YOU ARE NOT A GADGET:
A Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier. Alfred A. Knopf, 209 pages, $24.95.
In the first flowering of the Internet a decade and a half ago, astronomer and computer expert Clifford Stoll wrote "Silicon Snake Oil," a vigorous assault on the overheated promises and dreamy utopianism of the new digital world.
"You Are Not a Gadget," by virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier, falls broadly into the same genre: the man of technology aghast at what technology has wrought. No mere rant, "You Are Not a Gadget" is a call for a more humanistic - to say nothing of humane - alternative future in which the individual is celebrated more than the crowd and the unique more than the homogenized. While the Web's current path risks the permanent enshrinement of lowest-common-
denominatorhood, he argues, there's still a chance for a more benign outcome.
The chief enemy in the book is what Lanier calls "cybernetic totalism" - a sort of digital Maoism in which humans are simultaneously aggregated and reduced, making them more components than individuals.
"The central mistake of recent digital culture is to chop up a network of individuals so finely that you end up with a mush," he writes. "You then start to care about the abstraction of the network more than the real people who are networked."
Lanier reserves particular scorn for the notion of crowd-sourcing - the idea that the input of the many inevitably leads to a wiser, better result, whether in the aggregation of information (think Wikipedia) or the design of software (think Linux).
The author doesn't dismiss the value of collaboration in today's digital culture, but cautions that we need to understand what it can and cannot do.
True advances, he says, come not from "the hive mind" of the crowd, but from a singular vision. "Why did the adored iPhone come out of what many regard as the most closed, tyrannically managed software-development shop on Earth?" he asks. While open sourcing "has been able to produce lovely, polished copies, it hasn't been so good at creating notable originals."
Then there's the problem that collective "wisdom" can be wrong, and often is. There is, after all, a reason why Charles Mackay titled his 1841 classic "Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds."
Lanier takes particular pleasure in demolishing technology's versions of political correctness. The culture of anonymity? "Don't post anonymously unless you really might be in danger." The idea that the proprietors of mainstream media are dinosaurs responsible for their own demise? "None of us was ever able to give the dinosaurs any constructive advice about how to survive. And we miss them now more than we have been willing to admit."
At the end of the day, "You Are Not a Gadget" may be its own best argument for exalting the creativity of the individual over the collective efforts of the "hive mind." It's the work of a singular visionary, and offers a hopeful message: Resistance may not be futile after all.