“Essential Queries About Our Humanness”
A Review of
You Are Not a Gadget.
by Jaron Lanier.
Reviewed by Mark Eckel.
You Are Not a Gadget.
Hardback: Borzoi Books, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
“He has too many chocolate chips in his cookie dough.” This was my son Tyler’s response to my query of what he thought of You Are Not a Gadget. I could not agree more. Jaron Lanier is a brilliant thinker. Handling a number of ideas, this co-father of the internet weaves in and out of various disciplines. He expects his reader to believe he is an expert in evolutionary biology, economics, theology, and philosophy; he fancies himself an ethicist, historian, businessman, Marxist (the ‘pure’ kind), and what he is: a techno-engineer. But herein lays the problem. Lanier’s dough cannot hold all those chips.
Let me say again Lanier is brilliant. There is much to commend the essence of We Are Not Gadgets: people are special. Science should be much more like poetry and storytelling (160, 168). Lanier’s questions are incisive. He penetrates past technological usage to ask essential queries about our humanness. Lanier rightly identifies the most important philosophical signposts. Defining humanness as “a quest, a mystery, a leap of faith” (5) punctuates his concern for people becoming what they use. He expertly explains how technology shapes us. Freedom is a chimera when computers control our lives. Pondering mystery and taking responsibility for consequences is a human need (75). “The file is a set of philosophical ideas made into eternal flesh” (13) inhibiting personal expression. People are replaced by processes (16) promoting an anti-human way of thought (22). The author asks the right questions.
However, Lanier’s answers and solutions, assumptions and conclusions send shudders through my bones. The reader is not out of chapter one before she learns Lanier’s baseline belief is “a faith in human goodness” (19). Much later, “no plaything of some higher being,” humans are products of “billions of years of implicit, evolutionary study in the school of hard knocks.” Concerned for the special nature of people he refers to our collective as “computational . . . information systems” (157). Flaws of human nature are constrained by civilization “in order to become better” (107). While the human “bad side” (183) is given a slight nod, we are always left with the same question, “Who says?” Reliance upon the altruism of an individual cannot be guaranteed by a theological-philosophical grid established solely by people.
Lanier’s “sweet faith in human nature” (14) suggests that Marx or Freud were “pure.” Their ideas were innocent. Their philosophy was corrupted by “group think” (18). Ever concerned that “the digital hive is growing at the expense of individuality” (26) and “the ever-roaming evil eye of the hive mind, can turn on an individual at any moment” (70) Lanier desires “we believe in ourselves” in order to be “real” (44). It is commendable for Lanier to question, to counter the usurpation of humanness from the flattening forge of technology. But he seems to be nothing more than a Renaissance man, product of The Enlightenment, desirous of autonomy (“only human choice makes the human world function,” 107). Self-organized authority structures are just as dangerous as those espoused by any group.
The dangerous nature of Lanier’s self-authority entraps the very humanness he seeks to protect. He posits the “border between person and non-person might be found somewhere between child and teenager” (38). “The rights of embryos are based on extrapolation” [an inference or estimation]. Lanier’s ethical lines are based on the moving target of “personal freedom” (39). All of Lanier’s suppositions are premised on the lazy Susan of “if you believe in them” (40). A long footnote on pages 46-47 encourages a “nonmetaphysical view of the Bible” eliminating any transcendent source of truth. It is easy to use the Bible as an example, as Lanier does, when one blithely creates their own interpretive analysis of it. Ultimate concerns (metaphysical) are easily sidestepped in favor of an individualized ethic. With no outside authority, we are left alone, by ourselves, to establish human authorities by force and power. “We are relying on faith” (70) forces the reader to ask, “Faith in what?” and “Faith in whom?”
Lanier is right, on the other hand, to maintain a claim for authority through “authorship” (47-48). His concern is mine: a technocrat’s authoritarian take over of digital culture should raise red flags for storm warning. “Author” is an authority claim. But if humans are left to themselves to create authority, it will either come from individuals or groups. Whether we like it or not, there is no thing such as absolute freedom. Something or someone will always tell us what to do. The fact that Lanier accepts the digital processes he is critiquing can “make people—all of us—less kind” (61) seems to accept that humans are corrupt themselves.
Lanier’s volume deserves a full response by multiple authorities. It would be interesting to see an economist interact with Lanier’s own definition of the field (112). “Teaching to the test” (69) is a straw man Lanier burns without acknowledging No Child Left Behind was an attempt to establish accountability, not slavish lockstep. Verification is lacking for references where an alternative point of view is obvious. For example, technological progress did more to change conditions than did moral progress; people will stop killing each other when technologists can improve everyone’s standard of living (80).
Lanier comments continuously on arenas outside his expertise. Categorical “truths” are assumed: “income differences between rich and poor are increasing” and “medicine is on the verge of mastering some of the fundamental mechanisms of aging” (77). China’s “blended hierarchy” (79) seems to conveniently sidestep Communist repression of multiple people groups. Lanier dons the mantle of a relativistic individualistic pragmatist, the pattern he establishes for technological-scientific applications (154-55). “I am contradicting myself here” (154) is a sign of an honest man whose lines of argument still perplex me.
Neil Postman warned of similar concerns to those of Lanier in Technopoly: we would be digitized versus humanized. The worry for both Postman and Lanier is that humans will become the tools they use. Futurists and ethicists, philosophers and theologians, libertarians and humanists might all agree. But laden with multiple subject areas, overstatement, unsubstantiated claims, preconceived notions, and straw man argumentation, Lanier’s dough just can’t handle all those chips.
Dr. Mark Eckel is Professor of Old Testament at Crossroads Bible College, Indianapolis, IN.