Friday, August 20, 2010

Book review: You are not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier

You are not a Gadget - A Manifesto
By Jaron Lanier
Knopf (January 12, 2010)

Jaron Lanier is an interdisciplinary computer scientist who doesn't shy away from also crossing borders also to the arts. He could probably be described as a creative intellectual, is known for his work on virtual reality, less known for his music, and now he has written a book. More details on Lanier's bio are on his website.

Lanier is a man with opinions, and that's basically what his book is about: Despite it being called "A Manifesto" what it really is is a collection of opinion pieces. Lanier is a skeptic, and concerned about many developments in software and information technology and their impact on human societies. I am very sympathetic to the points he is trying to make. Unfortunately, he doesn't make them well.

Lanier for example bemoans the "locked in" effect in which a piece of software, despite far from being optimal or even being plain annoying, becomes so wide spread that at some point it is more or less impossible to replace or change it; it simply would be too much effort. That is of course true, but it is hardly a new problem of software in particular. The same problem has hindered and does hinder progress in many other aspects of our life. Take tax laws for example. A mess. You want to throw them out and start all over again from scratch. Yet, too much effort and resistance. In practice, you fiddle something here or something there. Or, even worse, take norms and standards. Surely it would be less annoying if the world could agree on one paper format or one standard for power outlets. But the effort for such a change would be enormous. That is not to say that Lanier isn't making a correct point. It is a good point and one that we should pay more attention to. It's just to say, he misses the larger societal context and complains about an ancient problem without offering any new insight about it.
"If you love a medium made of software, there's a danger that you will become entrapped in someone else's recent careless thoughts. Struggle against that."

Another large concern of his is that the present organization of the internet, the spread of easy-to-use templates as well as making money per advertisement hampers creativity.

About the former point: it is of course true that the availability of default websites has decreased expressions of individual design. On the other hand, it's what allowed the vast majority of people to set up a website in the first place, and let me add that I know plenty of people with a PhD who insist they aren't able to understand html or css-style sheets. It's a matter of convenience. And in addition, it is actually a great relieve that one can generally at least open and read these unindividual websites. Lanier is concerned that making use of imperfect software will change your humanity to adapt to the software instead the other way round. I can't but have the impression that this concern is borne out of observing a specific community of people rather than the average person. In any case, the scientist in me hears the rethoric and waits for the evidence. Yet, there's no evidence to come in Lanier's book.

"Am I accusing all those hundreds of millions of users of social networking sites of reducing themselves in order to be able to use the services? Well, yes, I am."

Don't people also "reduce themselves" by buying a mass-produced car that comes in one of 5 colors and the only option to customize it is put a sticker on the bumper? The vast majority of people on the planet neither has the interest not the skills nor the money to individualize every detail of their average life. The artist might find that sad, but that's reality.

In any case, the latter point is a crucial one of course. You know that I too have frequently warned about the side-effects that the now common way of financing online presentations via adverts has. People often claim the internet is democratic, then they claim this sort of financing per adverts is just capitalism in action. As a matter of fact the internet is neither democratic, nor is what you're seeing a sensible capitalistic system, simply because people are not payed for their work. They are instead being paid by accidental clicks on banners that pop up on the screens of visitors who might have been looking for something entirely different to begin with. It's a feedback mechanism that one has no reason to expect to lead to any outcome that's beneficial for our societies.

Again however, Lanier misses the larger context. He puts forward a concrete proposal for how to allow artists to earn from their work better than is the case today, basically some system of micro-payments. That is all well and nice, but only addresses part of the problem. The problem that frankly concerns me much more than whether Lanier's musical friends can make a living is that the present organization erodes one of the most essential foundations of democratic societies: journalism. This issue is only mentioned in Lanier's book in the passing at some point. More generally, it is well-known that some services, especially those that are essential to the foundations of our societies, are better offered as public services than as private services. For what I am concerned, the best solution is probably a mixture. I find it particularly disingenuous that Lanier then claims "the only alternative [to some version of the proposal he is advocating] would be to establish some form of socialism."

Lanier also has a proposal for how to improve our financial systems that I don't feel competent to judge on. I can't but think that again he has missed the relevant point. The problem is not to come up with some proposal for improvement. Everybody I know seems to have some idea for how to improve our financial system. Just that most of them don't get their ideas printed in books. The problem is not coming up with an idea for improvement. No, the problem is that the present political and economic system has no instance for such proposals to be considered and be tested viable for reality and promising for improvement. The problem lies on a much deeper level.

