Friday, September 9, 2011

You Are Not A Gadget

At the library where I work, I recently started a collection of books from small presses. I try to follow the independent, smaller publishing scene and the books that come out of it but am frustrated by libraries not acquiring them. It makes sense. With budget cuts virtually every year, libraries have to be selective and it is much easier to purchase the new James Patterson that a gabajillion people will want to read than take a chance on some cutting edge literature about which few people have heard.

One of the books I wanted to acquire (and did) was Garth Risk Hallberg's book A Field Guide to the North American Family. Hallberg writes for The Millions, one of my favorite sites, and he linked to an interview he did with The Faster Times (another great website) and called himself "A poor man's Jaron Lanier" in doing so.

I wasn't familiar with Jaron Lanier. But I like Hallberg so I figured I'd have to like Lanier.

Lanier is the father of virtual reality so I don't see what the connection to Hallberg actually is to make Hallberg think he is the poor man's version of Lanier. Nonetheless, Lanier's book, You Are Not A Gadget is an interesting intellectual, philosophical look at technology. Reading it, you would be probably be surprised that Lanier has such a strong technology background as he can seem at times to be very much against technological advancements. He is more against the usage of technology without clearly thinking out the ramifications of introducing it.

Lanier presents his thoughts very clearly and makes many valid points. He talks about how the open source community has helped reduce creativity and innovation. He bemoans how the "cloud keepers" are really the only ones who are making money in the internet world. He talks about how people reduce themselves to fit into categories online. Just a lot of stuff. And with his background, he is able to point out where wrong turns have been made and express how things might be able to get back on track.

I would not label myself an optimist, generally speaking, and reading this book didn't help matters. I agree with Lanier on a lot of things. As someone who regularly does research and who works as an information professional, helping others find things, one of my biggest frustrations is with the usage of Wikipedia. Never mind the accuracy of it. What is it? An online encyclopedia. All this technology available and what is done with it? The encyclopedia is reinvented. And an encyclopedia with more flaws than your typical one. Why? Because of who works on them and uses them. Want to know something about someone in pop culture? Wikipedia is a great source. Entries regarding science? Sure. Why those areas in particular? Because you have a collection of people who care about those subjects and are willing to make the information current. But what happens when you have masses of people working on the same thing? In the sciences, where there is a history of academic cooperation, conflicts are resolved in a congenial manner. But with other areas you get the equivalent of shouting matches.

There is also a lack of voice in Wikipedia. In the old-fashioned encyclopedia, the editing staff was entrusted with creating a uniform voice throughout the texts. Who does that for Wikipedia? It is the voice of the group and it is this group voice that concerns Lanier (and me).

Lanier believes there is hope, though. Myself, I think we're too far gone down some of these roads. I was working in the public sector years ago and read Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, about the disintegration of social structures, and I feel that technology has eroded those structures even further. I don't know. It frustrates me sometimes to look around and feel like I'm the only one who has these concerns.

Returning to Lanier and his book, I think it's an interesting read. It has a very strong philosophical bend to it. It's not a light read despite it not being a very large book and not very complex in terms of language. It's just a lot of food for thought and it took me a while to read because of it. I had to read, then stop, ponder a bit, get back to it, ponder some more, etc. If technology means more to you than a means to know what your 400 best friends are doing, I think it's worth reading this book.

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