JCL Blog

Book Review: You are not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier

Rant, Rant, Rant, Definitions, Octopus. It is an unual pattern for a book, but I absolutely recommend "You are not a Gadget" for anyone who thinks about technology and its impact on our lives. I have heard some critics say that this book answers a non-problem. Well, some time ago the problems we face today were not as obvious as they are now.  We are lucky to have people like Jaron Lanier to shine a light on issues we are creating for ourselves.  This book has caused quite a stir and many great reviews have been written (see links below).  Here is what I got out of it:

The Rants:  There is no question that the first half of the book is quite a rant against the way we are subjugating ourselves to machines.  It may go on a little long, but it is absolutely necessary.  An issue must first be described before it can be addressed.  In short he points out that computers are far from, and never will be, human.  The notion of artificial intelligence and more importantly our attraction to it is a threat to humans reaching their potential.  He gives many good examples and none of the companies in the web 2.0 world are spared.  You can try to argue against this idea, but right in the middle someone will pass by you speaking into their iPhone in the only idiotic sounding language that the Google voice to text machine can understand, and you will see the point.  We are willingly reducing ourselves to a composition that the much inferior computers can relate to. 

Definitions:  Lanier then gets into some definitions.  Despite the validity of the rants, I was pretty glad when we arrived at this part of the book.  Computationalism is defined as: "...the world can be understood as a computational process, with people as a subprocess."  Logical Positivism: "is the idea that a sentence or another fragment -- something you can put in a computer file -- means something in a freestanding way that doesn't require invoking the subjectivity of a human reader."  Realism: "...humans, considered as information systems, weren't designed yesterday, and are not the abstract playthings of some higher being, such as a web 2.0 programmer in the sky.  My take away:  The last one is the authors recommendation to not get sucked in.  Since we have to elect to become subservient to the machines -- we should have the the power to avoid it.  Thus the reason for the rants -- because unless we see the problem we are unlikely to wish to avoid it.

Octopus:  Lanier then goes on to talk about how our brain interacts with odors, how that differs from sight and sound, and how it will be a long time before computers can smell.  Then on to finches and how they sing alot more once they achieve assured mating, and a bit on how language interacts with the brain.  This leads to a discussion of Neoteny: the extent to which a species can survive from birth -- essentially 100% nature, or conversely must rely on learned behaviors after birth -- nature plus nurture.  OK, so on to the Octopus.  Here the author describes the incredible capabilities of an octopus to conceal itself by such elaborate camouflage where its entire skin is a canvas painted with great detail to match its highly complex surroundings.   All of this is accomplished by the brain of the octopus understanding its surroundings and then somehow conveying the image to its "display" surface in a blink.  Even more amazing when you consider that the octopus is 100% nature -- not learning anything from mom after birth.  Just try that you web 2.0 developers!

Overall I am taken by Jaron Lanier.  He is a good writer, knows volumes about a wide variety of subjects in a true renaissance way.  I was lucky enough to hear him speak in person and I would recommend that as well.  We are fortunate to be reading his book at a time when computing has not yet advanced to the point where it is even harder to perceive the problem.  Sure it seems ridiculous now to allow ourselves to be defined by Facebook, but a few Moore's law cycles from now we may find we have met the machine halfway -- and that would be a shame.  One last quote:  "At the end of the road of the pursuit of technological sophistication appears to lie a playhouse in which humankind regresses to nursery school."  Let's at least resist the urge to go there.

Other reviews I recommend:


Wall Street Journal

New York Post

New York Times

To buy the book on Amazon