It goes on like this. Lanier is a computer scientist, all right, and he clearly knows his field, but again and again he fails to put his proposals or arguments into the larger context and contrast them with the realities of politics and social dynamics. For example, he bemoans that the programming language LISP has fallen out of favor, though in his opinion it is essential to realize some of the proposals he is making. It strikes me similar to the complaint that we're not all speaking Esperanto.
"Wikipedia, for instance, works on what I call the Oracle illusion, in which knowledge of human authorship of a text is suppressed in order to give the text superhuman validity. Traditional holy books work in precisely the same way and present many of the same problems."

His criticism of the benefits of using the knowledge of large groups, though strongly expressed, remain superficial. In my opinion, he is throwing out the baby with the bathwater by not clearly explaining exactly what he is critical of and why, where the benefits are and what the drawbacks are. It is not very insightful.

To make matters worse, the book is very incoherently written. It is subdivided in 12 Chapters, that contain vaguely related short subsections to various topics. Ironically, since Lanier is outspoken critical of the blogosphere, the whole thing reads more like a collection of blogposts than a book. I am sure that all these little pieces he is offering fit perfectly together in Lanier's intellectually creative mind, but I had a hard time seeing a line of thought. Somewhere he elaborates on a research project he is working on with a friend on the relation between olfactation and language. That's certainly interesting, but I can't avoid having the impression Lanier just wrote down whatever crossed his mind. The book finally ends unexpectedly, without even so much as an attempt at drawing a conclusion or summarizing the argument. There are pretty much no references in the book to back up his claims or to at least justify his concerns.

That is not to say though that the book is uninteresting. See, having spent the money to buy and the time to read it, I am inclined to find something of value in it now. Lanier touches on many important points, and I hope that the book makes people think. However, exactly because I think that the theme of Lanier's book is important, it is even more disappointing it is so badly argued.

26 comments:

Steven Colyer said...

So on a scale of 1 to 5 stars you would give it ... how many?

Now you have me wanting to read it!

Bill Bradley, btw, has been talking about how to fix the financial system for years. Basically, have regulation of the banking system (which the Bush family via Reagan destroyed here in the US in 1981), which Obama is trying to do, and a 17% flat tax rate, with no exceptions. Both will either fail or not be passed because people with money will spend lavishly on US Senators (numbered Swiss bank accounts) to prevent that.

Btw, you didn't mention what his solution is. Will we have to buy the book to find out?

Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

A well written review of a book that I probably wouldn’t have read and in all likelihood still won’t. That is for me there are far too many who write books and create documentaries that voice some specific concern and consider them as ominous dangers which some shadowy individual or group is having perpetrated upon the unwitting masses. That is I find the trend today is to have all of our problems as to find ourselves as victims with someone(s) or something to blame. It has me to wonder when if ever we once again will look in the mirror to consider the person that has the most impact and can have the greatest effect in our everyday and long term existence. As you said it’s not enough to recognize a problem or even offer solution , yet how first to have discovered it to be true and then find the solution viable. As far as I’m concerned such things begin with the individual and if they demonstrate to have any value move outwards from there.


"Know thyself,"

"the unexamined life is not worth living."

-Soxrates


Best,

Phil

Steven Colyer said...

The first Review for the book at Amazon is this:

"Fabulous - I couldn't put it down and shouted out Yes! Yes! on many pages . . . This is a landmark book that will have people talking and arguing for years into the future."
... Lee Smolin

and...

"Edgar Allen Poe is the Father of Cosmology! If you want to find out why, buy my Books!!"
... Michio Kaku (!!!)

OK, ok, Kaku didn't really write that. This just seems to be the year of making fun of him, and I couldn't resist. Sorry Dr. Kaku, I actually like your books, from after Poe and before SuperSillyStrings.

But what have I just done? As Lanier laments I'm sure, it is SO easy to lie on-line, and in the long run, that can't help any culture as it encourages criminal behavior. FOX News for example has been criminal for years for example with its "Fair and Balanced" lie. Somebody should be arrested.

Bee said...

Hi Steven,

I'd give 2 stars.

No, I didn't mention what Lanier's proposed fix for the financial system is because, as I said, I don't really feel competent to judge it. I'll just quote the relevant paragraph:

"One idea I'm contemplating is to use so-called AI techniques to create formal versions of certain complicated or innovative contracts that define financial instruments. Were this idea to take hold, we could sort financial contracts into two domains. Most transactions would continue to be described traditionally. If a transaction followed a cookie-cutter design, then it would be handled just as it is now. [...]

