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Of Gadgets and Bubbles

February 22, 2012

I’ve not posted for a bit because I wanted to collect my thoughts about the last two books I read. They tackle similar topics but in different ways, and I think you’ll enjoy hearing about them together. The first one is You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier, which I had discovered in a wonderful book review by Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books about a year ago. (Sue Halpern included it in a review in NYRB later in the year as well.)

You Are Not a Gadget

Knowing absolutely nothing about Lanier but being immensely eager to keep up with technology news (now that I’m self-employed and can’t rely on an institutional employer to pay for conferences and workshops), I began reading the book almost as soon as I’d received the package from Amazon (within six months is fast for me!). It’s You Are Not a Gadgeta short, quick read, but I knew within five pages that I was going to love this one. Lanier is brilliant, occasionally funny, introspective, philosophical, widely knowledgeable, and personable. And he cares about what he loves—technology—and wants us to care as well.

A bit of an iconoclast (even though he’s been a stalwart in digital technology since the 1980s), Lanier quickly explains his premise: the progress of digital communication, specifically via the Internet, has taken a turn that, if not adjusted, will diminish us as humans. How can that be, you ask? Lanier blames the development of Web 2.0 features, the very thing that (we’ve heard) freed us to express ourselves as citizens, as innovators, as individuals. The problem, he explains, is that, in our eager self-expression, we’ve settled for “lock in,” a point in design or programming at which the complexity is too much to sort out and the final product therefore includes an inherent flaw that cannot be changed. (Lanier’s great example is MIDI, the music program that is the standard for musicians and composers but hasn’t been able to express a glissando.)

The lock-in model of the Internet we’ve accepted is the one in which individual users ecstatically add content—reviews, maps, music, text, photos, videos—that may copy others’ creative efforts, that is, we’re obsessed with creating mashups instead of new work. As we continue to concoct our content by cobbing together other original material, we ignore existing rules about plagiarism and copyright and value (payment) for originality. That dismissal of the need to protect original work diminishes our society’s value of that work.

According to Lanier, the diminishment has begun in music already. He argues (very convincingly, for this reader) that popular music has not produced a new form since the start of the Web. Rap and hip-hop origins began before the Web had taken hold, and since then we’ve been recyling the same old retro: in rock, in country, in jazz, in pop. (This depresses me no end, and I would love to hear your arguments against Lanier’s assessment; add your comment below!)

Lanier’s book discusses much more about the Internet and his disappointment with how we’ve accepted lock in. (He also discusses his fellow technologists, one of whom is Ray Kurzweil, whose Singularity I find a bit stupid.) I found the book eye-opening and essential reading for anyone who’s interested in technology yet learned to be wary of it via 1984, Fahrenheit 451, AI, Terminator, and their ilk.

The Filter Bubble

Intrigued by Lanier’s ideas, I dove right in to The Filter Bubble, by Eli Pariser (a ChristmasThe Filter Bubble present from my sister, who trolls my Amazon wish list, bless her!). I knew who he was (the guy from MoveOn.org), and, in fact, had read reviews of his book as well. Pariser doesn’t come to his subject with quite the pedigree that Lanier does, but he’s done his homework and presents his material in a most straightforward way, easily understood by anyone who surfs the Web once or twice a day.

Pariser’s premise (written close to a year ago now) is one the media has begun to chirp about, and for that I’m thankful. It’s this: Every time you use the Web now, you’re giving away information about yourself to individual companies and corporations, as well as advertisers, marketers, and database managers who can describe you better than some of your friends and family, maybe better than anyone but you. They gather this info from you, from the sites you visit (cookies track you from site to site), from the info you provide when you set up accounts and log in (to Facebook, to Google, to Yahoo!, to iTunes, to Pinterest, and the list goes on and on). You may think you’re getting a free service, but it’s not free. You get to use a social network or news site or win a prize, but you’re paying for it with your personal information.

The technology is quite sophisticated, so much so that what you see when you google “Bruce Springsteen” isn’t what I see when I google the same. That’s because (as so many of you know) I visit sites about and write about Bruce Springsteen a lot, and I buy a lot of things that are related to Springsteen. So Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Netflix, and a horde of other companies know that I will respond when presented with ads about Bruce merchandise, news, tickets, or music. It gets worse than that, though.

We’ve begun reading the kind of news stories that our friends read—because they share them on Facebook—and visiting and joining sites that our friends visit and join, all of which tells Google and all the other companies that they should place these stories and sites higher in our search results, pushing down others that we might have wanted to find but that didn’t fit the algorithm of our personal data. This phenomena is what Pariser calls the filter bubble, and it’s increasingly how your Web looks (because your Web isn’t quite the same as my Web).

Personalization of the Web isn’t a bad thing per se, but there’s a lot of power concentrated in the small number of companies who control our personal information. If I were searching for a car to buy, for instance, I wouldn’t want Google and Facebook to push ads for the Mini Cooper at me just because I’ve mentioned them in my e-mails or liked the Facebook page for the Mini. I want a car that suits me in more than just one way (I happen to love the way Minis look, but I’m not so sure I appreciate their handling). Or perhaps these agencies can match my household income with my affection for Minis, so they push ads for the Toyota Matrix at me instead. They’re taking choices and options away from me, minimizing the knowledge I could have, rather than increasing it.

Pariser’s book presents a darker picture for those of us who spend more time online in intellectual and more social pursuits, for example, in political conversations, in reading news that we think is important, in finding the kinds of ideas and knowledge that we don’t have but want to have.

The whole situation reminds me of what Mike has been complaining about for some years now, whenever we talk about cars (which is all the time because, well, you all know how he is!): Stop deciding how I should drive or assuming how I want to drive and let me drive the car myself!

Worried? Here’s What You Can Do.

A friend of mine started an online company that allows individual users to put their money where their mouths are, by providing some cold hard cash to sites they like. The company is called Kachingle, and it’s a great idea to combat the problems that Jaron Lanier describes.

Eli Pariser set up a blog for his book, with some helpful info as well. The info page called “10 Ways to Pop Your Filter Bubble” lists some excellent ideas to keep your personal information more private.

As much as I loved Pariser’s book and Lanier’s book, I expect some of you might not want to read as much as I do. So consider learning more by checking out several articles about the topics these guys describe. Here’s a quick list to get you started:

Happy surfing!

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3 Comments
  1. Buffy Baker permalink

    Great review Lac! With a little tinkering this book might be a good read…

  2. It’s a singular read! hehe

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