Jaron Lanier Is Not a Gadget

Back in June of last year, I wrote: “When will we get to read a well-organized, well-researched work about the erosion of value of content that is written by someone with credibility who is not a recondite copyright scholar, a media industry shill, or an Internet Luddite?   I’m still waiting.”

Well, the wait is over.

Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto is just that book, and it’s terrific.  Everyone reading this should buy it, right now.

Before I talk about the book itself, let’s get one thing out of the way: some call Lanier a “Luddite” because he “doesn’t get it.”  Now, this is a guy who invented Virtual Reality back in the 1980s, has technology research positions at UC Berkeley and Microsoft, has an IEEE Career Achievement Award (given just last year), and is currently at the cutting edge of research on the interface between computer science and medicine.  Oh, and he shared an apartment with Richard Stallman just as Stallman was mapping out the movement now known as open source.

Jaron Lanier is many things (I left out musician, among others), but he’s not a Luddite.   In fact, he has thought more deeply about issues of content, creativity, and humanism in the Internet age than just about any other writer on the subject.  And his ideas are right on target.

In this book, Lanier asserts that the Internet is moving creativity and content to a “hive mind” or “noosphere” that eschews individual authorship and, far from encouraging a new age of creativity, flattens creative endeavors – from the perspectives of both economics and the creativity itself.  He says that the growth of Internet and Web 2.0 technologies will result in riches for “lords of the cloud” like Google but no one else – apart from a lucky few who are exceptions that prove the rule rather than harbingers of New Rules.

The first part of You Are Not a Gadget is admittedly a little rough going at times for those who, like me, have no background in philosophy.  But it’s necessary for Lanier to set up an intellectual basis for the arguments he makes subsequently, so that they have credibility and do not come off merely as opinionated rantings (such as previous books on this subject like Mark Helprin’s Digital Barbarism and Clifford Stoll’s Silicon Snake Oil).

The next section of the book looks at the content industry – particularly music – from the perspective of someone who is a technologist as well as a performing and recording musician.  As I read this, I did something that I haven’t done in years: I found a yellow highlighter and started highlighting quotable sentences and paragraphs.  Soon I stopped, because there were just too many.

Here are just a couple:

Ironically, advertising is now singled out as the only form of expression meriting genuine commercial protection in the new world to come. Any other form of expression is to be remashed, anonymized, and decontextualized to the point of meaninglessness.  Ads, however, are to be made ever more contextual, and the content of the ad is absolutely sacrosanct.

My riff on a similar theme from 2007 is buried within here.  And another:

The people who are perhaps the most screwed by open culture are the middle classes of intellectual and cultural creation.  The freelance studio session musician … the stringer selling reports to newspapers from a war zone.  Each pays painful dues and devotes years to honing a craft… They get nothing from the new system.

He then goes on to debunk some of the supposedly promising ideas for Music 2.0 business models.  These include:

  • Kevin Kelly’s “True Fans” model: he’d love to see this happen but the evidence thus far is distinctly underwhelming.
  • The Radiohead free-download experiment: a “giant musical act from the old days of the record business, grabbing a few headlines by posting music for free downloading”, a model that does not apply to new, unknown artists — as I also said two years ago when the experiment took place.
  • The specialized curator/aggregator: “…only a trickle of money is made.  The aggregated musicians make essentially nothing.”

Notice that he’s not talking about record labels, major or otherwise; he’s talking about actual content creators.  People who take the opposite of Lanier’s position all too often make the mistake of conflating the two.

Lanier explains that he would love to see new business models arise that will enable musicians and other content creators to make livings, but he’s not seeing evidence of that happening. Furthermore, he readily blames himself for having been part of the problem in the first place, as he did in the 2007 New York Times op-ed piece that first earned him notoriety among the free culture crowd.

But Lanier doesn’t just lament the state of culture online; he also provides cogent explanations for how it got to be this way.  He shows how certain aspects of Internet and Web 2.0 technologies encourage a lack of creativity (so-called mashup culture, he says, is mostly a canard), civility (“troll” behavior), industry, and other desirable human qualities.

To illustrate how the technology actually causes this to happen, he refers to the example of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), the digital music protocol that was designed back in the 1980s to capture sounds from digital keyboards.   MIDI’s musically expressive capabilities are very limited, especially when applied to non-keyboard instruments, but the technology’s pervasiveness has had a deleterious effect on the music that people use it to produce.

He also discusses the design of the Unix operating system and its repressive effect on software design since its origins in the early 1970s, and an alternative to Wikipedia called ThinkQuest that produced more authoritative content but died on the vine of scalability.

At the end of the book, Lanier goes back further, to the ways in which humans learn to interact with the world around them through childhood – a subject in developmental biology called neoteny.  He compares human neoteny to that of other species with relatively advanced intelligences and capabilities, such as cephalopods (squid, octopus).  This brings him back to virtual reality, a subject for which he apparently still has a soft spot after all these years.

And what of Lanier’s position on digital rights technologies?  He shows some understanding of how they work.  He calls DRM “troubled” and “cumbersome.”  But at the same time, he says:

…it is often claimed by open culture types that if you can’t make a perfect copy-protection technology, then copy prohibitions are pointless.  And from a technological point of view, it is true that you can’t make a perfect copy-protection scheme.  If flawless behavior restraints are the only potential influences on behavior in a case such as this, we might as well not ask anyone to ever pay for music or journalism again…  Locks are only amulets of inconvenience that remind us of a social contract we ultimately benefit from.

This is the best description I have seen of the relationship that DRM is intended to promote between the “Architecture” (technology) and “Norms” (behavior) factors of life in the digital age that Lawrence Lessig laid out in his landmark book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.  To me this explanation is preferable to the “keep honest people honest” line used by people like the MPAA’s Fritz Attaway.  Lanier understands the value DRM ought to have, even if he is not comfortable with the technology itself.

Furthermore, one of his ideas for reviving the music industry, a physical object called a “Songle,” would have to contain some form of DRM in order to work.  And he calls for augmenting Creative Commons with a scheme that resembles DReaM-MMI, a 2008 DRM research project from Sun Microsystems that attempted to get Creative Commons and DRM to coexist peacefully.  DReaM-MMI — the MMI stands for “Mother May I” — is a protocol for negotiating content usage rights that requires users to reveal details about their intended usage in exchange for more rights.

Lanier subtitles You Are Not a Gadget “A Manifesto,” possibly to position it against its intellectual opposite, the famous multi-authored Cluetrain Manifesto of 1999.  At that time, Lanier was also a big believer in climbing aboard the cluetrain.  But now he’s older and wiser, and he’s changed his tune.  He realizes that although the Internet holds a lot of promise for creative content, much of that promise is being squandered by limitations in technology and misconceptions of vision.

You Are Not a Gadget is the right person saying things that really need to be said, and saying them in a way that is as impassioned as it is carefully reasoned.  It ought to be required reading for everyone involved in digital content.

Get it today.


  1. […] in for stern criticism from Jaron Lanier, 3d technology pioneer (and musician), as you can read in one online review of own book, You Are Not A Gadget. A book criticised for biting the hand that has previously fed it in some […]

  2. […] don't know if this is Simon and Schuster police on ebooks – or Jaron Lanier's. Given Jaron's stance on DRM and his publisher's ongoing DRM law-suit it could be […]

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