But highly inventive contracts, such as leveraged default swaps or schemes based on high-frequency trades, would be created in an entirely new way. They wold be denied ambiguity. They would be formally described. Financial invention would take place within the simplified logical world than engineers rely on to create computing-chip logic."


Roughly, it seems to me in principle like a good idea as it would improve transparency and with it our possibilities to analyze and understand the the dynamics of the system, and also to recognize problems and find solutions. The actual problem however, as I see it, is that what is missing is an institutionalized possibility for improvement to begin with.

Well, I had no trouble putting the book down. In fact, I had to put it down frequently and complain to Stefan how annoying it is. If it were just a bad book, I'd probably have stopped reading it, but I ended up thinking all the time why doesn't he tell us what the research is on that matter, what's the evidence on either side, the pros, the cons, how did he come to that opinion in the first place, is that really true or is that just what he believes? I mean, as a scientist the book doesn't give me nothing, except that now I know what Jaron Lanier thinks. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

It is all well and fine with me if somebody voices their concern in a book, I just expect more from a book than just that. I want the author to give me an overview on the issue they're worried about, I want them to lay down the facts, and construct an argument. I'm not expecting a scientific paper of course, then I'd read a review article. But take for example Dawkin's "God Delusion." He does exactly what I'd expect from a good book. He makes his case, clearly, well structured, backed up by research and of course filled with anecdotes and personal experience. Maybe it's not Lanier's fault after all, maybe one should blame the editor. After all it's his first book if I understand correctly. In any case, no, I suppose it's not an essential read and I doubt there will be much talk about it in the coming years. Best,

B.

Steven Colyer said...

Thank you, Bee. Thanks for "falling on the sword" for the rest of us as well. We'll probably enjoy the book more than we would have now thanks to you and your tight review, because you've exposed its flaws so forewarned is forearmed so to speak.

So its not Macbeth. That's good to know going in, and we're sorry you didn't. It's just a collection of essays, m'kay. Nothing wrong with that. I suppose calling it a manifesto then is a bit (unintentionally) dishonest, but I've found musicians to be some of the most honest people on Earth.

I majored in Mechanical Engineering in undergraduate school, but I also minored in Social Anthropology and Music. The Musicians were far and away the funniest people. And honest, like I said, even when they were wrong.

At least they were honestly wrong. ;-)

Uncle Al said...

Software should not be facile and useful. Software should be a tightly regulated dysfunctional nightmare overseen by a centralized bloated bureacracy imposing mandatory ownership and use, with constant revision, against a background of rampant criminality that can never be staunched: US tax codes, US CFR, US FEMA, NASA, HHS, Department of Education; Word Perfect key assignments, the slash arrow on Bruker FT-NMR keyboards, Microcrap Windoze; Homeland Severity and its agents of Goldstein.

The Star Trek universe of unlimited zero-price abundance only contained war, death, and synthehol.

What do you want? Most people don't know, cannot imagine what they want. They want by contrast. They find comfort in their own nigthmares. They are enslaved and feel virtuous for their losses. Berkley Horses for everybody!

To criticize is to volunteer.

Steven Colyer said...

Hi Al,

You wrote:
What do you want? Most people don't know, cannot imagine what they want.

Most people react, not act. Marketeers* and Politicians depend on that. There is much money to be had.

Which is why we have spin.

Someone should write a book about YOU, Al (have they?). I find your prose the singularly most mindblowing on the Internet. That's a compliment. Or a 60's flashback, maybe.

*- I shouldn't use any word that ends in "teer", because that reminds me of Mouseketeer, which reminds me of Annette Funicello, which isn't good cuz I'm married. Hey, is she still alive? No, don't go there, Steve, he said to himself in the third person.

Arun said...

See, having spent the money to buy and the time to read it, I am inclined to find something of value in it now.

Good line :)

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,


”Maybe it's not Lanier's fault after all, maybe one should blame the editor.”

From my experience if editors have any effect it is more often to improve things rather than have them worsened. Actually I’ve discovered quite often they are the unsung heroes as having an old friend of mine that has been a free lance editor for years. She usually works with people such as this fellow where professional writing isn’t their forte and more often than not is able to miraculously turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, rather than the other way around.

