Monday, May 31, 2010

review: Jaron Lanier's _You Are Not a Gadget_

This being the first book review I've put on the blog, I've chosen a book that will get wide circulation in tech circles written by someone whose thinking I've followed for nearly a decade now. Jaron Lanier is one of the fathers of virtual reality research and commands enormous respect from researchers into VR and Internet technology more broadly. In 2010, he made Time magazine's list of top 100 folks who affect our world. He's also spent the last few years preaching against the beliefs advocated by Ray Kurzweil and others (whose ideas are documented in my book, which takes a position of agnosticism on the morality of or likelihood of the fulfillment of the Apocalyptic AI agenda).

In short, Lanier believes that supremely intelligent computers are a) highly unlikely and b) not worthy of empathy. Instead of worshiping at the altar of robotic progress, Lanier argues we should be using technology to advance human interpersonal relationships. His early ideas were distributed through the Edge listserv and can be read here and here.

Lanier's new book, You Are Not a Gadget, advances these basic themes and explores how choices made in technology design have serious moral and social consequences, some of which he would like to reverse.

The book is, for the most part, a clearly written exposition which will be comprehensible to the lay reader and technocrat alike. Lanier's lucid English is, quite frankly, a delight compared to the work of many present day intellectuals, who seem to think they should model their exposition upon the likes of Foucault, Bourdieu, Derrida, or Adorno (in short, whichever impossibly dense theorist they choose to represent their interests).

Lanier's fundamental premise is that many of our technological choices right now depersonalize human interaction (think of how an individual is reduced to a set of checked off preferences at a social networking site or the fact that people exist with thousands of alleged Facebook "friends"). Such technological designs are not self-determining, however, and Lanier feels that we can reinvigorate our technological and social lives by designing tech environments that emphasize what he calls the mystical aspects of human personhood and the development of and social capitalization upon personal creativity (a partial rejection of hive mind and group think mentalities, which are not universally useful). He offers constructive advice on how this might be accomplished and his vision is a valuable contribution to discussions about life in a digital culture. Lanier emphasizes how digital life can be cruel in a world of "drive by anonymity" and would see that world reconfigured to advance personal responsibility for ideas and words. Likewise, he pushes for an acceptance of human persons as semi-mystical (and thus not reducible to the level of a machine) and capable of postsymbolic communication through advanced technological interfaces. I appreciate that he seems to have acknowledged that his own position is semi-theological without the knee-jerk reaction some people have to religion.

The book is definitely excellent, though I found myself frustrated by one concern in particular. Given Lanier's repeated emphasis upon personal, individualized creativity, I find it disconcerting that he cites few sources for many of his claims and interpretations (and I confess to wondering whether a very brief e-mail interchange I had with him in 2007 about my Apocalyptic AI ideas led to his claim--for the first time that I'm aware of--that what he calls cybernetic totalism is a religious system  ...see pages 18-25 or so of You Are Not a Gadget). While I recognize that a book written for a popular audience cannot be a rigorously documented as an academic work, I would have liked a bit more referencing throughout (which could have just taken the form of mentioning people and their work).

Fundamentally, I am in accord with Lanier. I do not believe that technological progress is self-determining. The accidents of history and personal choices of real individuals shape our future. We should advocate that individuals pay attention to the world in which they live, the world in which they wish they lived, and the ways in which technology plays out in that distinction. If we can attend to the design choices in our lives (and this is perhaps especially true for major content creators), we can work toward the betterment of society.

No comments:

Post a Comment