We Reabsorb & Enliven (4)

By: Matthew Battles
March 18, 2010

The hero of the science fiction film The Matrix, Keanu Reeves’s Neo, begins the story unaware of his fated role and mystified by the strange conspiracy in which he is suddenly embroiled. His enlightenment comes via Morpheus, the shades-wearing Virgil played by Laurence Fishburne, who offers, in a memorable scene, the choice of two pills: a blue capsule that will return Neo to the status quo, or a red one that will reveal the true nature of the dystopian virtual reality in which he lives.

If the Internet is the Matrix, then Jaron Lanier may be its Morpheus, goading us to question the system with a shake of his dreadlocks and a glissando on his oud. He’s a rare computer visionary who doesn’t believe the world is made of bytes — and he would have us remember that we are not made of them either, not yet. His new book offers readers a choice: You take the blue pill — you wake up in your own bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland and Jaron Lanier (to quote Morpheus) shows you “how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” But which will you choose: the red pill or the blue? In the Matrix scenario, You Are Not a Gadget is the red pill: a small, elegant bibliopharmaceutical, it delivers a powerful reminder of the limits of the Web’s capacity to meet our needs — and its power to shape us to its will.

Although Lanier calls his book a manifesto, it’s better understood as a polemic against the Internet’s tendencies toward crowd-sourced hive culture and the social media’s penchant for taking cookie cutters to our personalities. But Lanier is a polemicist of a different stripe. He’s no crabby litterateur pining for oak-lined studies and leatherbound volumes, hankering for the old days of scholarly authority and bourgeois intellectual striving. He knows the Internet from the inside, as one of its early denizens and architects, an inventive designer and user of digital technologies of all kinds. As a pioneer of virtual reality he paved the way for immersive interactive worlds like Second Life and set the stage for the techno-gnosticism of the Wachowski brothers, whose Matrix films plumbed the paranoid critique of the Internet with narrative and visual elan.

With Lanier’s signal role in the development of computer culture acknowledged, it’s important to recognize his outsider status. Ten years ago, virtual reality seemed like the future work and playspace; but its once-revolutionary potential has largely been eclipsed by other, more social models of interacting online. The lovely, loopy post-’60s cyberspace of Lanier’s imagining — a dreamland for wild-eyed digital shamans, a medium for romantic visionaries — has given way to something more corporate and consumerist. Lanier is out in the cold, both philosophically and from a hard-nosed business point of view. But even if his ideas no longer shake up boardrooms and VCs, it’s to the consumers, the users, and the “friends” of the Internet that Lanier speaks with urgency and inspiration.

Lanier’s chief concern is the emergence of a dehumanizing ideology whose influence is unmistakable throughout the Web. The “cybernetic totalism” Lanier describes would eschew the human in favor of algorithm and automation, bits and bots. It’s a disposition composed of an everyday surrender to the convenience and “fun” of the Web combined with a metaphysical belief in an eventual digital transcendence of the human: of hatred, disease, and mortality, but also individuality, creativity, and sensuous experience.

Lanier effectively eviscerates the consumerist social media, which entice us to surrender our personal information in exchange for short-lived serotonin highs. The model of personhood behind a service like Facebook, he argues, is as faulty as its business model. “The only hope for social networking sites from a business point of view,” Lanier writes, “is for a magic formula to appear in which some method of violating privacy and dignity becomes acceptable.” But while Facebookers may be complicit in a reductive downsizing of individuality and personality, advocates of the eschatological metaphysics of the “Singularity” are out to eradicate the human person altogether. Championed by Ray Kurzweil (another pioneering computer scientist), “Singularity” is the prophesied point at which progress becomes infinite: when “wealth creation” outstrips the speed at which we burn through natural resources; when medical advances increase longevity faster than we can live out our lifespans; when silicon processors leapfrog the complexity of the human brain and achieve consciousness, creating a “noösphere” of minds rendered immortal — albeit virtual. Like Wonderland’s megalomaniacal queen, the Singularists try to believe six impossible things before breakfast; their zealous faith in technology, apocalyptic and transcendent, has achieved respectability among even people who believe themselves beyond the simple wiles of old-time religion. Lanier is at his most polemical when tearing apart the conceits of those who would download their psyches, and ours, onto servers.

The connection between the casual uploading of party pictures, the daily expansion of Wikipedia, and the hypersophisticated metaphysics of a few computer scientists may seem obscure. But to Lanier, it’s perfectly clear: by surrendering our privacy to the networks, by defining culture and creativity as mash-up and remix, by downgrading the work of artists, writers, and musicians to so much information that “wants to be free,” we may be setting ourselves up to be co-opted by a worldview that equates the mind with data and individual quirks with software bugs. As Lanier puts it, “when developers of digital technologies design a program that asks you to interact with a computer as if it were a person, they ask you to accept in some corner of your brain that you might also be conceived of as a program.”

What would Lanier have us do, then? Clearly, abandoning the digital is not among his prescriptions. Quite to the contrary, he would have us use our tools with consciousness intact — to make not mere remixes but new music together, online and in person; to tell new stories and create new, wide-awake social arrangements in which computers are tools, not arbiters. Lanier’s vision of the enlightened Web is quirky and lovely, informed by his experiences creating and performing music using virtual and real-world instruments, by his lively play with philosophy and art — even by his fascination with the cognitive faculties of the squid and the octopus, which furnish Lanier with his particular ideals of intelligence and communication. Lanier ends his book with an endearing, quixotic paean to the cephalopods, through which he imagines a radically different Internet — one free of protocol and control, in which liberation and originality are infinite and self-sustaining.

The utopian impossibility of this vision is as obvious as its origins in the ’60s ideals to which Lanier pays tribute. And yet for its brevity and ambition, his book is a marvelous antidote to our computerized complaisance. As You Are Not a Gadget bounces from anecdote to thought experiment, picking up and plugging in a dizzying array of ideas as if they were so many components in a big, beautiful computer, Lanier furnishes us with a model for engaged and thoughtful citizens of cyberspace.

The Web doesn’t lack such independent minds and visionaries — and when Lanier describes an Internet culture composed of nothing but viral memes and nostalgic mashups, he goes too far. There are novels being written, games being made and played, immersive worlds offering transcendent experiences; charismatic artists are using the Web’s congeries of technologies to build audiences in powerful and compelling ways. Unfortunately, too few of us are or ever will be engaged and aware to such a visionary extent. There’s a blind spot in Lanier’s vision, an ironic one: exhorting us to remember the limits of code, he accidentally magnifies its powers. Neither computers nor their designers create the shortcomings Lanier enumerates. The biggest bugs on the Internet are not computer problems but human problems. Modern life promoted conformity and complaisance long before the advent of the Internet; if computers leverage and magnify those weaknesses, they do so by our leave and at our command. Perhaps it’s axiomatic: we get the Internet we deserve. But even here there’s a glimmer of hope. For with enough humane romantic dreamers, the Internet becomes not a mocking market but a library, an atelier, a stage. Yes, it’s a mad hope. But perhaps what our Matrix needs is not a Morpheus but a Mad Hatter.


A version of this essay appeared at the Barnes & Noble Review on January 12, 2010, in review of You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, by Jaron Lanier. It appears here as the fourth in a series revisiting Matthew Battles’ reviews for Barnes & Noble.