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May 18, 2010

Deeper Withinness, and other thoughts on You Are Not a Gadget

Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget is incredibly provocative, and reviewers seem to be ripping it to pieces for sport. Not because it’s a bad book necessarily, or that Lanier’s ideas are particularly faulty, but because Lanier is critiqueing something the rest of us take for granted. And even if Lanier’s book was bad or his ideas were faulty, his book would still be worthwhile. It doesn’t necessarily have to be read as a polemic, as an assault on a whole way of life. Lanier could be 100% wrong the entire way through (and I’m certainly not one to determine whether he is or not) but I dare you to read this book and not learn something new. To not come away with questions you’d never considered before.

What I learned/considered: Lanier’s ties to the internet go back thirty years, and he takes great pains to point out that the internet could have developed any number of ways. That it developed the way it did because of decisions that people made for various reasons, some of them misguided, naive or ill-intentioned. That we overestimate the capabilities of computers and compromise ourselves in order to get along with them as closely as we do. That social media has much the same effect– in order to interact with Facebook, we reduce ourselves to catagories, keywords, standardized versions of ourselves. Twitter demands we communicate in short bursts of nothing. This is self-effacing, we’re playing into the hands of marketers. Content has become devalued by its treatment in the online world. Jonathan Coulton is an anomaly. Having finance in the hands of computer scientists as opposed to those who understand economics is a recipe for disaster. Remix culture sucks. With all the amazing advances in computer capability and open culture, all we have to show for it is LINUX and Wikipedia, both of which are just versions of things that came before.

Hive culture has come at a cost– we’ve killed journalism and music. Great art is not being made, rather we’re rehashing old art and doing it badly. We’re babbling about television recaps, writing blog entries without thought and posting idiotic movies on youtube. Lanier doesn’t reference literature. I’m not sure if this was a deliberate omission– could it be that books will fare better in this culture than other media? And I’m not talking about plagiarism– in most instances, I think there is a pretty clear distinction between plagiarism and “mixing” (and Opal Mehta is the former, FYI). But in the poetry I’ve read lately, by Michael Lista, PK Page and Julie Holbrook, I’ve seen some pretty beautiful things made out of recycle material. Perhaps poetry in particular lends itself to this? I’m not sure that a remixed novel wouldn’t totally suck. Or is the poetic trend towards this sort of thing a kind of omen? Is this what Lanier is talking about. The future as a place where originality goes to die?

And then there are literary blogs, or book blogs. Lanier doesn’t mention these either (perhaps he doesn’t read a lot of fiction? Though his interests are far-reaching. He is obsessed with cephalopods and ouds). I know I spend a lot of my time here rehashing other people’s ideas, or simply pasting them down as is. Is this pursuit any more worthwhile than episode recaps of So You Think You Can Dance?

The other day, Charlotte Ashley asked “Are bloggers/twitterers just unpaid publicity staff? What do we “get” out of this relationship?” So now what I’m thinking about has nothing to do with Jaron Lanier anymore, but it sort of does. I think this is the kind of question he’d want me to be thinking about. Why do I write a book blog? First, because it’s made me smarter. I am a much better reader than I was five years ago, and I have learned so much from the readers who’ve joined me in this conversation. Second, because although I am pushing goods here (books), those goods are culture, and there’s something a bit more noble about that than me pushing, say, lipstick (as long as I’m discerning, because, frankly, some books are lipstick). Because when I find a book that’s good, I can help nudge it farther out into the world. I get to be useful, and that’s a fine thing. And because even if nobody ever read this blog, it allows me to engage with the books I read (which is all too important when one reads too quickly like I do). Writing book reviews helps to figure out what I really read, and I really think about it. It makes reading a book a much deeper experience. Because books are worth talking about. Blogging about books, like talking about books, takes us deeper within them.

Deeper withinness being the whole point of virtual reality (which Jaron Lanier invented) so maybe he’d be on board afterall.

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