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I LIKE TO THINK I’M MORE OF A WIDGET, MYSELF
February 21st, 2010 by Clark Humphrey


There’s this guy named Jaron Lanier. He was part of some of the earliest virtual reality research, as he’ll repeatedly tell you.

Now he’s rebranded himself as a cyper-skeptic. While he insists he’s no Luddite, he sure talks as if he thinks everything wrong with modern society could be traced to the Internet, to its imperfect technologies, and to its even more imperfect business models.

He’s compiled some of these screeds into a book, You Are Not a Gadget.

It’s subtitled “A Manifesto,” but it’s less of a single structured argument and more of a package of rewritten magazine essays.

In them, Lanier blames the collapse of just about all old-media businesses on the Web’s inability to command a price for content.

He blames what he calls the sameness of modern pop music on the bad influence of discrete synths and samplers.

He blames lousy software on open-source collectives that just can’t innovate the way individuals and strong-leader groups can.

He blames 2008’s economic collapse on inscrutably arcane “investment products” that could only have been devised with the aid of advanced computer technology.

He blames what he calls a devaluing of the individual in today’s world on Web 2.0 sites’ obsession with collective anonymity, with turning humans into abstracted collections of likes and associations.

I’m not convinced.

Yes, the legacy ephemeral-media businesses (broadcast TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, and so on) are in huge trouble. But the whole concept of the mass audience, upon which these businesses had relied, has cracked, probably irreversably. The Web has only some of the blame/credit for this.

Apple, Amazon, and others have proven people will pay for content delivered as electronic bits, under the proper circumstances. I believe the iPad and machines ike it will only help commercial e-media grow.

Meanwhile, the decaying remnants of the big record companies (there are only four of them left, none US-owned and only one (Sony) still tethered to a major corporation) continually try to stuff the musical genie back into the broken mass-market bottle. They promote decreasingly distinctive works, issued under the names of professional gossip-mag celebrities. In the 1980s, folks such as Sub Pop founder Bruce Pavitt predicted corporate music would end up in a recursive death cycle. It’s happened now, and it ain’t pretty, but it was inevitable.

Open source software didn’t grow out of mistaken techno-hippie idealism, as Lanier claims, but out of mainframe-era computing administrators who shared pieces of code as a professional courtesy. From the start, it was all about insider geeks helping find better ways to solve existing problems. So it gives us insider-geek tools like LINUX and better-mousetrap stuff like the Firefox browser. If the truly innovative tech stuff always comes from individuals and top-down groups, as Lanier alleges, it’s because that’s where the make-a-name-for-yourself incentive is.

As for the financial bubble, Lanier’s closer to where I believe the mark is, but still misses it. The fatal link to the reckless speculators wasn’t from Internet technologies, but Internet business models. A decade after the first dot-coms arose, large swaths of business and most of finance had adopted dot-com mindsets. Enron was only the first prominent example. We can make millions, billions, fast! Not by old slowpoke return-on-investment models, but by devising really clever schemes and then selling them as hard as humanly possible—no, even harder. The whole of the global economy was wrested by the same smirky tall white guys who’d given us such surefire success stories as Flooz.com, Kozmo.com, and MyLackey.com.

And then comes what I see as Lanier’s most important allegation, that being online is degrading what it means to be human. No. It’s really the marketing business that wants to either lump us all into an undifferentiated mass or to wall us off from one another on the basis of demographics and buying habits. Social media, at their best, help humans reconnect to one another on other bases—political/social organizing, religious/spiritual questing, shared cultural memories, or just being alive and having something to say.


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