You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto

May 2011

Jaron Lanier is a preeminent technologist and Silicon Valley pioneer. In You Are Not a Gadget, Lanier artfully and even-handedly argues that today’s prevailing Internet ethos undervalues the individual, and instead places emphasis on the misguided notion of the “hive mind”–the powerful crowd dynamic that breathes life into sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia.

Lanier observes that inventors of digital technology inadvertently “tinker” with our worldview when they create technologies that redefine our experience. Computers exhibit an unprecedented power to redefine experience because they codify assumptions about reality (e.g. the nature of a musical note, your relationship status) and lock these assumptions into rigid information systems (e.g. file formats, social networks). Furthermore, these assumptions are stored as digital information, which Lanier claims will always necessarily underrepresent reality. If we spend a lot of time using a social network that reinforces inflexible, lossy assumptions about what a friend is, or what our political preferences are, then our worldview becomes narrowly defined and bereft of nuance.

Lanier writes that technologists have made “poor philosophers,” having failed to understand the philosophical implications of their work, a mistake which has led to digital designs that value quantity before quality, crowds before individuals, parts before wholes, advertisements before truth, and knowledge before wisdom. Lanier calls for a new, humanistic approach to technology based on the premise that the most important thing to ask about technology is how it changes people.

This book is short and brilliant. Be forewarned that it’s heavily philosophical, but very rewarding.