In regards to such matters and strictly on a personal note, although I’ve never authored a book and in all likelihood never will another old friend of mine has recently come out with one. His name is Ted Yates and he’s currently the morning man and music director for a oldies rock radio station in Hamilton Ontario CKOC. He’s written a book entitled “The 60’s ; The Hits and The Trivia”. Although I did buy it I must admit to not able to have read it yet, so for now I can’t make critical comment rather just to say I was flattered to find myself listed in his acknowledgements page at the beginning. Now that’s not to give you the impression I’m some sort of pop culture expert, rather to have you know I’m grateful when I’m thus reminded having a few very thoughtful friends despite my ignorance.

Best,

Phil

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,


”Maybe it's not Lanier's fault after all, maybe one should blame the editor.”

From my experience if editors have any effect it is more often to improve things rather than have them worsened. Actually I’ve discovered quite often they are the unsung heroes as having an old friend of mine that has been a free lance editor for years. She usually works with people such as this fellow where professional writing isn’t their forte and more often than not is able to miraculously turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, rather than the other way around.

In regards to such matters and strictly on a personal note, although I’ve never authored a book and in all likelihood never will another old friend of mine has recently come out with one. His name is Ted Yates and he’s currently the morning man and music director for a oldies rock radio station in Hamilton Ontario CKOC. He’s written a book entitled “The 60’s ; The Hits and The Trivia”. Although I did buy it I must admit to not able to have read it yet, so for now I can’t make critical comment rather just to say I was flattered to find myself listed in his acknowledgements page at the beginning. Now that’s not to give you the impression I’m some sort of pop culture expert, rather to have you know I’m grateful when I’m thus reminded having a few very thoughtful friends despite my ignorance.

Best,

Phil

Steven Colyer said...

Has there been a problem posting here? One of your regular posters said they had trouble to me at my own website.

Uncle Al said...

http://arxiv.org/abs/1008.2399
This proposal might be testable to ambiguity.

http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/erotor1.jpg
This proposal is falsifiable in 90 days.

Uncle Al is intolerent of gods whose priestly collection agencies spend the swag on themselves. Google and Microcrap+Yahoo are in a search engine advertising war. The former has proven technology, the latter are repackaging rotten eggs. It is private endeavor against Official Truth.

You cannot navigate absent a starting point and a destination, you can only wander. Neither determinism nor serendipity is enough by itself. Corruption adds nothing, centralized imposition is a perpetual ass.

Personal authority, personal responsibility, personal lability... and screw around a little. Don't wear shoes so tight that you cannot dance.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Steven,

That poster was me, thanks for trying to help and if this post doesn’t hold then I’ve got to do a little more thinking.

Best,

Phil

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,


”Maybe it's not Lanier's fault after all, maybe one should blame the editor.”

From my experience if editors have any effect it is more often to improve things rather than have them worsened. Actually I’ve discovered quite often they are the unsung heroes as having an old friend of mine that has been a free lance editor for years. She usually works with people such as this fellow where professional writing isn’t their forte and more often than not is able to miraculously turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, rather than the other way around.

In regards to such matters and strictly on a personal note, although I’ve never authored a book and in all likelihood never will another old friend of mine has recently come out with one. His name is Ted Yates and he’s currently the morning man and music director for a oldies rock radio station in Hamilton Ontario CKOC. He’s written a book entitled “The 60’s ; The Hits and The Trivia”. Although I did buy it I must admit to not able to have read it yet, so for now I can’t make critical comment rather just to say I was flattered to find myself listed in his acknowledgements page at the beginning. Now that’s not to give you the impression I’m some sort of pop culture expert, rather to have you know I’m grateful when I’m thus reminded having a few very thoughtful friends despite my ignorance:-)

Best,

Phil


P.S. This is the orginal post that wouldn’t stick.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee & Steven,

It looks as if my relieve was premature as now I find my original comment won’t hold as although it shows up in the recent comments list it’s not to be found in the actual comments. The mystery continues????

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

This is an odd bug indeed. There is only one comment missing here, which is yours. Actually, all 4 repetitions are missing. I'll try to copy it and see if that works. Best,

B.

Bee said...

So, here's Phil's comment

__________________

Hi Bee,


”Maybe it's not Lanier's fault after all, maybe one should blame the editor.”

From my experience if editors have any effect it is more often to improve things rather than have them worsened. Actually I’ve discovered quite often they are the unsung heroes as having an old friend of mine that has been a free lance editor for years. She usually works with people such as this fellow where professional writing isn’t their forte and more often than not is able to miraculously turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, rather than the other way around.

