“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. His questions are incisive. He penetrates past technological usage to ask the most important 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. “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).
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) 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. Self-organized authority structures are just as dangerous as those espoused by any group. The only difference between Marxism and Fascism, totalitarianism and dictatorship is spelling.
The dangerous nature of Lanier’s self-authority entraps the very humanness he seeks to protect. He posits the “border between person and nonperson 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).
Neil Postman warned of a similar concern in his 1990’s book Technopoly: we would be digitized versus humanized. The worry is that humans would become the tools they use. Futurists and ethicists, philosophers and theologians, libertarians and humanists would all agree.
Jaron Lanier. 2010. You Are Not a Gadget. New York, NY: Borzoi Book; Published by Alfred A. Knopf. Reviewed by Dr. Mark Eckel, Professor of Old Testament at Crossroads Bible College, Indianapolis, IN.