You Are Not A Gadget (Chapters 1 – 3)
By Jaron Lanier
Lanier Begins a section in his book with the statement: “The most important thing about a technology is how it changes people.”…In relative terms technology itself could be defined as that which reinvents its inventor, be it spoken language, a neolithic stone axe, or a marginalizing database of personal attributes on a social network. That is… that technologies, whether they are abstract systems or specialized physical tools, redefine a society or individual by enabling a path that was obstructed or impassible without it. In this sense technologies can be thought of as both imperatives to a species’ survival in an absolute sense, but also as rifts or deterministic events that are often not perceived until long after they have occurred. It might also be worth saying that once these paths are perceived, there is something uniquely human in the inability not to pursue them; that is that once we imagine that something might be technically possible it is never a question of if but when.
The scope of Lanier’s book, at least the first three chapters of it, distills the conundrum of standardization and plasticity in information systems / individual agency and crowd based models in those systems.
Lanier describes a precipice of technological standardization, which he terms “Lock-in” as the often unforeseeable consequences of social adherence to a system standard. He gives the example of MIDI, a system developed by Dave Smith in the 1980′s to control multiple synthesizers. MIDI, for lack of any significant alternatives at the time soon became the standard, not only for the instruments it was designed for but for instrumentation it was not. In this sense the accepted standard has a potentially negative determinism by marginalizing against things that don’t adhere to it well and by offering the benefits to things that do. In the case of MIDI it unintentionally enabled specific genres of music and arguably disabled others. Had MIDI allowed for better manipulation of other instrumentation… 80′s music may have sounded different.
Other examples might be Apple’s App Store forcing developers to adhere to specific standards and rules, or the acceptance of Romanized keyboard input for Asian languages. In the case of the App Store the peril might be the inability to be innovative within restricted hardware guidelines or censorship. With Asian language input, inability to write one’s language without a text input device is a growing problem, as people forget how to manually write characters and increasingly rely on automatic conversion from romanized phonetics.
Within this larger problem seems the principle that, given no competing alternative, convenience always wins, and when there is an alternative the most convenient option wins regardless of how superior in quality, plasticity, or how well suited it is for future needs. The real core of the problem can be seen when the level of investment in a given standard outweighs the benefit or cost of revising or replacing it. More often than not this is the case, though with something like the App Store the standard is an artificial market-driven strategy and could revised at any time. In the case of western keyboard input or Linux, revision or replacement is next to impossible due to the number of dependencies on them. The social impact of this paradigm is the focus of Lanier’s criticism.
Similarly Lanier describes the origins of anonymous agency on the net as being formed in the early days of Usenet, and explains the unfortunate consequences that would eventually result in things like Trolling. While Lanier argues that it would not have been so difficult for Usenet to have employed a system where user’s identities were known, it could be countered that it was simply that convenient not to… again convenience always wins.
Lanier describes a process of “self reductionism” specific to social networking, a model in which an individual begins to define them self based on more or less arbitrary criteria set in place by a social networking site like Facebook rather than established choices in the “real world”. While it remains speculative as to where models like Facebook will go if anywhere at all, the same issue presents itself perhaps more stealthily in the form of personalized search.
Though the problem is varied, we can attempt to simplify it, the notion of personalized search is certainly in the same class as the marketing of a”personal graph” and other peer group advertising models, but because search acts as point of mediation, a primary and definitive point of user experience and access to content, the implications are perhaps more impacting. While Lanier speculates on the viability of Facebook’s business model, citing the failures of things like Beacon, though there may be a larger Personalized search aims at enriching personal experience of the internet and does so successfully in certain terms; that is it can provide a filter for more or less desired content. The problem arrises when that model of personalization is a cumulative one, or when the user profile is a compilation of past behavior, which even with the best predictive models to date, it only can be. In this sense the user builds a confined version of the internet unknowingly through self censorship or self segregation. The danger is that the user would find it hard to detect this effect… how would you miss what you don’t know about?