Chapters 1, 2 and 3 of Jaron Lanier’s “You are not a gadget”.

During the three chapters I felt in various ways, but mostly I sympathized with his points of views. I consider myself somewhat intelligent; I have a bachelors’ in computer science I have been a teacher in one of the best universities in my country and I made it to NYU…. I still find myself amused when reading, thinking and rethinking about the subjects treated in these chapters of the manifesto. I am glad I am still able to feel amused, and that I still have gray spots on some subjects, I like to believe this gives me a child’s power to embrace problems (exploring and not feeling over knowledge) , and to have problems facing problems. I do give myself credit; I do believe I have done some very good works when I get connected with the task at hand. But I know I have many flaws and many things to learn and to re-remember…but for now I am trying finding my own peace (after going through a rough personal emotional patch that I he has passed) by giving a lot respect and time to think about what I am doing and that it would reflect a part of me, not just to get over it and out of the way.

Notes were taken during the reading of the chapters, it was more difficult to read as I expected, and I had to repeat some parts many times. This essay exposes those notes and some comments about them.

I feel Lanier exposes his ideas in an alarmist way, I guess it is done to get the attention wanted and not to make the manifesto seem boring. He is one of the most influential persons in the development of these digital technologies and their innovative applications; he definitely has my attention and respect. I have been reading other things this semester, for bit by bit and for other classes, regarding the way we use the digital machines available and crossing that over with what has been my reality by coming here from another country which is labeled as third world, and my close love relation and at the same time phobia towards the technology.

It was enjoyable going through the reading and digesting it little by little (but also distressing because of the late turning in of this final result), and finding relations with what we have been going through in class, my own feelings about the subject and other classes at ITP. This essay is also very very difficult to write for me because it covers a lot of different point of view and subjects floating around the same subject matter, so it will be made as a type of manifesto also, going through the subjects in Lanier’s.

I agree with the idea of lock-in, Lanier has convinced me of them. Just by the way digital technology is has been build (layer over layer over layer), it is way too difficult to get divorced from some milestones in today’s so deeply set technology consumption, but I still believe it is possible to direct new efforts into developing different ways the tools are used (I guess that is why I came to ITP in the first place) and consumed. I feel there is a difference between technical lock-ins (the way something is built) and technical-cultural-lock-ins (the way it is absorbed or consumed).

This also depends greatly on the culture the technology is being presented, developed, applied, used and consumed, not every technology accessible country and culture has the same behaviors as the biggest producer-consumer (the United States). Where I was born, Colombia, is very influenced by this culture, but it still adapts its usage to our own idiosyncrasy… social rules are different, laws are different (and it is not as terrible and uncivilized as it is imagined)…and the percentage of the population being influenced by the kind of problems discussed in by Lanier, are of secondary importance. This, I think, It’s a great opportunity, because the problems discussed or observed can be corrected or re-routed on time so the lessons learned from the first world can be directly applied into developing better usage of the infrastructure and not fall into some lock-ins of usage. So I agree completely with Lanier’s first tips:

Don’ t post anonymously unless you really might be in danger – Create a website that expresses something about who you are that won’t fit into the template available to you on a social networking site – Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view – Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out – These are some of the things you can do to be a person instead of a source of fragments to be exploited by others.

I agree that it is very easy to fall into self software definition, as he refers to many times as the facebook lock-in. Even though I have faith that humanity is smart enough to differentiate itself from a social network profile, I do have seen very disturbing behaviors that arise from it. But then again, these behaviors are inside us, the bad use (or good , and of course god and bad are also relative) of a tool just helps them get to the surface. Human nature (good and bad and its relativeness ) is always present in the tools that we build, and there is always a leap of faith when these tools are distributed around the world, it would be worse not to do it, it would be prohibiting having biodiversity or evolution. As I would probably end up saying many times over in this essay-manifesto, the good usage and creative ideas really comes from when we develop our own personality, when we are growing and how we were taught and from whom we were taught, it comes from family and friends and also from our indescribable thing I believe to be called soul (and I do not consider myself a follower of any institutional religion).

On the singularity. Decentralized behavior, Hive behavior, the noosphere. I do like the development of the human species by hand of the technology, I love science fiction and a vision of science helping human kind to explore and to help define itself. But I also believe that “bits don’t mean anything without a cultured person to interpret them”. The idea of the cloud does not feel very appealing to me, putting the knowledge and decision into a giant decentralized system does not feel good. Again this is for the determination of each individual, I hope that the majority of people influenced by this tool will still keep the personality and integrity that takes to get to know something and research, not just do a search and not make people obsolete so that an information system seems more advanced.

