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Locked In: Lanier and Rushkoff on What’s Wrong (assuming something is wrong)

A couple of interesting outbreaks for the closet neo-luddites out there (you know who I am you are!):

Lanier: Web 2.0 is anti-humanist
Jaron Lanier, the virtual reality and avatar trailblazer (and philosopher and multi-instrumentalist) has recently published a book called You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. In this sweeping book about individuals, culture and the Web, he argues that the Web 2.0 revolution in online social networking and collaboration is a problem. A BIG problem.

According to Lanier, sites like Wikipedia, Facebook and even Amazon are anti-humanist: they elevate the ‘wisdom of crowds’ and the power of advertiser-driven algorithms above the discriminating judgement of individual people. They create a ‘hive mind’ that leaves little room for individual expression, let alone an environment that respects such creativity.

The root cause of this is the design of technology. First, Lanier claims that we, as users, get ‘locked in’; we have to conform to a particular ‘relationship status’ on Facebook; Wikipedia becomes an authority, even though it is written by anonymous contributors; if you bought this book, you should buy that book; etc.

Propelled by 1960s anti-government paranoia, technologists designed the Internet to be anonymous. And because of this, the online world (and especially Web 2.0 manifestations of it) is riddled with trolls who can easily and cynically shut down reasonable conversations, and who have created an environment (and tools) that devalue individual artistic accomplishment (“Content wants to be free”, copyright infringement, etc).

SXSW – Rushkoff: Program or Be Programmed
In a zeitgeisty moment, at last week’s South by Southwest tech event, Douglas Rushkoff – post-McLuhan media theorist, one-time cyberpunk and the pioneer of ‘social currency’ – gave an address titled Program or Be Programmed: 10 Commands for a Digital Age.

You can read lots of descriptions of the talk (here, here and here for example). Interestingly, many of Rushkoff’s ideas intersect with Lanier’s book.

The overarching theme is that, rather than ask how we can use technology, we should be asking what we can make technology do for us. Jaron Lanier called it being ‘locked in’. Rushkoff says that if the Web is something we consume, rather than create, that’s a problem. A BIG problem. “If we create a society that is programmed, we will be the users and most importantly, the used.”

Other big ideas:

  • The Web can be happily asynchronous, so why are we ‘always on’ and demanding synchronous communication?
  • Why do we send text messages to the person sitting next to us?
  • Facebook (and others) promotes forced choice. What’s your relationship status? Feel free not to opt in to this. (Rushkoff says that withholding choice does not denote failure. It reminds me of that great line from Richard Linklater’s 1991 movie Slacker : “Withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy”.)
  • Anonymity promotes facelessness, polarisation and a lack of consequence.
  • Contact is King, not content. Rushkoff says, “Social marketing is an oxymoron”.
  • Nothing is free. Don’t steal. It breaks the social contract.
  • Overly negative? Maybe a bit. These guys were born in 1960 and 1961, and have been technical pioneers; they’ve seen a bit.

    Are they jaded oldies who are getting in the way of the cool kids, or wise elders in a world that needs just this kind of introspection and critique?


Date: Friday, 26. March 2010 8:58
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