Jet lag proves it.
Awake against my will at 5:30 a.m., I didn’t plunge into the search for tax documents that is my most pressing obligation, because this wasn’t real time, this was jet-lag time — time out from sleep but also, given the wooziness, from productivity. So I started reading Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget. Tim, formerly “Theo Boehm,” read this book if you haven’t yet — you will find yourself consoled and vindicated. If you don’t want to buy it, I’ll send you mine when I’m through.
I was intrigued from the get-go, but Lanier really had me on page 27, when he nailed the most annoying characteristic of Microsoft Word, a program with a stupid, wayward arrogance that I always attribute to and blame on the personality of its creator:
If you believe the distinction between the roles of people and computers is starting to dissolve, you might express that — as some friends of mine at Microsoft once did — by designing features for a word processor that are supposed to know what you want, such as when you want to start an outline within your document. You might have had the experience of having Microsoft Word suddenly determine, at the wrong moment, that you are creating an indented outline. [Yes, yes, oh yes! This is when I yell, “I HATE BILL GATES!”] While I am all for the automation of petty tasks, this is different.
From my point of view, this type of design feature is nonsense, since you end up having to work more than you would otherwise in order to manipulate the software’s expectations of you. The real function of the feature isn’t to make life easier for people. Instead, it promotes a new philosophy: that the computer is evolving into a life-form that can understand people better than people can understand themselves.
Exactly. One of Lanier’s many insights is that this information-worship is for all practical purposes a religion, offering its own hope of immortality (the “Singularity,” when human consciousnesses will be uploaded into a machine). His response to the “digital Maoist” slogan “Information wants to be free” (even at the price of enslaving people) is, “Information doesn’t deserve to be free . . . Information is alienated experience. . . . Experience is the only process that can de-alienate information. Information of the kind that purportedly wants to be free is nothing but a shadow of our own minds, and wants nothing on its own. It will not suffer if it doesn’t get what it wants.”
On pages 29–31, Lanier has a little elegy to on Alan Turing that is breathtaking and heartbreaking, “The Apple Falls Again.”
And here’s a bit of provocation for you: “Wikipedia . . . works on what I call the Oracle illusion, in which knowledge of the human authorship of a text is suppressed in order to give the text superhuman validity. Traditional holy books work in precisely the same way and present many of the same problems.”
Read this book, so we can talk about it!
UPDATE: I’m in the middle of the book now and finding some things to criticize about it. For one thing, though Lanier has some libertarian leanings, he is basically a liberal who puts the lion’s share of the blame on the Bush years for America’s current troubles. For another, he is (like most prophets) a better diagnostician than prescriber; some of his ideas for how to fix the free-content problem (which is pauperizing journalists, musicians and the like) are pretty lame. Can you imagine paying, even pennies, every time you read your favorite blogs? How would you find new ones? Would your intellectual curiosity be constrained by budgetary considerations?
Granted, no one has come up with good solutions to these problems.