You Are Not a Gadget

September 29, 2011

All technologies have an implicit model of what a user is, and the more we use them, the less we can help living up to however much or little they expect of us.

Lanier has some important ideas here, but You Are Not a Gadget suffers from weak examples and overgeneralization. The author’s thesis is that software is always trying to define us, to reduce us to attributes that can fit into databases to be sorted and sold–basically, to treat us as fellow machines–and the extent to which we submit to this, we limit the full range of our humanity. Take Facebook, for example, which makes you fit your entire personality into a few dozen predefined values laid out in the same template for everyone.1 Of course, the census had been doing this for hundreds of years before software came along, but I see his point that software imposes its limitations on us daily as opposed to once in a decade.

The reason for this is an important one to always keep in mind: we’re not Facebook and Twitter and Google’s customers. We don’t pay a dime. Their customers are the advertisers. We are the product they sell. The database of our information, the million points of data about what we “like” and how we interact with our friends, all of which we willingly, even eagerly provide free of charge, is what they’re selling to the tune of billions.

So we need to be wary of the “database-as-reality” mindset. Spend enough time on Facebook and you may just come to believe that a person is a profile, and a life is just a series of status updates. And that would be a pretty undignified view of things. But there’s a valid point to be made that these software-imposed limitations can actually enhance our creativity. Twitter’s forced brevity can push us to be more concise and witty. Never mind that 99% of tweets are garbage; so is 99% of in-person small talk.

Where He Loses Me

Lanier begins to lose my support when he trots out the tired old irony that Facebook “friends” aren’t actually friends (no one thinks they are). But he makes good on this cliche with a keen prescription about true friendship:

A true friendship ought to introduce each person to the unexpected weirdness in the other. Each acquaintance is an alien, a well of unexplored difference in the experience of life that cannot be imagined or accessed in any way but through genuine interaction.

But what makes one interaction “genuine” compared to another? Merely happening offline doesn’t make something genuine, nor are computer-facilitated interactions prohibited from being so. This is too big a question for me to explore here, but Lanier, who has an entire book’s space to explore it, ignores it to his argument’s detriment.

The book also suffers from some poor examples. In one case, he faults the Linux community for not coming up with the iPhone, and uses this to argue the importance of private, commercial innovation over its public, free (open-source) counterpart. Never mind that the Linux community creates a specific kind of software, and isn’t in the phone or even the hardware business. Lanier also makes much of how the MIDI audio format locks music into a set of predefined notes, barring us from hearing the sounds in between. But seriously, he’s writing in 2010. MIDI is dead and even the MP3 format, not young by any means, embraces a greater range of sound than the human ear can possibly hear.

Habitually, the author generalizes the limitations of first-on-the-scene technologies. Yes, the earliest social networks and the earliest file formats are reductive. But they get better, more suited to human use, over time. The costs of giving exponentially more people a voice are some initial, technologically-imposed–and eventually technologically-overcome–limitations on what that voice can be or say. 500 million people didn’t flock to Facebook to be put into little boxes. They flocked to Facebook because for the first time in history is was easy for them to share themselves–their thoughts, their photos, their relationships–with the world. People aren’t such poor judges of value as Lanier would like to think.

Free = Worthless?

If you want to know what’s really going on in a society or ideology, follow the money. If money is flowing to advertising instead of musicians, journalists, and artists, then a society is more concerned with manipulation than truth or beauty. If content is worthless, then people will start to become empty-headed and contentless.

…the basic idea…is that authors, journalists, musicians, and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind. Reciprocity takes the form of self-promotion. Culture is to become nothing but advertising.

Maybe it sucks for creators pressured into giving things away for free in order to gain exposure, but this condition isn’t unique to the digital world. Upstart musicians are pressured into unfair contracts in order to get picked up, and stand-up comics get little or no compensation for their first cracks at club stages. Lanier goes on to suggest an entirely new currency system in which we pay for information by the bit. This seems like a great way to kill the internet, but not a solution to the problem of people being compensated amply for their work. However, new platforms like Kickstarter have emerged to meet this need–allowing creative folks to collect small amounts of money from lots of people in order to finance what those people deem to be worthwhile projects–all without requiring a new currency system.

All that aside, Lanier’s key premise–that people who give things away online aren’t compensated–may not even hold. Contributors to Wikipedia, Amazon reviews, and Steepster (a site for tea fans), for example, tend to also be users of these sites and benefit from each other making it better. In the same vein, practically all contributors to open-source software are also users of that same software, and benefit directly from their own and others’ contributions.

Is the Internet an Engine of Infantilization?

Lanier’s final warning concerns the web’s supposed childishness–think of inane and vicious YouTube comments, grown-ups farming cartoon vegetables in their free time, and massively funded enterprises with Sesame Street names like Twitter, Tumblr, and Google.

At these companies one finds rooms full of MIT PhD engineers not seeking cancer cures or sources of safe drinking water for the underdeveloped world but schemes to send little digital pictures of teddy bears and dragons between adult members of social networks. At the end of the road of the pursuit of technological sophistication appears to lie a playhouse in which humankind regresses to nursery school.

…And there is truly nothing wrong with that! I am not saying “The internet is turning us all into children, isn’t that awful”; quite the contrary. Cultural neoteny [the extension of childhood] can be wonderful. But it’s important to understand the dark side.

He goes on to suggest that the internet perpetuates an infantile need to be always the center of attention, and hampers the development of mature independence by keeping us always connected. But I reject that any of this childishness is inherent to the internet. Isn’t television just as inane, and cable news just as irresponsibly unserious? To be sure, the neoteny is real–adolescence is lasting longer; I see it in my own life and those of my friends–but this is a cultural movement2 not a technological one. The internet may be an outlet, but it’s not a cause.


If I take away one idea from You Are Not a Gadget, it’ll be that all software has an implicit model of what a person is, and by using it often, we can’t help living up to however much or little it expects of us. Facebook treats me like a node in a web of connections to links, photos, brands, and other nodes. Twitter treats me like a series of text messages. Google treats me like the kind of person who isn’t creeped out by someone following me around and suggesting weakly relevant products based on what I do. (And haven’t we already become what Google thinks we are?) If I were to spend twelve hours a day in the presence of monkeys who treated me like one of their own, there’s a good chance I’d start to act and maybe even feel like one. Well, I already spend twelve hours a day dealing with computers who treat me like one of their own…

  1. Lanier has some fondness for the ugly uniqueness of MySpace pages, by comparison. 

  2. The result of unprecedented youth unemployment, perhaps?