Another thing is the appealing idea of decentralized behavior, or hive behavior, I do believe that this is happening in a more visible way due to our higher capacity to interconnect to one another through information systems, are we mentally prepared to do it? I believe so, I just feel that we are still too young to see the better use for it, and that is why we (as in we, ITP, the “responsible” grownups discovering new applications for the tools) have to act responsibly (and the repulsive use of the nyu mail list inside ITP saddens me) . Ok but even if we commit a huge mistake and end up taking the wrong decisions now, we (as in humans) will still recover, and build new toys. A light of hope for this hive behavior was seen in where I was born, in the Last presidential elections, one of the candidates got to second place because of the percentage of people that communicated and transmitted its idea through social networks and decentralized ways of communications , still he did not win. But it demonstrated that a positive change can seeded and it can grow (it overwhelmed some of the most traditional political parties of all of the political history), but it also showed that it is very fragile and dependant on the percentage of people with access to the decentralized communications, which is not the majority in Colombia, so the candidate that won, who controls the “traditional” means of communications.

Now, on the idea that this systems are evolving into a life-form that can understand people better than people understand themselves. Turing, and artificial intelligence. I do believe that someday humans will share existence with intelligent “artificial” beings, and that we should respect them as animals deserve our respect, as the earth deserves it to, they are entitled to be believed and treated as a conscious being. This I believe will not happen near our life span, and when it does happen I think that humanity will be better prepared for it. I believe that we evolved like this, we are carbon based machines after all, the result of chemical and physical reactions, decentralized specialization of smaller machines, are we special? (I think as a human being I am forced to answer yes), yes, we are a special result, but not a unique one, we should not be so arrogant as to think that we deserve the right to be the only “intelligent”, “advanced” being. I think we as humans like to think that, because we are scared of something more (in many ways) than us. Or this is just the sci-fi kid in me talking. This is the point where I mostly differed with Lanier’s ideas.

On the others… the most mundane subjects on how we behave with and because of the technology tools that have been and are being developed, I agreed, not as dooms day as he exposes them, but I do see and feel the flaws that he exposes.

Lower the standards of intelligence?. As one should be able to tell what to expect from a new born baby, from a 3 year old, from a 10 year old and so on, you have to be able to respect, love, appreciate and share existence with beings that are not super intelligent, so the standards of intelligence are also relative. And I am not referring to a tablet that is “intelligent”, algorithms are elegant, and we (as in we consumers of technology) have to put our stand as the grown up row model and not let ourselves and the ones that we have an influence on, fall into the believe that what an information system outputs is the last word. We should feel amazed that they can be very advanced, but not that have our blind faith or free will or debating capabilities put in them. Like Wikipedia, it is good that it exists, but it is bad to take it as the perfect reliable source. And…children now days, they use it to get over their homework, My response to this is, spend more time with your children and take interest on what they are doing, guide them towards critic thinking and it will be good (but I sadly feel this is not the way the majority of people think or act).

On the circle of empathy. I think my circle of empathy is very wide, so I feel like a child, I think even rocks are….sort of alive, they come from the earth and I believe the earth has life force. But that is me, maybe I am delusional in that way; the side that I said is in conflict with technology and scientific way of thinking. “We all have to live with our imperfect ability to discern the proper boundaries of our circles of empathy”, yes when it comes to food sources, I also feel hypocrite, even though I try to take care of what I take in as energy sources.

About Borges and the Metaphysical shell game. I think that trying to compare a hail storm with consciousness is a very good trick he pulls of…comparing very big random evens that produce huge undistinguishable amounts of data and its processing, to be a conscience? I think he misses the point and forgets a reason to exist…so will machines have this reason to exist? as we have? our desire to be alive and no dead? or is just self awareness enough to consider the machine alive??. Lanier does give a lot of very good arguments on this topic, and the scientist in me does agree with him. I do not consider myself a follower of the singularity. In away then, I consider myself a dreamer when it comes to these topics, I can believe that a hail storm is a environmental manifestation that can be explained with meteorological models, but it is still unpredictable for its most part, I think it is part of a bigger picture that we cannot see because we are still looking at very mundane problems, plus, as I said before, we have a huge ego as human beings and that blinds us from a bigger picture in which the earth is alive and we are all part of it and where machines, can evolve and become another being, just different, but another (I am delusional).

