you are not a gadget. or a cephalopod.

having just read YOU ARE NOT A GADGET (by Jaron Lanier, who is apparently some kind of tech bigwig who i formerly had not heard of, January 2010 from Knopf), i feel like this is the kind of book you can’t NOT respond to. Lanier just about begs for response, both internal and out loud (as it were).

as Stephanie points out, “There are too many ideas in this book that I underlined and starred and ?ed and yes!ed to count.” which makes it a really difficult book to review. where do you even start? simultaneously, by the end of it i had kind of lost the big picture. i’m not sure if that’s my fault or Lanier’s, but the close left me with a feeling of “…. and? what is the take-home here?” so that makes it doubly difficult to review, because i was left trying to play connect the dots.

all that aside, i think the book is well worth the read. it’s deceptively short, but there’s plenty of food for thought. and if you’re a bookseller & social media user like me, you get stuck on a couple of things in particular.

1) authorship

Stephanie brings this up too, and makes excellent points, but i wanted to go in a different direction, especially in regards to the recent Rick Moody Twitter experiment. one of the things that bugged me most about the execution of the co-tweeting was the lack of ownership assigned to the tweets. you either had to know from the beginning what was going on, wait for the little “this is what this is!” that appeared at the beginning and end of the tweets each of the three days (which, come on, this is Twitter we’re talking about, who does that?), or ask the co-tweeters — there was no quick, easy way to find out. on the one hand that is probably not a big deal; so you have to do a little work! but when you’re thinking about authorship as a commodity, one that (according to Lanier) is disappearing rapidly because of social media, then the lack of tagging (something, anything!) to identify those tweets as Rick Moody’s in origin is troubling. if you use social media the way i believe most of us do (and the way that Lanier doesn’t seem to acknowledge — see #2), then provenance is typically very clear. when you blur the lines the way Electric Lit did, i think you open the door for the very thing Lanier worries about: the separation of the artist from their work. perhaps during the experiment itself, there was enough context to identify all those tweets as being written by Moody. but what about afterward? they are still on the net — Twitter may not log them, but Google sure as *&#@ does, and many of us back up/archive our timelines in various, sometimes publicly accessible, ways. so post-experiment, what points back to Moody or Electric Lit? precious little.

the reason this bugs me so much is because it was done by a publisher and an author — the two people/entities who have the MOST invested in ownership of creativity. so i am sending out a distress signal/public plea here: please, authors and publishers. PLEASE, think things through. social media experiments are fantastic and wonderful and often huge teaching moments for all of us. but a little mindfulness goes a long way — let’s not give away any more than we have to. i believe very strongly that content deserves to be owned, and that often it deserves to be paid for, and i can only imagine that you do too. if those are our goals, before you try ANY experiments, take a moment and think about whether or not you can meet those goals. if not, maybe the experiment is worth reconsidering.

2) how we really use social media

Lanier doesn’t talk about Twitter much directly, but rather refers off-handedly to tweets and bits and streams, and i think he sort of misses the boat. his argument is that, by trimming our personalities to bite-sized morsels communicated over channels like Twitter, Facebook, etc., we are reducing ourselves in reality, as well as surrendering our individuality and becoming part of the “hive mind.” i’m not going to address anything except for Twitter in this case, because i believe this is where he is most wrong.

if his argument were accurate, then the “follow” function on Twitter is totally useless. if all i’m doing is joining the hive mind, then it doesn’t matter who is talking — all POV are equally valid, because we’re all part of one big neuro-techno-brain thing. or something like that. (i am not making this up, i swear.) but try to imagine using Twitterwithout the follow function. i can tell you right now, i just wouldn’t bother. i would place good money on a bet that most Twitter users check the public timeline VERY infrequently — i honestly can’t remember the last time i did. instead, i look for people who are interesting, who have unique and varied viewpoints, who i think i can have a good conversation with. in other words, i look for AUTHORS with PERSONALITY.

plus, authorship/ownership has its own protocol. the use of the ReTweet or RT standard is not only hugely adopted, but also hugely important — just watch the current uproar over Twitter’s new RT function, which severs the commentor/repeater from the original tweet. by taking away the ability to comment/adjust a tweet when we repeat it, Twitter is encroaching on our ownership of our conversations. and people are not liking it.

en garde, Lanier!

despite my differences as stated, Lanier makes some really excellent and really troubling points about the directions in which online programming, not to mention the way we use it, is going. he also has a kind-of adorable ode to the cephalopod and virtual reality (yes, he manages to link them) at the end which made me a little giddy. i also am now ridiculously curious as to who this guy actually is — he not only name-drops all of Silicon Valley, but then tells stories about that time they all went surfing back in college. puts kind of a new face on people who are generally known more for their icons than their own individual selves. which probably tells you more about me than it does about him, i realize as i type this.

if you have EVER wondered about the future of culture, or art, or technology, or any combination of those three things, then you need to pick this book up (and then highlight it, argue with it, throw it across the room, retrieve it, blog about it, and pass it along to a friend).

p.s. i just realized that Neil Gaiman’s BBC Audio Twitter project falls squarely into the gray area that worries both Lanier and i. in sum, Neil started a story on Twitter and other people were invited to finish it. apparently someone sifted through all the tweets that were properly tagged and assembled a story that has been recorded by a professional narrator. so, who gets authorship (is that a word?) of the story? is each contributor of selected tweets credited? as far as i can tell, the authors are being billed as “Neil Gaiman and the Twitterverse” — which basically falls under the scary “hive mind” notion that Lanier rants about. i haven’t listened to it yet, and to be honest i’m not sure i ever will, because, well, “too many cooks spoil the broth” and all that. even though it’s NG, who i usually adore. so maybe i have to concede that Lanier has a point in the specific, if not the general. the ultimate point here, though, goes back to my plea for publishers to think things through. PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, THINK IT THROUGH!

you are not a gadget. or a cephalopod.

2 thoughts on “you are not a gadget. or a cephalopod.

  1. You wrote: ‘by the end of it i had kind of lost the big picture. i’m not sure if that’s my fault or Lanier’s, but the close left me with a feeling of “…. and? what is the take-home here?”’. I had the same problem, so I don’t think it’s just you.

    Lanier seems to be pretty good at identifying some problems with the web (and, if you like, Web 2.0) as it is, but he’s also prone to exaggerating (your point about Twitter being about listening (to those you know) as much posting is a good example of where he raises a straw man), but I’m not sure he has any solutions other than the one you allude to in the post’s title (which I won’t explain any further because, well, it’s the end of the book).

    Mind you, it is about the only book I’ve read this year which I feel I really should sit down and review, so there’s something in it. I’m still not sure exactly what that something is, though.

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