Thursday, January 21, 2010

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto

In his book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Jaron Lanier becomes a solitary voice in the wilderness shouting as loudly as he can that all is not well with the virtual world nor with the tools that make the virtual world and computers. That this book was written by an insider from the world of the Internet should get everyone's attention.

Jaron Lanier is a household name for those who follow the world of computers and virtual reality and his book is nothing more than a manifesto warning us that there is a dark side to the Internet. Even innocuous websites such as Facebook and Google, "lords of the cloud" do not escape Lanier's expose. "Emphasizing the crowd means de-emphasizing individual humans" and that, in the end, leads to "mob" behavior. Utterly true.

As I flipped through the book, the point that resonated most loudly to me was the impact `anonymity' has had on our virtual world (and maybe the real world as well). I can remember visiting a chat room that was dedicated to "Books and Literature" in 2000 or 2001. As a librarian I was naturally drawn to a space that I thought would be filled with others like me who had a love of the written word and for good books. Did that assumption back fire? You bet! What I found was a chat area filled with virtual people who wanted to chat about anything but books and literature. If I were to post a question about what people were reading or what they thought of a given book I was torn (virtually) from limb to limb.

Having served in the military I have a pretty good operational understanding of foul language, and I'm pretty good at throwing the words around when necessary. However, that this language would be used in that particular venue by people who could remain anonymous was a shock. I'm pretty certain that most of the visitors to that website hadn't read a book in years and had no problem violating the most basic rules of civility. Lanier is correct when he argues that this is not a step in the right direction. (Please forgive this personal observation)

Obviously I'm a fan of the virtual world. I post reviews online for free (which is another point Lanier makes) but the joy isn't the posting of reviews but in reading the books; real books. What Lanier has to say should be of interest to all of us.

You Are Not a Gadget is written for the ordinary reader with a minimal background in computers. Lanier floats from idea to idea not necessarily fully exploring a point, but instead simply raising an issue and then moving on. Very effective!

I predict that You Are Not a Gadget is destined to become a cultural icon in the future. We now point to books such as Silent Spring by Rachel Carson and I'm Ok, You're Ok by Dr. Thomas Harris as books that changed society and altered the future. I suspect that You Are Not a Gadget may become that type of sign post.

I highly recommend.

Peace always.

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