Tuesday, August 10, 2010

You Are Not a Gadget

I purchased this because I liked that it seemed short, and appeared to have an unusual point. Also, as an aging VR nerd myself, I was kind of wondering what Jaron Lanier was up to. And though it was blessedly short, I found it somewhat disappointing. The book is something of an anti-web2.0 rant. Jaron makes a few tangentially connected arguments:

Jaron's first argument: Web 2.0 is full of templates, and templates diminish creativity, therefore web 2.0 diminishes creativity. This argument seems ridiculous to me, for several reasons. First of all, it is not at all obvious to me that templates diminish creativity -- often, figuring out what you can do in a limited pallet forces one to be much more creative than when you have a plenitude of choices. It's kind of like arguing that musical instruments limit creativity, since they only make certain sounds. Secondly, web 2.0 templates are not very limited, and there seems to be a boundless supply of different ones, and you can always make new ones, if the old ones don't suit you. Third, people on the internet share so much more creative now than they did before, so I have to think that the new templates are helping.

Jaron's second argument: When people give away content for free, it sends a message that the content is not worth anything. He is not talking about stolen content here, he is talking about anything you create and share on the Internet at all. If you write a song, or a joke, or make a short film, and give it away for free, you are hurting the pocketbooks of all content creators, he argues. He gripes that it is intensely frustrating that there is no way to sell digital content for money on the Internet, an argument that struck me as strange considering I paid him $9.99 for the privilege of reading that argument on the Kindle. He suggests that existing piracy problems can be solved with a simple system whereby it is illegal to "own" any content, but that rather you pay to access it in a streaming way. He handwaves the technological challenges (what if you are off the net, etc.) saying they can be solved easily(??). Copyright and how to pay for content are complicated issues, I grant you -- but I have a hard time with the idea that when some people choose to share what they make, it hurts everyone.

Jaron's third argument: Music has hit a plateau of creativity -- it all has sounded the same for the last twenty years, because technology has stifled creativity. I find this a thoughtful observation, but I can't agree with the conclusion. I find that if you look at the history of music, the changes in musical style are largely driven by technology. The 20th century saw an unprecedented evolution of music as technologies changed, giving nearly each decade very distinct sounds. Unfortunately, we seem to be reaching a kind of technological limit of music -- now that we can make any sound, and modulate it any way we want, how can technology continue to drive style? T-Pain's autotuning may be our last tech-driven musical innovation (though I hope that is not true). I guess I feel like 20th century musicians had it easy... they could lean back on new technology for their innovation. 21st century musicians will actually have to innovate their music, not their technology. Jaron then does a rant about the problem is that everyone is stuck in the past -- they need to look to the future, instead. Weirdly, he seems to prove his point by then talking about the greatest VR experience he ever worked on, and yes, it's that dancing lobster from the 80's. So, he's arguing that people should stop pulling inspiration from the past, unless it's from the stuff he worked on, I think.

So, my gripes with the book are that it feels ego-driven, that it makes weakly supported, contradictory arguments, and that it seems to lack a central point. The point is supposed to be that we should be more creative than the machines will let us, but when we do occasionally bump into that point, it feels as if it were by accident.

On the other hand, I have to admit I found the book very provocative. I didn't agree with many of his points and arguments, but I had to stop and think about why I felt that way. Without a doubt, reading it channeled my thinking into interesting avenues I never would have gone down if I hadn't read it, and I continue find my thoughts returning to unanswered questions that the book provoked. And it's short.

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