Monday, February 15, 2010

Not a Review of Not a Gadget

This is not a review. Apparently Jaron Lanier has written a book called "You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto". The only reason I know this is because people keep telling me via the Internet. I have had a gushing and completely unintelligible review sent to me by a librarian. A web search finds 3,680,000 mentions of the book. But I can't get the book and have to rely on what I read about it on the web, which seems to invalidate what the book says.

Mr. Lanier has chosen to have only a hardback print edition made available, no lower cost widely available, paperback. There are Kindle version and Audio download, but the price for these has been set even higher than the hardback.

I can't read the book (at least not at a reasonable price and my library's copy has not yet arrived), so I have to go by what the author, and others say about it. That is a little difficult as Mr. Lanier has only provided a few snippets about the book, such as "Web 2.0 is a formula to kill the middle class and undo centuries of social progress." One message the book seems to have is that crowd sourcing does not necessarily provide good information. Another message seems to be that good information is not free. By making only very high cost versions of his book available, Mr. Lanier seems to be practising what he preaches. However, while I agree that the free-wheeling world of mash-ups may be an illusion, I don't think a quaint 19th century gentleman's club of exchanging ideas via books which take years to distribute and only to those with money is a good approach either.

The printed book is bound with "Deckle Edge" paper. This simulates handmade paper by machine fraying the edges of the paper. To produce a book about the follies of Web 2.0, which pretends to be a hand made object, is a folly in itself. Perhaps the pages of a book fraying around the edges is a good metaphor for the state of this approach to scholarly communication.

The sponsored Amazon.com Review says:
"... In You Are Not a Gadget, the longtime tech guru/visionary/dreadlocked genius (and progenitor of virtual reality) argues the opposite: that unfettered--and anonymous--ability to comment results in cynical mob behavior, the shouting-down of reasoned argument, and the devaluation of individual accomplishment. Lanier traces the roots of today's Web 2.0 philosophies and architectures (e.g. he posits that Web anonymity is the result of '60s paranoia), persuasively documents their shortcomings, and provides alternate paths to "locked-in" paradigms. Though its strongly-stated opinions run against the bias of popular assumptions, You Are Not a Gadget is a manifesto, not a screed; Lanier seeks a useful, respectful dialogue about how we can shape technology to fit culture's needs, rather than the way technology currently shapes us."
The author himself is positive about the effect of the Internet:
"... In the industrialized world, the rise of the Web has happily demonstrated that vast numbers of people are interested in being expressive to each other and the world at large. This is something that I and my colleagues used to boldly predict, but we were often shouted down, as the mainstream opinion during the age of television’s dominance was that people were mostly passive consumers who could not be expected to express themselves. In the developing world, the Internet, along with mobile phones, has had an even more dramatic effect, empowering vast classes of people in new ways by allowing them to coordinate with each other. That has been a very good thing for the most part, though it has also enabled militants and other bad actors."
But he sees a problem with web 2.0:
"The problem is not inherent in the Internet or the Web. Deterioration only began around the turn of the century with the rise of so-called "Web 2.0" designs. These designs valued the information content of the web over individuals. It became fashionable to aggregate the expressions of people into dehumanized data. There are so many things wrong with this that it takes a whole book to summarize them. Here’s just one problem: It screws the middle class. Only the aggregator (like Google, for instance) gets rich, while the actual producers of content get poor. This is why newspapers are dying. It might sound like it is only a problem for creative people, like musicians or writers, but eventually it will be a problem for everyone. When robots can repair roads someday, will people have jobs programming those robots, or will the human programmers be so aggregated that they essentially work for free, like today’s recording musicians? Web 2.0 is a formula to kill the middle class and undo centuries of social progress."

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