Every decade (which means every two or three years in internet time) has its internet rethinker. This year it's virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier and You Are Not a Gadget. Personally, I never thought I was.
Lanier does remember to remind us that actually he loves the internet. What he deplores is the infatuation with the 'hive mind', the idea that if we pool all our mental resources anything is possible. The internet provides some evidence for the effectiveness of this kind of collective intelligence: Wikipedia, for example.
Lanier's objection to Wikipedia isn't the traditional complaint that you can't trust its accuracy. Rather, he seems unhappy that here they gave us this wonderful technology, and what are we doing with it? Reinventing the encyclopaedia and the 1970s operating system Unix, and along the way trashing any ability people might have to make a living from their wonderful creations. Where is the really new stuff?
Grant that much open-source software is a remix of the functionality of existing commercial products. Grant that the beneficiaries of copyright protection have produced many wonderful films, pieces of music and other art. That still doesn't mean that open culture must perforce bring a dull, boring blandness or that it must mean poverty for all creators.
Part of Lanier's complaint is that we give computers too much credit. We attribute intelligence to computers (like Deep Blue) whose cleverness was in fact designed by humans. We make the mistake of thinking that computers (in the form of Facebook) can represent human relationships. We use technology to attack people who thought they were safe and boast about it at conferences like Black Hat and Defcon. We wouldn't describe these things that way ourselves — the case is pretty solid for the value of stress-testing apparently secure systems. And the fact that sitcoms joke about what it means to be someone's Facebook 'friend' shows that most of us understand the limitation of the description pretty thoroughly. We'd also argue with Lanier's contention that new technologies have created new jobs superior to the jobs they've eliminated. Sometimes that's true, but someone working in telesales might disagree.
His argument that quantity of data doesn't lead to quality of insight is somewhat better founded, as is his contention that Moore's Law has slowness attached to it as well as speed. Software development doesn't keep pace with hardware; and although Moore's Law has hit medicine in areas such as genomics and drug sequencing, the extended life of each generation slows down generational shifts in thought and culture. Is that why there's been no new musical form since hip-hop (another of Lanier's contentions)?
'I want to say: you have to be somebody before you can share yourself,' Lanier writes in his introduction to the few humans (compared to many machines) he imagines will read his book. If that doesn't sound like a particularly new insight, it's not: feminists have been saying that for 40 years. A better line is this one: 'A computer isn't even there unless a person experiences it'. There you go.
You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto By Jaron Lanier Allen Lane 209 pp ISBN: 978-1-846-14341-0 Price: £20