You are not a Gadget: A Manifesto

BOOK: You are not a Gadget: A Manifesto
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This book is dedicated
to my friends and colleagues in the digital revolution.
Thank you for considering my challenges constructively,
as they are intended

Thanks to Lilly for giving me yearning,
and Ellery for giving me eccentricity,
to Lena for the mrping,
and to Lilibell, for teaching me to read anew



What is a Person?

Chapter 1
Missing Persons

Chapter 2
An Apocalypse of Self-Abdication

Chapter 3
The Noosphere Is Just Another Name for Everyone’s Inner Troll

What Will Money Be?

Chapter 4
Digital Peasant Chic

Chapter 5
The City Is Built to Music

Chapter 6
The Lords of the Clouds Renounce Free Will in Order to Become Infinitely Lucky

Chapter 7
The Prospects for Humanistic Cloud Economics

Chapter 8
Three Possible Future Directions

The Unbearable Thinness of Flatness

Chapter 9

Chapter 10
Digital Creativity Eludes Flat Places

Chapter 11
All Hail the Membrane

Making The Best of Bits

Chapter 12
I Am a Contrarian Loop

Chapter 13
One Story of How Semantics Might Have Evolved

Future Humors

Chapter 14
Home at Last (My Love Affair with Bachelardian Neoteny)



in the twenty-first century, and that means that these words will mostly be read by nonpersons—automatons or numb mobs composed of people who are no longer acting as individuals. The words will be minced into atomized search-engine keywords within industrial cloud computing facilities located in remote, often secret locations around the world. They will be copied millions of times by algorithms designed to send an advertisement to some person somewhere who happens to resonate with some fragment of what I say. They will be scanned, rehashed, and misrepresented by crowds of quick and sloppy readers into wikis and automatically aggregated wireless text message streams.

Reactions will repeatedly degenerate into mindless chains of anonymous insults and inarticulate controversies. Algorithms will find correlations between those who read my words and their purchases, their romantic adventures, their debts, and, soon, their genes. Ultimately these words will contribute to the fortunes of those few who have been able to position themselves as lords of the computing clouds.

The vast fanning out of the fates of these words will take place almost entirely in the lifeless world of pure information. Real human eyes will read these words in only a tiny minority of the cases.

And yet it is you, the person, the rarity among my readers, I hope to reach.

The words in this book are written for people, not computers.

I want to say: You have to be somebody before you can share yourself.

What is a Person?
Missing Persons

about everything from the nature of a musical note to the nature of personhood. Software is also subject to an exceptionally rigid process of “lock-in.” Therefore, ideas (in the present era, when human affairs are increasingly software driven) have become more subject to lock-in than in previous eras. Most of the ideas that have been locked in so far are not so bad, but some of the so-called web 2.0 ideas are stinkers, so we ought to reject them while we still can.

Speech is the mirror of the soul; as a man speaks, so is he.


Fragments Are Not People

Something started to go wrong with the digital revolution around the turn of the twenty-first century. The World Wide Web was flooded by a torrent of petty designs sometimes called web 2.0. This ideology promotes radical freedom on the surface of the web, but that freedom, ironically, is more for machines than people. Nevertheless, it is sometimes referred to as “open culture.”

Anonymous blog comments, vapid video pranks, and lightweight mashups may seem trivial and harmless, but as a whole, this widespread practice of fragmentary, impersonal communication has demeaned interpersonal interaction.

Communication is now often experienced as a superhuman phenomenon that towers above individuals. A new generation has come of age with a reduced expectation of what a person can be, and of who each person might become.

The Most Important Thing About a Technology Is How It Changes People

When I work with experimental digital gadgets, like new variations on virtual reality, in a lab environment, I am always reminded of how small changes in the details of a digital design can have profound unforeseen effects on the experiences of the humans who are playing with it. The slightest change in something as seemingly trivial as the ease of use of a button can sometimes completely alter behavior patterns.

For instance, Stanford University researcher Jeremy Bailenson has demonstrated that changing the height of one’s avatar in immersive virtual reality transforms self-esteem and social self-perception. Technologies are extensions of ourselves, and, like the avatars in Jeremy’s lab, our identities can be shifted by the quirks of gadgets. It is impossible to work with information technology without also engaging in social engineering.

One might ask, “If I am blogging, twittering, and wikiing a lot, how does that change who I am?” or “If the ‘hive mind’ is my audience, who am I?” We inventors of digital technologies are like stand-up comedians or neurosurgeons, in that our work resonates with deep philosophical questions; unfortunately, we’ve proven to be poor philosophers lately.