In regards to such matters and strictly on a personal note, although I’ve never authored a book and in all likelihood never will another old friend of mine has recently come out with one. His name is Ted Yates and he’s currently the morning man and music director for a oldies rock radio station in Hamilton Ontario CKOC. He’s written a book entitled “The 60’s ; The Hits and The Trivia”. Although I did buy it I must admit to not able to have read it yet, so for now I can’t make critical comment rather just to say I was flattered to find myself listed in his acknowledgements page at the beginning. Now that’s not to give you the impression I’m some sort of pop culture expert, rather to have you know I’m grateful when I’m thus reminded having a few very thoughtful friends despite my ignorance:-)

Best,

Phil

P.S. This is the orginal post that wouldn’t stick.

Bee said...

And while I'm at it, here's my reply: Yes, in my experience editors also often improve things, that was the point I was trying to make. It's his first book, lazy editor, outcome unconvincing. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Yes a very curious bug indeed. However I’m fairly convinced it has something to do with Bloggers recent launch and implementation of new antispam software being applied to some blogs. That is now that I look back at my comment it could be deemed as promotional in respect to my friend, although it doesn’t contain any hotspots or links as to do so I myself would have considered it as being such. If this be the case then I suspect although their algorism is indeed sophisticated, the filter it imposes is not quite relevant enough. Like I was saying to Steven at his blog now I know how a dolphin must feel when being trapped in a tuna net. I suspect the reason you were able to post it is because any blog author’s comment may not be considered as spam. As a test someone else could try to post it, although I would be sure to HTML for italics the quote at the beginning as I suspect this ,might be part of what may be required to have it all qualify with the software as perhaps it not able to make the distinction between that and a link.

None the less I find this all very ironic within the context of the concerns the author was expressing in the book you reviewed and thus after all things considered there might be something to be wary of here. It reminds me of Penrose’s arguments about the difficulty in detecting, identifying and confirming the presence of artificial intelligence, only in this case it is the difficulty of artificial intelligence in the detection of one that isn’t artificial; well at least I didn’t think it was :-)

Best,

Phil

Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

This has become totally weird as now all three of my attempts to post the comment in question have suddenly appeared and with all of them dated and sequenced as they originally should have been. It has one to wonder about this cloud Google is building to ask may they have missed that it’s become sentient:-) A little more seriously perhaps this might be how artificial intelligence will begin as triggered by the addition of yet another algorithm whose intended function was totally unrelated. If you don’t mind Bee I’ll leave them all up for a while and not erase two as being redundant as it clearly shows it actually did happen as I described. Besides I’m a little anxious about what HAL might think or do if I attempt to remove them. One good thing at leastmy name isn't Dave and thus I may not be perceived as a threat :-)

Best,

Phil

Steven Colyer said...

Thanks for the 60's flashback, Phil! 2001:a SO never gets old, does it?Dave Bowman: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
HAL: I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
Dave Bowman: What's the problem?
HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.
Dave Bowman: What are you talking about, HAL?
HAL: This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
Dave Bowman: I don't know what you're talking about, HAL.
HAL: I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen.
Dave Bowman: Where the hell'd you get that idea, HAL?
HAL: Dave, although you took very thorough precautions in the pod against my hearing you, I could see your lips move.
Dave Bowman: Alright, HAL. I'll go in through the emergency airlock.
HAL: Without your space helmet, Dave, you're going to find that rather difficult.
Dave Bowman: HAL, I won't argue with you anymore. Open the doors.
HAL: Dave, this conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.

Don Foster said...

It seems to be a general truth that any mechanism, preferring by its very nature uniform inputs and outputs, will project uniformity both upstream and downstream.
A factory canning peas will not only produce uniform units that fit onto a store shelf, but project that need for norms into the farmer's field specifying choice of seed and time of harvest.
So it goes.

Neil B said...

This comes a bit late but gets to the essence of our not being "gadgets" - ie, whether we are just "computational intelligences" the minds of which are totally explicable in AI terms of processing bits like computer programs. Lanier has inspired a certain appreciation against that view, that I develop into the following point:
A purely computational intelligence (as some like Dan Dennett suppose even we are) cannot formulate the thought of special real existence apart from logical structures (ie, such a mind cannot even represent disbelief or an alternative to modal realism/MUH.) That's becasue computations are just math, they can't represent "this is just math" versus "this is my thinking here in a real material world." Well, I don't think CI/AI is true - we are not gadgets! - but that would be the implication.

And since we feel we can imagine this is "really here" and not just a Platonic number space (and similar to the Penrose arguments about our understanding certain concepts), then we aren't "gadgets." Some folks of course think that our universe really isn't more real than math after all (MUH etc.) but if our minds are CI, we can't even think of the alternative regardless.