Sun, Jan 17, 2010 - Page 14 News List

Hardcover: US: ‘You Are Not a Gadget’: fighting ‘digital Maoism’

Artist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier worries that collectivism in cyberspace diminishes the importance and uniqueness of the individual voice

By Michiko Kakutani  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

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In 2006, the artist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier published an incisive, groundbreaking and highly controversial essay about “digital Maoism” — about the downside of online collectivism, and the enshrinement by Web 2.0 enthusiasts of the “wisdom of the crowd.” In that manifesto Lanier argued that design (or ratification) by committee often does not result in the best product, and that the new collectivist ethos — embodied by everything from Wikipedia to American Idol to Google searches — diminishes the importance and uniqueness of the individual voice, and that the “hive mind” can easily lead to mob rule.

In his impassioned new book You Are Not a Gadget, Lanier expands this thesis further, looking at the implications that digital Maoism or “cybernetic totalism” have for our society at large. Although some of his suggestions for addressing these problems wander into technical thickets the lay reader will find difficult to follow, the bulk of the book is lucid, powerful and persuasive. It is necessary reading for anyone interested in how the Web and the software we use every day are reshaping culture and the marketplace.

Lanier, a pioneer in the development of virtual reality and a Silicon Valley veteran, is hardly a Luddite, as some of his critics have suggested. Rather he is a digital-world insider who wants to make the case for “a new digital humanism” before software engineers’ design decisions, which he says fundamentally shape users’ behavior, become “frozen into place by a process known as lock-in.” Just as decisions about the dimensions of railroad tracks determined the size and velocity of trains for decades to come, he argues, so choices made about software design now may yield “defining, unchangeable rules” for generations to come.

Decisions made in the formative years of computer networking, for instance, promoted online anonymity, and over the years, as millions upon millions of people began using the Web, Lanier says, anonymity has helped enable the dark side of human nature. Nasty, anonymous attacks on individuals and institutions have flourished, and what Lanier calls a “culture of sadism” has gone mainstream. In some countries anonymity and mob behavior have resulted in actual witch hunts. “In 2007,” Lanier reports, “a series of ‘Scarlet Letter’ postings in China incited online throngs to hunt down accused adulterers. In 2008, the focus shifted to Tibet sympathizers.”

Lanier sensibly notes that the “wisdom of crowds” is a tool that should be used selectively, not glorified for its own sake. Of Wikipedia he writes that “it’s great that we now enjoy a cooperative pop culture concordance” but argues that the site’s ethos ratifies the notion that the individual voice — even the voice of an expert — is eminently dispensable, and “the idea that the collective is closer to the truth.” He complains that Wikipedia suppresses the sound of individual voices, and similarly contends that the rigid format of Facebook turns individuals into “multiple-choice identities.”

Like Andrew Keen in The Cult of the Amateur, Lanier is most eloquent on how intellectual property is threatened by the economics of free Internet content, crowd dynamics and the popularity of aggregator sites. “An impenetrable tone deafness rules Silicon Valley when it comes to the idea of authorship,” he writes, recalling the Wired editor Kevin Kelly’s 2006 prediction that the mass scanning of books would one day create a universal library in which no book would be an island — in effect, one humongous text, made searchable and remixable on the Web.

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