Rating: ★★★★☆ 

You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier. Alfred A. Knopf (2010), 209 pages.

This is a very difficult book to describe because the author is the kind of genius who has ideas that are so visionary I at times have the feeling I’m only grasping ten percent of what he is trying to communicate. Despite this limitation (mine, not his—he is a very good writer) I found You Are Not a Gadget to be one of the most thought-provoking, profound, and important nonfiction books I have read in a long time.

Lanier writes in this manifesto about digital technology, the “hive mind” vs. individual human beings, and the importance of independent creative thought. Because he is one of the fathers of digital technology (he led the team in the 1980s that developed virtual reality) he is in a unique position to criticize the monolithic behemoth that the internet has become. Though technology illiterates might not understand everything he says, anyone who has ever watched a YouTube video or used Wikipedia or Facebook will get the general idea.

The last eight pages alone, on post-symbolic communication, are worth the price of the book.  I would like to tell you what post-symbolic communication is, but since I could barely grasp it when I read it, it seems unlikely that I am the right person to explain it. But here’s the thing—even though I didn’t quite get it, I knew I was reading something completely astonishing. I basically read these pages with my mouth dropped open in amazement.

This book should be required reading for anyone who ever does anything on the internet.

When you come upon a video clip or picture or stretch of writing that has been made available in the web 2.0 manner, you almost never have access to the history of the locality in which it was perceived to have meaning by the anonymous person who left it there. A song might have been tender, or brave, or redemptive in context, but those qualities will usually be lost.

Even if a video of a song is seen a million times, it becomes just one dot in a vast pointillist spew of similar songs when it is robbed of its motivating context. Numerical popularity doesn’t correlate with intensity of connection in the cloud.

If a fuzzy crowd of anonymous people is making uninformed mashups with my recorded music, then when I present my music myself the context becomes one in which my presentation fits into a statistical distribution of other presentations. It is no longer an expression of my life.

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A fashionable idea in technical circles is that quantity not only turns into quality at some extreme of scale, but also does so according to principles we already understand. Some of my colleagues think a million, or perhaps a billion, fragmentary insults will eventually yield wisdom that surpasses that of any well-thought-out essay, so long as sophisticated secret statistical algorithms recombine the fragments. I disagree.