You Are Not A Gadget: A Manifesto is an interesting read, but overall a disappointment. In fact, it isn’t about you at all. It’s a digirati’s second thoughts about Web 2.0 and the emergent hive mind.
Lanier is a guy with boundless curiosity—and that’s something I admire. He takes the reader on a fast-paced tour of some of the digital realm’s most exotic nooks and crannies. However, he doesn’t argue for individualism as much as against what he calls “cybernetic totalism.”
The book’s second to last paragraph is probably the best summary of the tome--if you can make sense of it. In Lanier’s own words:
The most important thing about postsymbolic communication is that I hope it demonstrates that a humanist softie like me can be as radical and ambitious as any cybernetic totalist in both science and technology, while still believing that people should be considered differently, embodying a special category.
If everyone wants to upload themselves to the Web’s collective consciousness, then I’m willing to help them figure out how to do it, but personally I reserve the right to remain an old-fashioned person with a physical body.
Lanier points out, helpfully, that there is a downside to the Creative Commons and open software. He even dares to suggest that proprietary systems are sometimes superior. (This is a point I have been making for years.) Unfortunately, Lanier presents the latter idea almost as an aside. Instead of shouting it from the rooftops, he whispers it from a sidebar off the book’s main text.
There are some things about the book that I found annoying. Lanier demonstrates his own hive mentality. For example, he takes a few obligatory (but gentle) swipes at George W. Bush. He claims that there wasn’t an independent press during the Bush presidency and that the Bush years “are almost universally perceived as having been catastrophic.” I’ve criticized G.W. Bush more harshly, but at least my criticisms were based on facts.
More annoying is Lanier’s hive writing style. He is a member of a generation of science writers who revel in nuance but shun grand ideas. He makes overly generous use of dubious words such as “retropolis” and “computationalism.” And there are cute-sounding section titles (such as “Schlock Defended”) every several paragraphs.
Still, Lanier is an interesting fellow and this is an interesting book. Just don’t buy it expecting an impassioned defense of the individual in the face of rising collectivism.