You are not a Gadget; A Manifesto
by Jaron Lanier
Publisher: Vintage (2011)
Reviewed by: Julie Garland McLellan*
If you interact with a computer and the computer doesn't know that you are not another machine, have you lost an essential part of your humanness?
This unsettling book explores some of the strange conundra created by our fascination with all things 'web 2.0'. From the way one programmer's convenience becomes the next generation's strait-jacket, to the loss of identity in wiki-based knowledge, and the lowering of self-esteem among Facebook addicted youth, to the 'ideal' of perpetual existence as a stream of electrons in a computer's consciousness, this book takes science fiction and roots it deep into the rich manure of common current 'culture'.
The concept that structure and process can speed up adoption and dissemination of new ideas by lowering volatility and improving message targeting is anathema to the proponents of wiki-style freedom. But is the freedom of information necessarily worth the sacrifice of individual expression, attribution and control? Proponents of the hive mind or noosphere would argue that case but Lanier takes an independent stance that values contribution of individuals as individuals, with their personal intelligence, experience and emotion, above the anonymous and often re-edited, variable outputs of agglomerated information mash-ups. It is a brave, but valid, stance and coherently reasoned.
The doctrine of crowd-based wisdom is infiltrating strategy and policy development processes. Whilst involvement is inherently useful, it appears obvious, upon reading this treatise, that there should be clear limits to the way in which crowds are used and greater scope for individual attributable contributions to retain relevance.
The use of pseudonyms and anonymous postings is definitely supporting the rise of 'Trolls'. Trolls, in cyberspace, are people who are abusive towards other people or ideas. They have been implicated in cyber-bullying which leaves boards exposed to claims of failure to prevent harassment and/or discrimination. The move towards transparency is greatly hampered when organisations interact online with anonymous respondents.
As Lanier points out, "If you win anonymously no one knows, and if you lose, you just change your pseudonym and start over, without having modified your point of view one bit. If the Troll is anonymous and the target is known then the dynamic is even worse." Any company is at risk of a cyber-storm if their operations, brand or philosophy should offend a tribe of trolls. The case of Nestle and the palm oil debate is a dramatic illustration of this principle in action.
Another of Lanier's bugbears is the principle of 'lock-in', where decisions made in the early stages of development establish constraints on decision-making in the later stages until they become ingrained as 'facts'. Reducing the richness of individual experience to suit the templates of networking sites is a harrowing process to any innovative thinkers. Cutting the glissando of music into computer recognisable notes is anathema to many musicians. Both of these processes have enabled sharing and progress on a scale unparalleled in human history. Both are reducing the expression of future potential by fitting it into a template based on past expedience.
Lanier is one of the leading thinkers of the internet age and this book has set him apart, and at odds, from his fellows. It has also provided a necessary space for consideration in our headlong rush to the brave new lands of the internet fuelled universe. Like the maps of olden-times, at the edges of our current knowledge it would be well to mark the internet with signs stating 'Here be Dragons'. They may only be dragons of our own invention but it is as well proceed towards them with due caution.
* Julie Garland McLellan is a professional non-executive director, board and governance consultant and mentor. She is the author of "Presenting to Boards", Dilemmas, Dilemmas: Practical Case Studies for Company Directors, "The Director's Dilemma", "All Above Board: Great Governance for the Government Sector" and numerous articles on corporate strategy and governance.
Julie Garland McLellan to judge 2011 Global eBook Awards