Byting back

Amid all the hype about Apple’s new baby, one influential digital pioneer has expressed deep misgivings about the dehumanising effects of computers in his new book. John Stones finds this dystopian vision of the future a little disturbing

By the time you read this, we will probably be cooing over the new Apple Tablet. The interface will be praised, its physical design admired, while companies line up to see what new business opportunities are manifested. But what of the world created when these digital devices and their software, particularly the supposedly interactive, democratic elements that make up Web 2.0, become naturalised?

Think of the average journey on the London Underground, which has, in only a couple of years, changed out all recognition. People, now oblivious to their surroundings, stare instead intently at the gadget in their hand, updating their Facebook profile, tweeting or playing some game.

We would do well to be reminded, as Jaron Lanier argues in his important new book You are not a Gadget, of ‘how small changes in the details of a digital design can have profound unforeseen effects on the experiences of the humans who are using it. The slightest change in something as seemingly trivial as the ease of use of a button can sometimes completely alter behaviour patterns’.

It’s an insight that kicks off an impassioned and original critique of what the digital world has become. Rather than opening up our lives to freedoms previously unimaginable, Lanier suggest that the Web and its devices are designing a new kind of impoverished existence, one which, furthermore, we will soon be unable to escape, owing to the dynamic of ‘lock in’ that he convincingly and worryingly sets out in his manifesto.

One of his best analogies is the musical one, in which the richness of the analogue world is subjected to a dehumanising reduction. ‘People are becoming like MIDI [musical instrumental digital interface] notes – overly defined, and restricted in practice to what can be represented in a computer,’ he writes.

Lanier is no Luddite, but a pioneer of virtual reality and an influential figure in the digital optimism that made Silicon Valley what it is today. So when he writes that ‘our identities can be shifted by the quirks of gadgets’, he is being both literal and metaphorical. As a result, design by committee, ‘the hive mind’, ‘the cloud’ and the cult of anonymity, exemplified by the faceless characterlessness of Wikipedia, are all emblematic of what he terms digital Maoism or cybernetic totalism.

The danger, he suggests, is that we are about to trap ourselves inside an over-simplistic design of our own creation, resulting in a ‘nurd [sic] reductionism’ that will lead to cultural impoverishment and mob rule. Facebook ‘turns life into a database’, while ‘openness’ and file-sharing exalts the inane and debases creative activity as artists, writers, filmmakers and musicians see their work cannibalised into worthless ‘bits’ and left without financial recompense.

‘Ironically, advertising is now singled out as the only form of expression meriting genuine commercial protection in the new world to come,’ says Lanier. ‘Any other form of expression is to be remashed, anonymised, and decontextualised to the point of meaninglessness.’
YouTube, in particular, is singled out. ‘It’s as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump. This is embarrassing. The whole point of connected media technologies was we were supposed to come up with new, amazing cultural expression,’ he writes.

At times crude, overly self-referential and caught up in the jargon of Silicon Valley, as well as being parochially American, Lanier’s book is nevertheless a highly relevant critique of the vague mushiness that we have come to accept around digital culture, and a much-needed defence of the humanist values that are being trampled underfoot. If ever there was an answer to the question, ‘Who needs thinkers when you have Wikipedia?’, this book is surely it.

Incidentally, the book itself is treated to a cute design by Olly Moss, while the cover of the US edition is designed by none other than American design star Chip Kidd.

You are not a Gadget: A Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier, is published by Allen Lane on 4 February, priced £20

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