Rage against the machine

By Sven Birkerts
Globe Correspondent / January 17, 2010

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Jaron Lanier’s entry in Wikipedia, our one-stop info-shopping site, lists the many areas of accomplishment that have earned him renown - visionary computer scientist, pioneer of virtual reality and reputed coiner of the term, and composer.

Within the entry, in a section bearing the title “Philosophical and technological ideas,’’ you find a subhead: “Criticism of any single (simple) paradigm on knowledge approach.’’ Here is summarized Lanier’s criticism of Wikipedia as the “authoritative bottleneck which channels . . . knowledge’’ and enforces the “sterile style of wiki writing.’’

This self-referential tidbit opens directly onto the thesis of Lanier’s provocative, if eccentric, new book. “You Are Not a Gadget,’’ which bears the subtitle “A Manifesto,’’ and judging by the opening pages the urgency is patent. “It’s early in the twenty-first century,’’ writes Lanier in his preface, “and that means that these words will mostly be read by nonpersons - automatons or numb mobs composed of people who are no longer acting as individuals.’’ The reader sits up. One of the insider’s insiders of the computing world seems to have gone rogue.

That sentence turns out to be slightly deceptive, for what Lanier is referring to are the various sluices - the scanning and keywording processes - that all information is subjected to these days, and farther down he adds: “The words in this book are written for people, not computers.’’

But in fact the original import - that humans might be taking on the inhuman characteristics of automata - is not so far off the mark of the author’s gravest fear, and the more polemical part of his manifesto sets this out with hammering insistence.

Lanier begins by laying out a core tenet. Basically, as supple and inventive as any given software program may be in its origins, the need for digital compatibility creates a kind of Procrustean process known as “lock-in.’’

The model, as I understand it, is that of a pipeline. At one end lies the culture of users, all of us ever more dependent on the technology, and at the other, a systemic sclerosis, which imposes radical limitations on what the technology can offer. The upshot: We are increasingly subject to what the machine gives us - information shaped by the logistics of the large-scale programs that drive everything else.

Repeatedly harking back to the pioneer nonconformist days of computer culture - a spirit he channels both in his pronouncements and appearance (his Wikipedia photograph shows a dreadlocked figure playing some arcane-looking 3-piped instrument) - Lanier exposes the root tension of technology.

In the heady founding days computing was seen by its acolytes as an arena for individuality, a vast extension of the possibilities of expression. But with the rapid growth and inevitable corporate standardization of product and process, the reverse is happening. Hooked on something that promised freedom, we increasingly find ourselves trapped within rigidly procedural networks. And if we are shaped by our tools, our options of individuality are conspicuously narrowing.

The first half of Lanier’s book confronts the big issues with bracing directness. Addressing the assumptions of many of his colleagues and “Silicon Valley intellectuals,’’ he writes: “The first tenet of this new culture is that all of reality, including humans, is one big information system.’’ Later, he announces: “Information is alienated experience.’’ Here is a thesis worthy of a book. But not this book. The author has other terrain to survey. Still, his incendiary probes are worth the price of admission.

Alas, the second half of “You Are Not a Gadget’’ does not carry the arc through. As Lanier takes up various cases-in-point - considering consumerism and the monetary implications of digital culture, the burgeoning of personal networking sites, the fate of artistic imagination (crucial topics all), he moves into a different key signature.

The scope of the opening, which questions nothing less than the fate of individuality in this brave new world, narrows into more particularized discussions. Interesting and relevant as these are, the urgency of the first chapters dissipates.

To counter the pessimism of his earlier assertions, Lanier looks for upside messages. He foresees, for instance, a kind of extended global childhood - the technology fostering play and exploration -and celebrates the possibilities of a “post-symbolic communication’’ that mirrors (with odd appropriateness) the adaptation patterns of octopi to changing stimuli. The implications are fascinating, yes. And maybe that’s enough. That Lanier would single-handedly solve one of our biggest collective dilemmas is too much to ask, though his original zeal creates that far-fetched expectation.

Sven Birkerts is the author of eight books, including “The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age.’’ He directs the Bennington Writing Seminars.

By Jaron Lanier
Knopf, 224 pp., $24.95