You Are Not a Gadget: The Continuing Case Against Web 2.0

Jaron Lanier was a pioneer of “virtual reality” in the early 1980s and in his book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, he makes the case for a more humanistic approach to Internet technology. Lanier rails against web 2.0, which he calls at the start of the book “a torrent of petty designs” and “freedom […] more for machines than people.”

Lanier’s main issue with web 2.0 is that, in his view, it promotes the ‘hive mind’ over individual expression. He writes that web 2.0 presents the current generation of kids with a “reduced expectation of what a person can be.”

Many new iPad owners might object that they’re a reduced person because of their new gadget. Nevertheless, Lanier offers an intriguing counterpoint to web 2.0 philosophies and so it’s worth exploring that.

Lanier is of course just the latest in a long line of web 2.0 cynics. They range in quality from the sharp critiques of Nicholas Carr, to the sensationalistic rantings of Andrew Keen. Lanier is thankfully more akin to Carr, in that he’s thought provoking and brings something new to the table.

Lanier’s theories are intriguing and in some cases very compelling. However, ultimately I found his “manifesto” to be fragmentary and lacking a definitive conclusion. I was not entirely convinced by the end of the book – which is a problem, because a manifesto should ideally provoke further action from its readers.

Wikipedia: Mob Rule

Wikipedia comes in for the most criticism in the book, because the online encyclopedia is written by an army of mostly anonymous people. Therefore, Lanier claims, Wikipedia stifles individual expression. According to Lanier, Wikipedia is “intellectual mob rule” and “seeks to erase point of view entirely.” He goes so far as to call the individual voice “the opposite of wikiness.”

Although this is an extreme view of Wikipedia, and wikis in general, I did find one point to be particularly compelling: Wikipedia dominates search results and for that reason it is suppressing individual voices. As Lanier put it, “Wikipedia provides search engines with a way to be lazy” – by putting Wikipedia results at or near the top of search results for millions of topics.

Facebook: Multiple-Choice Identities

Other Web 2.0 stalwarts don’t escape Lanier’s withering gaze.

Facebook is criticized for encouraging people to create “standardized presences,” due to its black and white categorizations of people. Later in the book Lanier writes that Facebook organizes people into “multiple-choice identities.”

Blogs are also criticized, for their “standardized designs” that encourage “pseudonymity” in features like blog comments. Lanier doesn’t highlight though that the rise of blogs and other social media websites have given a voice to hundreds of thousands of people, who were previously excluded from the mainstream media landscape because they didn’t have access to an adequate publishing platform.

Lanier: Elitist?

This is where I found myself most in disagreement with Lanier. Here is a highly intelligent and successful software architect, who hangs out with scientists and Internet intellectuals. Is it any wonder then that he is so gung-ho on individual expression? The people he associates with on a daily basis are the intellectual elite!

In my opinion Lanier is a bit too quick to dismiss the content of blogs and Twitter, simply because the design of those publishing platforms are “standardized.” The design may well be standardized, but many people have created original and compelling content using these web 2.0 platforms. Even Lanier recognizes that if you look past the first layer of Wikipedia results in Google, you’ll often find compelling individual voices.

The Network By Itself is Meaningless

Lanier’s argument that web 2.0 designs “actively demand that people define themselves downward” is a compelling one. I agree that Wikipedia and Facebook both have significant flaws and that both are indeed contributing to a middling, less creative culture. In particular I am sympathetic to the notion that individual expression is suffering – every time I see an anonymous comment on ReadWriteWeb that is critical of something, I wince and immediately place less value on it than if the comment had a real name attached to it.

So, Lanier’s concerns about the ‘hive mind’ and loss of individual expression are valid. He puts it rather poetically here:

“The central mistake of recent digital culture is to chop up a network of individuals so finely that you end up with a mush. You then start to care about the abstraction of the network more than the real people who are networked, even though the network by itself is meaningless. Only the people were ever meaningful.”

Beyond The Flaws of Web 2.0

However, I also think that Lanier glosses over the benefits of web 2.0 – that it gives everyone who has a computer (and nowadays a smart phone) a publishing platform with which to explore their creativity and have their say.

Regardless of what you think of the resulting content – whether it’s largely unoriginal, or the best of it gets lost in noise, or aggregators make “mush” of it – the fact that web 2.0 has democratized the publishing industry is something that should continue to be celebrated. Lanier’s book tends to dismiss this blossoming of new media as simply the product of web 2.0 “standardized designs” – and that comes across as elitist and pompous.

Overall, You Are Not a Gadget is a thought provoking and compelling book. If, like me, you find yourself iPad-less this weekend, then I’d encourage you to spend some time consuming this book.

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