So better discuss some less controversial subjects, like the lack of diversity with the Web 2.0. Lack of diversity in a way that the look and feel of most content is the same, but it is accessible to a vast majority of people (who are not into or interested in developing tools or learning how it works). So yes, it sucks, it is completely impersonal, it reduces and simplifies a person, yes. Does that person believe that that simplification is him?, no I do not think so, we are more intelligent than that (or so I hope), and the good use of this tools, again, I think it comes from values that are brought into us from before and in other areas that do not have to do anything with the tool. Our social skills come from our relationship with our parents and other kids, when we are kids, we have to still trust that. To think that a tool guides our definition of our selves is very pretentious. But still some cases will be true, and this is not thanks to social networks or web 2.0, I my high school, a very good academic level kid was completely immersed in his dungeons and Dragons character, he even changed his name for the one of his character…yes weird, so… it can happen with anything, any other construct to take us out of a reality that we consciously or unconsciously do not want to live, so we make another one the true for us (sometimes is not the majorities reality, that’s why it seems off).

So yes, yes, everything is the same… the ideal would be that more and more people are lectured in the technology, so the change has to come from primary school paradigms, so that the language of the technology is not only consumed, but understood and be able to be edited, much like the DIY way of building things. Then maybe it could go back to what Lanier said that the firs web was richer, with each page being different…but how many pages where there? To little I would say. If people are lectured then they can decide, and they may decide to stick with the blog, for time practical reasons for example.

I agree that there is a lot of garbage on the web, and no algorithm is going to make it valuable, as I exposed on my writing about google algorithm, it is not the algorithm, it is the person willing to use it and to seek other resources mixed with it. The algorithm gives true results, and truth is always relative, relative to the side that is telling it, so this can become another very deep discussion about truth, but the bottom line could be that the truth is what the majority thinks it is, but that doesn’t mean that all, every single one has to believe it and live in it, so the best thing that can exist is diversity and in this way google falls short.

About quality, “to contribute some seconds to a physics wiki, we would not replicate the achievements of even one mediocre physicist, much less a great one”. This sums it all, I agree. You need time and dedication; it’s not quantity, its quality that matters at the end, and how much of your self is put into what is being created.

On the false messiah. Advertizing.. it is a problem, no, not a problem it is inherent to capitalism and its constructs to want to have it everywhere. Is it bad…no, it is bad if you do not have a personality and fall for every trick without doing some thinking over what you are doing. And then comes the crowds, are we influenced by them, yes, but only to the level that our own personality (that has been built since we are born) lets us.

About truth about crowds. “Is the marriage of collective and individual intelligence. Clever individuals, the heroes of the marketplace, ask the questions that are answered by collective behavior”. Economy works like that too. Our western culture works like that too, and we believe that it is because human nature behaves like that too (greedy). But I think there are other ways to see the world, and to live in it, will you be able to have as much diversity as in a macys+bestbuy store? Maybe not, but it will not be the end of existence not to have those choices. It would be a “simpler” way of life, may be more enjoyable, but as for me, for now I want to explore this amazing mesh of counter thoughts and behaviors that technology and culture and economy and social relations are, that is why I am in this school. “Individual human-driven quality control can improve collective intelligence. Without an independent press,composed of heroic voices, the collective becomes stupid and unreliable.” That is why ITP exists, and I agree. I also think this: Have common sense, question authority.

About TROLLS. Humans picking on humans, and not wanting to be held accountable. That is our story. I agree Anonymity is good in some moments, where if it did not exist, humans would get picked on more by other humans. How can this be reduced?, (sounding like a broken record) by good values set at home, good example and good luck from a chaotic reality also.

So it is not the tools, it is the way we use them, and the relevance we give them (If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything will seem like a nail). So the problem with social systems is a real one, the problem with bad use of tools is a very real one. Once more I give the example of the ITP mail list, it makes me feel distressed, all those 100’s of mails, most of which I don’t care, but… what if there is something important? A tool very poorly used, by the same people that are supposed to be schooled and smart about the use of technology. So to end this manifesto: it comes to my attention that so many ITP debates, tend to undermine great minds, as if the people at ITP had seen it or know better than all, sometimes it feels as lack of respect and mixed with a case of big head that sometimes seems as lack of humbleness and awareness that there is always much to learn and that thanks to those people that are commonly undermined, the technology we so gracefully use to develop our “great” ideas on ITP, have come from them, not to say that we are where we are because of what they have developed.

I should not generalize but it sort of the way Lanier puts it and it seems true. Still I have hope that it will turn out for the best.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s