You are Not a Gadget

I was initially ready to start posting blog posts on this revived WordPress blog (RIP old posts) on January 5th as part of a resolution to read more, but after I started reading Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, I felt obligated to write more of a complete thought.

From Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget:

  1. Don’t post anonymously unless you really might be in danger.
  2. If you put effort into Wikipedia articles, put even more effort into using your personal voice and expression outside of the wiki to help attract people who don’t yet realize that they are interested in the topics you contributed to.
  3. Create a website that expresses something about who you are that won’t fit into the template available to you on a social networking site.
  4. Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view.
  5. Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out.
  6. If you are twittering, innovate in order to find a way to describe your internal state instead of trivial external events, to avoid the creeping danger of believing that objectively described events define you, as they would define a machine.

These are some of the things you can do to be a person instead of a source of fragments to be exploited by others.

There are aspects to all these software designs that could be retained more humanistically.

It has been over a year now since I quit Facebook and Instagram. I retain a quiet observer status on Twitter, but decline to participate beyond a few “likes”. LinkedIn is clearly a professional space, and getting thirstier every day.

In summary, my presence online has gone from Very Online to trying very hard not to be. I, like many others have articulated so well, miss the old internet. The weird one. The wild one. The one where you don’t feel like a product, but does makes you feel like a whole person.


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. If a church or government were doing these things, it would feel authoritarian, but when technologists are the culprits, we seem hip, fresh, and inventive.

I’m not interested in being a fragment, or interacting with fragments of people, or being oppressed by the technocracy. I like talking about juicy stuff, like current events and good ideas, and short of the evenings spent with friends and family over a drink, and the phone calls I’ll have with friends on my commute home, the internet seems like a pretty decent alternative.

But the dominant tools of the internet, according to Lanier, lend themselves to fragmentation:

It is true that by using these tools, individuals can author books or blogs or whatever, but people are encouraged by the economics of free content, crowd dynamics, and lord aggregators to serve up fragments instead of considered whole expressions or arguments. The efforts of authors are appreciated in a manner that erases the boundaries between them.

The result is a roiling mass of humanity, and individuals are lost.

The central mistake of recent digital culture is to chop up a network of individuals so finely that you end up with a mush. You then start to care about the abstraction of the network more than the real people who are networked, even though the network by itself is meaningless. Only the people were ever meaningful.

Perhaps we sense this. And perhaps that’s why people end up going down digital rabbit holes, “stalking” acquaintances and friends of friends online, perusing their profiles and suddenly knowing the strangest details about somebody with whom they rarely, if ever, interact. We’re ultimately interested in individual people.

“Being online” feels like being in a hive, or what we imagine it must feel like. You get to contribute here and there, with comments, likes, and follows. Present enough to pursue validation (“you exist! you’re a person and we acknowledge you with random digital tokens!”), but you’re mostly anonymous, and completely anonymous if you choose to be. This lends itself to darker impulses. The things people do online when they know they can slip back into the shadows.

Emphasizing the crowd means deemphasizing individual humans in the design of society, and when you ask people not to be people, they revert to bad moblike behaviors. This leads not only to empowered trolls, but to a generally unfriendly and unconstructive online world.

Lanier writes about how you can’t engage with technology without social engineering. One way in which I admit to having been engineered — I miss “sharing”, if the modern definition of sharing is putting something (a picture, a story, a thought, an observation) out there, where it floats around asking “what do you think? will you react to this?”

I don’t consider myself a tech evangelist (tech to save the world) or a Luddite. Liberal democracy, which is derived from the rights of individual people, is under duress. And it seems like the structure and design of the internet doesn’t quite fit on this foundation, warping civic society. I’m enjoying reading Lanier because understanding what we’ve built over the past few decades could help us understand where we are today, and what we will make of the internet going forward.

Lanier employs a lovely metaphor to shift the focus back to human beings, our ideas, and our experiences. As earth-shaking as the internet is, so once was the printing press. BUT. But, always but…

What is important about printing presses is not the mechanism, but the authors.

I read this as a call to participate on the internet more thoughtfully and seriously. Ergo, this long-ish blog post, where I had at first only intended to post interesting snippets of what I was reading. Irony!

[I understand a significant theme in Lanier’s book is about open vs. closed architecture. I’m aware of it but haven’t thought on it long enough to offer an opinion.]

You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier


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