Jaron Lanier’s book, You Are Not a Gadget, has ignited controversy as it criticizes the current climate of technology, and specifically, the Internet. Responsible for popularizing virtual reality, many consider Lanier one of the great minds of our time. Others argue that his contributions to technology are dated, and that his latest ideas are simply that of an “ageing innovator” that is adverse to change (Holland, 2011). Regardless of personal opinion, You Are Not a Gadget is a thought provoking manifesto that addresses the ethical grey areas of Internet technology and provides a framework of solutions for the future. Lanier’s ideologies echo sentiments of utilitarianism, consequentialism, and the other ethical theories. He believes that technology exists not only to realize human potential for the greatest good, but also to preserve the positive aspects of the human experience.
The Problem with Cybernetic Totalism
Lanier is adamantly opposed to cybernetic totalism, which is the idea that human consciousness can be represented in the digital world. Cybernetic totalism promotes the idea of a Noosphere, which is the theory that a collective consciousness will eventually emerge from all users on the Internet. He identifies three main failures of cybernetic totalism: spiritual failure, behavioral failure and economic failure (Lanier, 2010, p. 75).
Spiritual failure addresses the growing concern of technology progressing to represent humans. As Lanier explains, when a program “requires you to interact with a computer as if it were a person, [the developers] ask you to accept in some corner of your brain that you might also be conceived of as a program (Lanier, 2010, pg. 4).” This relationship of humans and technology promotes personal reductionism; it takes away our individual uniqueness and asks us to conform to a device or piece of software. To say that a person is like a computer is to under represent humanity. Computers cannot represent human thought or relationships because we are complex beings with reason and complicated expressions such as love. As Bostrom et al explain, what separates humans from programs is sentience vs. sapience. Sentience being “the capacity for phenomenal experience or qualia, such as the capacity to feel pain and suffer.” And sapience being attributes “associated with higher intelligence, such as self-awareness and being a reason-responsive agent.” While the moral nuances of these terms can be argued, what Lanier is articulating is that a program does not have the sentience of a human, but in some cases, may have sapience.
Facebook’s design is a commonly used metaphor by Lanier to articulate this idea. Facebook is a social networking service to connect family and friends, but its flawed design classifies individuals into labels and categories. Writer, Zadie Smith calls this “one nation under a format,” because it creates a uniform environment, mediated by advertising, where “whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out.” Lanier argues that this flawed design is largely due to development lock-in, which promotes options that are often the easiest to program, politically feasible, and beneficial for advertisers. For example, the idea of a file to represent information is accepted as the norm. But since no alternative design exists, it is more difficult to see freedom from this structure. Lanier suggests that lock-in makes it easy for us to forget the freedoms we had in the digital past and makes it hard for us to see new possibilities.
More discussions between developers and users should happen before technologies are designed. Some might say that this is already being done in usability studies and focus groups. However, this approach typically applies to existing products, already set in rigid design, that are operating with commercial intent. Lanier’s utilitarian views place more importance on creative expression and designs that promote the human experience. Maybe if this idea were common practice, there would not be so much research concluding that sites like Facebook cause depression and alienation (Steers, et al. 2014). Humans need a sentient connection to each other and not a sapient connection produced by programs. By advocating for designs that celebrate human qualia, or experiences, the Internet may still be host to an environment where relationships, not wither.
From a user responsibility, Lanier encourages people to follow prima facie duties. Because technology is irrelevant unless users exist to give it life, individuals should follow their duty of using technology for self-improvement. He suggests that users preserve their sentience by taking great care and reflection in creating content that expresses a personality and opinion outside of the rigidity of social networks. For example, Facebook truncates user posts to 400 characters, and Twitter limits their user posts to even less at only 140 characters (Lee, 2016). Imagine if all of your real-world conversations were this brief. Could you say that you had deep meaningful relationships? Could you say that technology was a good tool for your self-improvement? Users have a duty to create their own personal content that is free from restrictions. By doing so, new relationships will be made through these moral contributions.
Behavioral failure, as defined by Lanier, deals with designs that celebrate the Noosphere, or the emerging Internet crowd. Technologies fueled by the crowd promote the idea that “a random crowd of humans is an organism with a legitimate point of view (Lanier, 2010, pg. 4).” One would assume that having a collective crowd or “hive mind” would inspire different ideas and boost collaboration. However, Lanier makes the argument that the hive mind produces a mediocre average of impersonal connections, mob-like behavior, loss of individual expression, and even aggression and violence. Because users are often allowed to operate anonymously, and largely without consequences, the crowd behavior can result in poor treatment of other individuals or groups. One example of this is Wikipedia (Wiki), which is controlled and edited on a volunteer crowd basis. There are many instances of the Wiki crowd of editors exerting their collective opinions, to the point of bullying, on outside contributors. This behavior is seen on many other sites, such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc., where a collective crowd opinion arises. The continued “pack dynamics,” as Lanier calls it, is a very dangerous road for future generations unless something is done to prevent it.
