Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/2/2010 (3470 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
By Jaron Lanier
Knopf, 209 pages, $30
WHAT gives Jaron Lanier's jeremiad against digital technology weight, and credibility, is his credentials.
No Luddite, the California computer scientist was a Silicon Valley pioneer. In the 1980s he and his colleagues developed the first — and coined the phrase — "virtual reality" application, using surgical simulations to train physicians.
But Lanier believes digital tools are spiralling out of control — with technology wielding us, rather than vice versa. Hence this as-styled-in-his-subtitle "manifesto," denouncing the techno threat to Homo sapiens.
"It is impossible to work with information technology," he writes, "without also engaging in social engineering."
The core of his argument is that digital technology and the Internet have already started to mould human behaviour, more for ill than good.
"This digital revolutionary still believes in most of the lovely deep ideals that energized our work so many years ago," he writes. "At the core was a sweet faith in human nature. If we empowered individuals, we believed, more good than harm would result.
"The way the Internet has gone sour since then is truly perverse. The central faith of the web's early design has been superseded by a different faith in the centrality of imaginary entities epitomized by the idea that the Internet as a whole is coming alive and turning into a superhuman creature."
Lanier sees what's popularly known as Web 2.0, the social-networking and video-sharing web sites, wikis and blogs that have become all the rage since 2004, as evidence of our being led down the garden path toward a future that denigrates, rather than empowers, the individual.
His repeated message is that the Web 2.0 world we've created has its roots in ill-considered digital designs. He views sites like Facebook, Twitter and even Wikipedia as elevating the "wisdom" of mobs, creating a "hive mind" that seeks to supersede individual intelligence and judgment.
At its extreme, this "superhuman creature" has given birth in computer-science circles to an apocalyptic idea known as "the singularity."
Lanier provides a potted summary of this coming singularity.
"One day soon, maybe 20 or 30 years into the 21st century, computers and robots will be able to construct copies of themselves, and these copies will be a little better than the originals because of intelligent software. The second generation of robots will then make a third, but it will take less time, because of the improvements over the first generation.
"The process will repeat. Successive generations will be ever smarter and will appear ever faster. People might think they're in control, until one fine day the rate of robot improvement ramps up so quickly that superintelligent robots will suddenly rule the Earth."
At first blush, it all sounds too sci-fi to be credible.
But he marshals a plausible argument that we're headed for one benighted version or another of the future, adding that singularity books "are as common in a computer science department as rapture images are in an evangelical bookstore."
This is no easy, or fast, read.
You Are Not a Gadget dives in and out of the fields of computer science, engineering, metaphysics and law.
The reader is going to encounter philosophical, technological and legal terms — "noosphere," "ontologies," "the singularity," "numinous," "fungible" — that are sometimes explained, sometimes not.
Adding a glossary would have been a kindness to the lay audience Lanier's ostensibly trying to reach.
Nonetheless, the book rewards the effort of grappling with its sometimes dense and polysyllabic prose.
It's a provocative, often downright scary, critique of the relationship between computers and human beings.
Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.