Jaron Lanier (photo:Jonathan Sprague)

YOU ARE NOT A GADGET : A MANIFESTO by Jaron Lanier (Knopf,2010)

With his dreadlocks and barrel-shape, Jaron Lanier looks like a cross between Peter Tosh and Jabba The Hut.

Eccentric, nerdy types like him were at the forefront of the first wave of the internet ‘revolution’ and are now being slowly marginalised by the suits with their business models.

This book could be subtitled ‘the geek strikes back’ as he rails against this new breed of web entrepreneurs, warning that these “Lords of the cloud” are taking the soul out of the net by monitoring and controlling how we lowly “peasants” interact online.

The hive mentality (“the hivey league”) which brought us Wikipedia and Facebook is seen as the chief reason why the intellectual potential of the net is being dumbed down, a process Lanier calls “digital flattening”. His central point is that “empowered trolls” and a collectivist mindset has come to supplant individualism with the effect that ideology replaces creative achievement.

In a promotional speech, Lanier called web 2.0 “a pile of crap” and while his arguments in this book are pitched in slightly more tempered language, the fundamental message is clear.

I think he is right to warn of the danger that a new conformity will replace the liberating ‘anarchy’ of the internet. He correctly observes that the growth and sophistication of advertising online signifies that we are living in a “society more concerned with manipulation than truth or beauty”. Lanier is especially good at defining these negative trends with Zen-like proverbs such as: “making money in the cloud doesn’t necessarily bring rain to the ground”.

He writes passionately, yet randomly, about the need to ensure creativity is rewarded and is scathing about the ‘open culture’ where people now expect to get books, music and movies for free. He points, in particular, to the effect on music, regarding the choice now as being between “retro retro retro” and ‘new’ digital products which he dismisses as uniformly “sterile and bland”. Generalisations like these are not backed up with concrete examples.

While I can understand how some of the quirks of individuality are lost when templates replace one-off designs, he doesn’t seem to appreciate that the 2.0 formatting aids are actually a godsend for non-programmers like me.

Up to a point, his arguments are potent and timely but too often he weakens his arguments when personal rants take the place of a more objective perspective. The book reads like a series of provocative articles that have been patched together without any editorial control or regard for building a cohesive argument.

Ultimately, I see Lanier as more of an elitist than a Luddite so it’s ironic that his views are more likely to find more support among technophobes than technophiles.