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