I was recommended this book by my tutor Brian Johnson. I had it for quite some time, but just recently found the time to finish reading it. I must say that this book has got me thinking. Even though, I sort of disagree with the author on some arguments made in the book, I had no option but to agree with him on the others.
Jaron Lanier is a Philosopher and computer scientist. He coined the term ‘Virtual Reality’ and his research in world of VR technology is commendable. He has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the IEEE in 2009. He is also a musician with a keen interest of collecting musical instruments. Recognised by Encyclopaedia Britannica as one of the history’s 300 or so greatest inventors, he is also named one of the top hundred public intellectuals in the world by Prospect and Foreign Policy.
In the initial chapters of the book the author rebukes the idea of how technology is taking over our lives, how it is increasingly getting more in the way of our creativity.
“Something like missionary reductionism has happened to the internet with the rise of web 2.0. The strangeness is being leached away by the mush-making process. Individual web pages as they first appeared in the early 1990s had the flavor of personhood. MySpace preserved some of that flavor, though a process of regularized formatting had begun. Facebook went further, organizing people into multiple-choice identities, while Wikipedia seeks to erase point of view entirely.” (page 48)
He feels that the modern gadgets and technology is making us “lesser beings”. He feels that the primary reason that the computers exist is to make our lives (humanity) better.
“The antihuman approach to computation is one of the most baseless ideas of human history. A computer isn’t even there unless a person experiences it. There will be a warm mass of patterned silicon with electricity coursing through it, but the bits don’t mean anything without a cultured person to interpret them.” (page 26)
Though some of these points are accurate, but I seem to differ from the author on a few of them. Like for instance, I have always believed to be gadgets or technology to be means of utility. If I have to turn on the light, I’ll look or a switch, and that is precisely what I’ll be expecting the switch to do for me, nothing more. I will not expect that switch to replace a human presence in my life. Similarly I expect the gadgets to function simple or complex functions. They are however subject to malfunction sometimes. But it is something that comes with the deal. The important thing here is that if I’m using the switch to turn the light on and off, it is not making me a lesser being.
The author is also a musician and he gives wonderful examples of how the technology has standardised the form of music notes because of the advent of MIDI. I agree with him on this note. Usually when a technology takes over, it seems to standardise the way things are done. For example look at the interfaces on most of the smart phones and tablets these days. Moreover, since the interface of smartphones is so successful, the desktops are also attempting to become more like tablets now.
The author addresses the problem of digital commerce culture and how its killing the creative industries today. Music industry has suffered the most. I like that author suggests a few alternatives to the current digital economy which will secure the interests of all and still enable content distribution.
An interesting thing to read in the book was about neoteny. Author suggests that we wouldn’t be on the top of the food chain in this world if it wasn’t for our ‘childhood’.
“We smart mammals get that way by being dumber when we are born than our more instinctual cousins in the animal world. We enter the world essentially as fetuses in air. Neoteny opens a window to the world before our brains can be developed under the sole influence of instinct.” (page 179)
The author interestingly suggests that the internet is turning us all into children, and it is very good for us. As in the secure environment that we have as a child, we can show equally creative abilities.
I found this book a very interesting read. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in understanding human behaviour, or technological effect on humans.
The book can be bought here – Amazon UK