On a commercial level, companies should take a rule utilitarian stance to promote alternative designs that resonate with human kindness. For instance, if people participating in Internet crowd activities were not allowed to post anonymously, it can be assumed that the incidences of bullying and aggression would decrease. However, much research exists that many individuals prefer Internet anonymity because it allows them an escape from judgemental social encounters when dealing with sensitive topics such as marital issues, illnesses, traumatic experiences, etc. (Hwang, et al. 2010). It is maybe more appropriate to assess solutions from an act nonconsequentialist perspective instead of generalizing a design for human kindness. Evaluating each user situation differently may prove to yield a more understanding Internet environment for everyone.
On a user level, individual morality in the crowd can be preserved by adopting a duty ethic stance. Lanier suggests that putting more effort into personal expression instead of crowd expression would produce more unique ways of thinking. And encouraging individual online behavior that supports good will would promote social morality. For instance, creating a website outside of Facebook that expresses your ideas would attract new people that had not previously realized they were interested in what you had to say. This would create new human collaboration and thinking.
The current design of technology encourages what Lanier calls free culture. All types of digital media, art, music, news, information, etc., exist as copies, which has allowed them to be exploited for free. Technology is continually evolving in a way that robs individual expression from artists. For instance, it’s estimated that the American Internet users “annually consume between $7 and $20 billion worth of digitally pirated music (Music Business Worldwide, 2014). Lanier suggests a monetized model that offers media content as a service, not as a single copy for purchase, to encourage economic growth. However, he acknowledges a foreseeable struggle in convincing the crowd, currently practicing free culture, that this media service is worth paying for.
Free culture continues out of an ethical egoist way of thinking. Because everything is so readily available for free and immediately available, people act in their own self interest and continue to consume without consequence. They are only concerned with their short-term happiness and not the long-term implications their actions have on the people affected by it. They also are not concerned with breaking piracy laws. Lanier admits that “laws themselves aren’t enough to change behavior (Lanier, 2010, p. 195).” He suggests giving people an incentive to adopt a reversibility criterion, or golden rule, type of thinking by paying one another for creative “bits.” This is very different from the current model, where individuals pay for a single copy of a song or movie. Instead of purchasing a copy from an application, like iTunes, individuals would engage in a person-to-person transaction to experience new media. This was actually the original model proposed by information technologist, Ted Nelson, in the 1960s.
In addition to free culture as it applies to media consumption, it also plays an important role in job growth. Lanier admits that thus far, “each new wave of technological change has brought with it new kinds of demands for human labor (Lanier, 2010, pg. 81).” However, he believes that we are reaching the end of this. Crowdsourcing, as mentioned in relation to behavioral failure, is the model of work being completed either for cheap or free by the Internet crowd. Lanier surmises that this model paired with the growing efforts to robotically replace human jobs will cause economic collapse. In short, this is not a sustainable growth model for the human species.
From a rule utilitarian perspective, companies should not solicit crowd sourcing jobs for free unless all other financial options have been exhausted. As global unemployment is expected to rise in 2017 (International Labour Organization, 2016), companies should look to empower impoverished communities as options for crowd sourcing. Training could be offered, jobs produced, and compensation could remain competitive. This idea could prove to be beneficial, but the ethical egoist mindset of large companies is to offset costs and receive services rendered at no cost. It is also the duty of the user to see the future implications of doing work for free, and not participate.
Spiritual failure, behavioral failure and economic failure caused by cybernetic totalism is already happening. It’s consequences are harmful on a global level. Although this cannot be reversed, Internet practices can be adopted to improve the Internet for future generations. According to Lanier’s ideas, technologists have a utilitarian duty to promote designs that realize the human potential for good, not devalue it to that of machines or as vehicles for advertising. Through positive changes to social networking sites, information platforms, and economic structures, companies still have a chance to create sustainable models that value human experience. Users have a choice, and some might say a duty, in using services that encourage this. Users also have a duty express their individualism and potential by not conforming to harmful Internet behavior, restrictive applications, and models that monetarily devalue them.
Bostrom, N., Yudkowsky, E. (2011) The Ethics of Artificial Intelligence. Draft for Cambridge Handbook of Artificial Intelligence. Cambridge University Press.
Holland, J. (2011, February 19). You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto by Jaron Lanier – review. The Guardian. Retrieved March 22, 2017 from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/feb/20/jaron-lanier-you-are-not-a-gadget-review
Hwang, K., Ottenbacher, A., Green, A., Cannon-Diehl, M., Richardson, O., Bernstam, E., Thomas, E. (2010). Social support in an Internet weight loss community. International Journal of Medical Informatics, Volume 79, Issue 1, pp. 5–13. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ijmedinf.2009.10.003
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Music Business Worldwide. (2014, December 6). Why Does the RIAA Hate Torrent Sites So Much? 6 December 2014. Retrieved April 2, 2017 from http://www.musicbusinessworldwide.com/why-does-the-riaa-hate-torrent-sites-so-much/
Lee, K. (2014, March 31). The Ideal Length of Everything Online, Backed By Research. Buffer Social. Retrieved April 1, 2017 from https://blog.bufferapp.com/the-ideal-length-of-everything-online-according-to-science
Smith, Z. (2010, November 25). Generation Why? The New York Review of Books. Retrieved April 1, 2017 from https://www.wired.com/2010/11/is-facebook-ruining-human-friendships/
Steers, M., Wickham, R., Acitelli, L. Seeing Everyone Else’s Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage is Linked to Depressive Symptoms. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. Volume 33, Issue 8, pp. 701-731.