That's what happens when you drink the Kool-Aid

John Walker reviews Janon Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget to hiliarious effect.

I've long been a skeptic of the kind of technological libertarian fantasy world that is exemplified by Glenn Reynolds' Army of Davids. It all seems rather silly to me, but it is deeply appealing to a lot very bright people. These people are busily working to make this fantasy happen, come hell or high water. This book is the result of disillusionment with this vision.

Next, the focus turns to the cult of free and open source software, “cloud computing”, “crowd sourcing”, and the assumption that a “hive mind” assembled from a multitude of individuals collaborating by means of the Internet can create novel and valuable work and even assume some of the attributes of personhood. Now, this may seem absurd, but there are many people in the Silicon Valley culture to whom these are articles of faith, and since these people are engaged in designing the tools many of us will end up using, it's worth looking at the assumptions which inform their designs. Compared to what seemed the unbounded potential of the personal computer and Internet revolutions in their early days, what the open model of development has achieved to date seems depressingly modest: re-implementations of an operating system, text editor, and programming language all rooted in the 1970s, and creation of a new encyclopedia which is structured in the same manner as paper encyclopedias dating from a century ago—oh wow. Where are the immersive massively multi-user virtual reality worlds, or the innovative presentation of science and mathematics in an interactive exploratory learning environment, or new ways to build computer tools without writing code, or any one of the hundreds of breakthroughs we assumed would come along when individual creativity was unleashed by their hardware prerequisites becoming available to a mass market at an affordable price?

A lot of this probably comes from the perfectly understandable mistake of thinking that everyone in the world is exactly like you. There are worse things to think about other people, but the vast majority of people in all times and places probably prefer the easy life and the tried and true instead of the hard work and intense mental effort required to do the things that were supposed to happen after the advent of the Internet.

Another monkey wrench in the works is the modern age is ending, and the rapid ferment that characterizes modernity is ebbing as well. Lanier laments, “It's as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump.” This is to be expected, the culture of the West is fossilizing, in the sense Spengler meant. Rapid change and immense instability go hand in hand, and the mass of mankind get tired of the latter after a while, so things slow down again. This isn't really bad, just different.