When developers of digital technologies design a program that requires you to interact with a computer as if it were a person, they ask you to accept in some corner of your brain that you might also be conceived of as a program. When they design an internet service that is edited by a vast anonymous crowd, they are suggesting that a random crowd of humans is an organism with a legitimate point of view.

Different media designs stimulate different potentials in human nature. We shouldn’t seek to make the pack mentality as efficient as possible. We should instead seek to inspire the phenomenon of individual intelligence.

“What is a person?” If I knew the answer to that, I might be able to program an artificial person in a computer. But I can’t. Being a person is not a pat formula, but a quest, a mystery, a leap of faith.


It would be hard for anyone, let alone a technologist, to get up in the morning without the faith that the future can be better than the past.

Back in the 1980s, when the internet was only available to small number of pioneers, I was often confronted by people who feared that the strange technologies I was working on, like virtual reality, might unleash the demons of human nature. For instance, would people become addicted to virtual reality as if it were a drug? Would they become trapped in it, unable to escape back to the physical world where the rest of us live? Some of the questions were silly, and others were prescient.

How Politics Influences Information Technology

I was part of a merry band of idealists back then. If you had dropped in on, say, me and John Perry Barlow, who would become a cofounder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or Kevin Kelly, who would become the founding editor of
magazine, for lunch in the 1980s, these are the sorts of ideas we were bouncing around and arguing about. Ideals are important in the world of technology, but the mechanism by which ideals influence events is different than in other spheres of life. Technologists don’t use persuasion to influence you—or, at least, we don’t do it very well. There are a few master communicators among us (like Steve Jobs), but for the most part we aren’t particularly seductive.

We make up extensions to your being, like remote eyes and ears (web-cams and mobile phones) and expanded memory (the world of details you can search for online). These become the structures by which you
connect to the world and other people. These structures in turn can change how you conceive of yourself and the world. We tinker with your philosophy by direct manipulation of your cognitive experience, not indirectly, through argument. It takes only a tiny group of engineers to create technology that can shape the entire future of human experience with incredible speed. Therefore, crucial arguments about the human relationship with technology should take place between developers and users before such direct manipulations are designed. This book is about those arguments.

The design of the web as it appears today was not inevitable. In the early 1990s, there were perhaps dozens of credible efforts to come up with a design for presenting networked digital information in a way that would attract more popular use. Companies like General Magic and Xanadu developed alternative designs with fundamentally different qualities that never got out the door.

A single person, Tim Berners-Lee, came to invent the particular design of today’s web. The web as it was introduced was minimalist, in that it assumed just about as little as possible about what a web page would be like. It was also open, in that no page was preferred by the architecture over another, and all pages were accessible to all. It also emphasized responsibility, because only the owner of a website was able to make sure that their site was available to be visited.

Berners-Lee’s initial motivation was to serve a community of physicists, not the whole world. Even so, the atmosphere in which the design of the web was embraced by early adopters was influenced by idealistic discussions. In the period before the web was born, the ideas in play were radically optimistic and gained traction in the community, and then in the world at large.

Since we make up so much from scratch when we build information technologies, how do we think about which ones are best? With the kind of radical freedom we find in digital systems comes a disorienting moral challenge. We make it all up—so what shall we make up? Alas, that dilemma—of having so much freedom—is chimerical.

As a program grows in size and complexity, the software can become a cruel maze. When other programmers get involved, it can feel like a labyrinth. If you are clever enough, you can write any small program from scratch, but it takes a huge amount of effort (and more than a little
luck) to successfully modify a large program, especially if other programs are already depending on it. Even the best software development groups periodically find themselves caught in a swarm of bugs and design conundrums.

Little programs are delightful to write in isolation, but the process of maintaining large-scale software is always miserable. Because of this, digital technology tempts the programmer’s psyche into a kind of schizophrenia. There is constant confusion between real and ideal computers. Technologists wish every program behaved like a brand-new, playful little program, and will use any available psychological strategy to avoid thinking about computers realistically.

The brittle character of maturing computer programs can cause digital designs to get frozen into place by a process known as lock-in. This happens when many software programs are designed to work with an existing one. The process of significantly changing software in a situation in which a lot of other software is dependent on it is the hardest thing to do. So it almost never happens.

BOOK: You are not a Gadget: A Manifesto
6.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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