MORE MATRIX THAN MOBILE
40 Books in 2018 / #3
YOU ARE NOT A GADGET
223pp Penguin Books
This is the fourth draft of a blog post. By the time you reach the end, you’ll know why.
Two scenes from last week:
Scene A). Five diners in their mid-20s, sitting at the next table. All looking at their smartphones, occasionally at each other to share a story or a message. When the restaurant servers arrive with their meals, all the phones are put away into jacket or trouser pockets.
Within ten minutes, all five are looking at their phones again.
Scene B). A colleague comes out of a meeting and checks his phone. His teenage daughter has sent him a request. It isn’t urgent, so he’ll get back to her from his car. Then he notices that she’s sent the same message two minutes later, again after three, and yet again IN UPPER CASE after another two.
“She’s sent me four messages in seven minutes. But hasn’t thought about speaking to me.”
Put differently, here’s Jerry Seinfeld during a riff (with Trevor Noah) about the possibility of living without leaving your apartment: You think ‘I like iPhones, so I like China’. You’ve reduced an entire culture – that’s billions of years old and has significant human rights issues – to your phone. You like it, so anything else they do is okay with you.
These coincidental vignettes set my expectation for You Are Not A Gadget (YANAG). ‘This book must be about the symptoms, causes and, hopefully, the cures for our mobile malaise.’
But author Jaron Lanier had much more ambitious intent.
He touches on the phone issue – e.g. how a change in the design or position of a virtual button can impact user behaviour – but that’s only the tip of an iceberg.
YANAG is not about our identification with our devices; rather, it’s about our increasingly submissive role on the web. We think that we have gadgets attached to the web for our use. Lanier offers an alternative:
It is we, the many, who are attached. We, the many, are becoming the gadgets that provide the major Web controllers with the content. We, the many, who create immense value for a very few.
Lanier’s been in Silicon Valley for over thirty years. He generated his early income by writing computer games, then co-created the first Virtual Reality system (goggles and gloves). He’s been a visiting scholar at Silicon Graphics, and now an Interdisciplinary Scientist with Microsoft.
That doesn’t prevent Lanier from expressing his fears about the direction of the Web and the intent of those who have the greatest impact. He combines technology, history, psychology, philosophy and sociology to explain the digital world we’re in, and how we arrived here - consciously or otherwise.
Here’s a random short list of some ideas that shape his thinking:
LOCK-IN. Consider the London Underground system. At the beginning of the C21st, many tube trains are still hot and stuffy in the summer. That’s because the carriage design is restricted by the rail track gauge and the width of the tunnels.
That’s Lock-In. The removal of design options.
The reason it’s even mentioned is that software development is always restricted by previous language, applications and releases.
Smartphones still give users unpredictable delays. Its root cause is the “command line interface” at the core of UNIX, an operating developed by AT&T Bell Labs in the early 1970s.
Unix became the foundation of Linux (an open source operating system) which in turn gave birth to Android.
Your shiny new handset is underpinned by rules and basic functions that are nearly fifty years old.
(And don’t feel smug if you’re an Apple user. Lanier writes: “I have an iPhone in my pocket, and sure enough, the thing has what is essentially UNIX in it… haunted by a weird set of unpredictable user interface delays.”)
FILES. First used as a computing term in 1950, which quickly became the standard reference for data on punch cards. If you’re used to paper files, ring binders and filing cabinets, it seems a practical, logical solution.
Lanier then asks a fundamental question: Can human experiences be ‘chunked’ like data, programs, photos and messages? It’s the fragmentation of being human that is the foundation of our use of the Web.
THE HIVE MIND. When the online crowd is so much more intelligent, why depend on unreliable, eccentric individuals? Such is the belief of the ‘cybernetic totalists’, a label that Lanier attaches to the followers of Silicon Valley’s religion.
Old religion: God will give you afterlife. New religion: immortality will come from being uploaded onto the ‘net.
At present the Hive Mind is not much more than the Wizard of Oz, dependent on people making moves behind the digital curtain. Here’s Garry Kasparov talking about his loss to Deep Blue:
The last game of my rematch… I played H6 (pawn) to attack the knight, provoking the machine to sacrifice a piece (knight) which would give it a very strong initiative. But machines don’t sacrifice a piece for a pawn without a concrete outcome in sight. I expected the computer would go back.
And to my horror, it immediately took the pawn.
I found out many years later that I was right. Machines didn’t play such moves because it was against the machine logic. And it was admitted by the Deep Blue team that it would never have made that move unless that very morning they decided to install this position in the opening book.
Twenty years later, the chess app on your phone can beat a Grand Master, but that’s not due to ‘intelligence’. It’s down to computing brawn. As Lanier puts it:
“Whenever a computer is imagined to be intelligent, what is really happening is that humans have abandoned aspects of the subject at hand in order to remove from consideration whatever the computer is blind to.”
The heart of Lanier’s ethos throughout YANAG is to ‘double down’ on being human. The strangeness, the uniqueness, the frustration, the insight of individual brilliance. Which we all have.
Before it is leaked away by the mush-making 140/280 character tweet, the like-for-like matching of algorithms, and the “social-validation feedback loop… exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” (Sean Parker, first President of Facebook).
Maybe it’s too late to worry about the Silicon Valley assertion that “content” from identifiable humans will no longer matter, and that the chattering of the crowd has proven to be a much better business bet than paying people to make movies, books and music.
The larger the participating crowd, the more reliable the statistics. And the crowd works for free.
Independent identities are being regularized by platform formatting (check the design for all LinkedIn articles). Relationships (‘friends’) are being treated as a competitive scorecard. Life is being turned into a database.
As you can tell, YANAG has left me sleepless, challenged and wondering where we go next. Lanier points out that every save-the-world cause has a list of suggestions. For the six themes in his book, he offers straightforward to-dos. Here’s one:
“Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out.”
Perhaps the fourth draft wasn’t enough?
(1180 words. Thanks for reading.)
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